Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wednesday, August 27 - Lesson: "Beginnings"

Every story starts with the promise that reading it is worth your time & effort, and gives clues about what to expect. In the first sentence, the author establishes this promise, enticing the reader to continue, and hints about what the reader can expect from the rest of the book. Consider these famous beginnings:

  • Call me Ishmael.
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
  • Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
  • They shoot the white girl first.
  • 124 was spiteful.
  • Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
  • You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.
As a class, we discuss a few of these openers - I generally start with Moby Dick and ask students what they notice. They either mention "he has a weird name" or "he's introducing himself." Each of those leads into a significant point - Ishamel is an allusion to the story of God's promise to Abraham in the book of Genesis, and there's an important distinction between call me and my name is, which allows me to touch on the concept of an unreliable narrator.

I always finish with the beginning of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, because I love the way it builds from a dull start to an exciting finish:

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
"There was" is about the most boring start to a sentence you can write! Then we move to "a hand" so there's at least an object, but it's ordinary and there's no description. But then we get "in the darkness," which adds description and some mood - kind of suspenseful. Then "and it held" provides some action, and we finish with "A KNIFE." Cue the dramatic music!

Then I take out my copy of the book and ask them what the first thing they notice about the page is, and I very briefly open the book to that first page:

I need to get out of the habit of asking them what they notice first, because they always pick the knife! Then I have to go back and ask them "how is this first page different from the first page of just about every other book? How is it different from the book you're reading?" Then they point out that most books have black text on a plain page, but here, the typeface is reversed on a black background.

So in the same way that the author's words are designed to grab the reader's attention, here we have the book's design working together with those words!

Then I ask them to look closer. What is right there by the end of the sentence? The knife! they say - by this point they're always getting a little excited, because they see how it's all connected. What part of the knife? I ask, and they say the blade or the point.

Okay, so where does your eye go, after you see the knife? Of course they say they want to know who's holding it, and what's going to happen. I trace my finger along the knife, past the hand and up the arm, saying okay, so this is where you look, and - uhoh! What happens here? I ask, pointing to where the drawing cuts off. What is the book itself encouraging you to do? What is supposed to happen when your eye gets to the bottom right corner of the page?

And it's just delightful to watch their eyes light up as they say you're supposed to turn the page and keep reading!


That's what every author wants the reader to do - keep reading! And this book does a particularly good job of getting you to do just that.

Then we start our classwork. Because each student has a different book, there's really no way they can cheat; I let them help each other out and discuss the work together.

Turn back to the beginning of the book you chose, and re-read the first sentence. Based on that sentence alone, what clues can you gather about the rest of the story? Images thanks to and


Mardie said...

Awesome lesson!

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