On the first seven sentences

I’ve attended more writing seminars than I can remember. Most were forgettable; a few proved useful; and one was absolutely life-changing.

This last was the “Seven Sentences” seminar created by YA authors Maggie Stiefvater and Courtney C. Stevens.  (I was fortunate to be one of seven scholarship winners in a contest sponsored by Fountain Bookstore, a must-visit destination for any book lover visiting Richmond.)

The central premise was that the first seven sentences of a novel should do everything. They should create the mood, set the tone, establish the place, and promise all that is to come – the essential truth of your story.

I recently read the first seven sentences of one of my favorite novels, Graham Greene’s THE POWER AND THE GLORY, with new eyes.

Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr. Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly up at them. One of them rose and flapped across the town: over the tiny plaza, over the bust of an ex-president, ex-general, ex-human being, over the two stalls which sold mineral water, towards the river and the sea. It wouldn’t find anything there: the sharks looked after the carrion on that side. Mr. Tench went on across the plaza. He said “Buenos días” to a man with a gun who sat in a small patch of shade against a wall. 

Mr. Tench is not the protagonist; he is a depressed British dentist who plays a minor role in the plot. Yet these seven sentences reveal the heart of the story, in which death is omnipresent, and yet the hero, the hapless, inconstant whiskey priest, possesses faith that dares challenge death itself. These sentences also establish the menacing mood of the story and the powerful sense of place — 1930s Mexico, in the grip of an authoritarian, anti-religion government — that makes THE POWER AND THE GLORY utterly unforgettable.

As Maggie and Court explained, there’s no shortcut to writing these seven sentences. The hard work of story-crafting and character development must be done first, and they guided us through that process too. As they did, they electrified the room. They made the audience cackle and weep, they sparred and bantered, they played Jenga with big cardboard boxes.

If they bring “Seven Sentences” to your city, go. And look for their new novels: DRESS CODES FOR SMALL TOWNS in August 2017, and ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS in October.