Beginnings – How do famous writers stack up?


nabakovThis is another post based on the book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, by Ben Blatt, a book that looks at writing in a way that appeals to numbers geeks like myself as it looks for patterns and quantification of the books that we read and write.

So far, I’ve posted tidbits about his analysis of adverbsexclamation pointsgender identification in writingwriters following their own advicesimplicity in writing,  US vs. UK writing styles, author name size on book covers, and book length.

This post focuses on the parts of a book that are, arguably, the most important, beginnings and endings.

Blatt starts his analysis with opening lines. In fact, he looks at what is probably the most famous opening line from a book, “Call me Ishmael”, from Moby Dick. These words are easily identifiable and powerful in the lasting impression they’ve made in literature. It’s only a three word sentence.

This caused Blatt to look at other beginnings and assess their length in relation to their impact. He started with Margaret Atwood who, coincidentally, identified the opening to Moby Dick as the best. Over her 15 novels, her opening sentences averaged only 9 words. Blatt then looked at the other extreme finding that Salman Rushdie and Michael Chabon had an average of 29 and 28 words in their opening sentences respectively.

Here are the authors with the shortest length:

Author with shortest opening sentence First Sentence Median Length
Toni Morrison 5
Margaret Atwood 9
Mark Twain 11
Dave Eggers 11
Chuck Palahniuk 11.5

On the other side of the coin, here are the authors with the longest opening sentences:

Author with longest opening sentence First Sentence Median Length
Jane Austen 32
Vladimir Nabokov 29
Salman Rushdie 29
Michael Chabon 28
Edith Wharton 28

Blatt then set out to find a correlation between opening sentence length and the perceived quality of that opening.

His sample of 20 universally recognized openings found that there is something to the concise opening. The variation was wide. From Melville’s three word opening to Charles Dicken’s 119 word opening sentence in A Tale of Two Cities. Blatt found that the median length of these well-respected openings was 16 words.

Again, this caused me to look at my own writing. Across my 6 published and one unpublished novels, there was a range of a 3-word opening sentence to a 23-word opening sentence. The average, however, was 8.1 words (Between the Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood range). At least I’ve got that going for me.

So how about you? How do you stack up to Blatt’s metrics?

2 thoughts on “Beginnings – How do famous writers stack up?

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