Diagramming the first sentences of famous novels

For Christmas one of my sons gave me a wonderful present–a poster showing the grammatical diagrams of the opening sentences of some famous novels.  What a kid!

Here’s a column about this poster.titled “23 Sentence Diagrams That Show the Brilliance of Famous Novels’ Opening Lines”.  It’s nice that Business Insider thinks that grammar and literature are worth a column, but the diagrams show nothing of the sort.  Here, for example, is the first line of 1984:

This is a wonderful sentence, but its diagram doesn’t tell you why.  Substitute the word “twelve” for the word “thirteen” and you just have bland scene-setting.  The “thirteen” jars you–something is different here; something is off.  That’s where the brilliance comes in.

Similarly, here is one of my favorites:

What makes this sentence brliiant?  It’s the word “screaming,” of course.  Substitute the word “plane” or “bird” and the sentence loses everything.

And another favorite, Lolita:

Hey, that isn’t even a sentence!  You’ve gotta pretend it has a verb.  But anyway, would this sentence work if it read: “Ernie, fixer of my brakes, changer of my oil”?  Same diagram, but not quite the same effect.  The brilliance comes from the alliteration and the rhythm; it’s closer to poetry than to prose.

Some famous first sentences having nothing much to recommend them except that they begin famous novels.  Like:

This is a nice, short, punchy sentence, but there’s nothing special about the three words it contains.  It’s memorable because of what comes after it.

Anyway, the poster is great, my kid is great, and the sentences are great.  Let’s not oversell the concept, though.

3 thoughts on “Diagramming the first sentences of famous novels

  1. I reread Gravity’s Rainbow recently just out of curiosity. The first two sections held up but The Counterforce was both incomprehensible and interminable. Sort of like his more recent novels.


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