Banality Buster: The Paragraph First Sentence Test

Have you written a scene so banal you wanted to back it with violins and put it into an awareness campaign for impoverished fiction?

A No answer to this question is as reasonable as a Yes answer because banality creeps, sneaks and steals into our writing on calm, cool, and laid-back feet. Banality is natural, common, unpretentious, does not sound like writing and is sometimes mistaken for voice. Banality, regardless of its mac-and-cheese, snuggle-up-with-things-we-know qualities, is a blight on our prose, a kiss of death to our stories.

Banal: so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring, trite, hackneyed, clichéd, platitudinous, vapid, commonplace, ordinary, common, stock, conventional, stereotyped, overused, overdone, overworked, stale, worn out, timeworn, tired, threadbare, hack, unimaginative, humdrum, ho-hum, unoriginal, uninteresting, dull, uninvolving, trivial . . .

Banal writing creates sentences so undistinguished they can be, with small adaptations to character and place, interchanged from banal story A to banal story B without affecting the individual story lines.

Because our stories, their characters, events, and settings buzz with vibrancy and potential within our imaginations, we may not realize we have gone off the originality rails and stoked our story with clichéd writing. The paragraphs as a whole will look pretty good, but we will have the niggling awareness of something being wrong.

The Paragraph First Sentence Test reveals banality. Easy to do. List the first sentence of each paragraph in the worrisome passage–write down the first sentence of paragraph one, the first sentence of paragraph two, and so forth. First sentences drawn from a scene ticketed for the rejection pile will read something like this:

  • Jack and Petunia’s house was a rickety construction beside the horse farm.
  • Petunia opened the door, looking chic in riding pants that complimented her stunning figure and long blonde ponytail.
  • “Jack’s not here,” she said, stepping out of the doorway.
  • “What?”
  • Petunia jerked her head toward the horse farm.
  • My eyes widened.
  • “Some sick-minded person,” Petunia said.
  • “That poor horse. . . .”
  • Petunia shook her head.
  • I couldn’t help returning her grin.
  • “Jack told Father Pat before he went to the horse farm.”
  • “I thought he and I were going to tell him together.”
  • Petunia troweled around the tulips in one of the barrels.
  • I wasn’t sure how much more difficult this was going to be, now that she knew.
  • Petunia snipped off a couple of dried hyacinth blossoms.
  • Petunia sighed.
  • Petunia patted my hand.
  • My body shook with anxiety as I followed Petunia down the walk and along the path to the garage.
  • Josey wasn’t there.
  • Josey turned her back on me.

Grammar perfect though they may be, the above sentences are not detail specific, they’re not cohesive, they give only faint sense of story, setting or character. They are lackluster and contextually vague.

To appreciate the difference between professional and run-of-the-mill stories, check out the paragraph first sentences written by Dean Koontz and Carl Hiaasen:

Dean Koontz, Odd Hours, chapter 1

  • It’s only life.
  • Not all of us complete the journey in the same condition.
  • I still possessed both legs and both eyes, and even my hair looked all right . . .
  • When I raised the window shades in my bedroom, the cocooned sky was gray and swollen . . .
  • Overnight, according to the radio, an airliner had crashed in Ohio.
  • Throughout the morning, under the expectant sky, low sluggish waves exhausted themselves on the shore.
  • During the night, I had twice awakened from a dream in which the tide flowed red . . .
  • As nightmares go, I’m sure you’ve had worse.
  • While I prepared breakfast for my employer, the kitchen radio brought news that the jihadists . . .
  • Years ago I stopped watching news programs on television.

Carl Hiaasen, Star Island, chapter 1

  • On the fifteenth of March, two hours before sunrise, an emergency medical technician named Jimmy Campo found a sweaty stranger huddled in the back of his ambulance.
  • The stranger in Jimmy Campo’s ambulance had two 35-mm digital cameras hanging from his fleshy neck, and a bulky gear bag balanced on his ample lap.
  • (Dialogue 4 lines)
  • The stranger outweighed Jimmy Campo by sixty-five pounds but not an ounce of it was muscle.
  • “Chill, for Christ’s sake,” the man said, examining his camera equipment for possible damage.
  • Inside the ambulance, Jimmy Campo found what he was looking for: a sealed sterile packet containing a coiled intravenous rig to replace the one that the female overdose victim had ripped from her right arm . . .
  • The stranger struggled to his feet and said, “I’ll give you a thousand bucks.”

The detail within these first sentences gives us a logical sense of story line, of character, tone, conflict, and setting. It gives us a sense of cohesion—each sentence bears, through detail, a relationship to every other sentence. Each sentence is specific to this story and would not fit into any other story.

Compare, again, Hiaasen and Koontz’s mesmerizing first-sentence prose and the prose made ineffectual through lack of authenticating and cohesive detail:

  • Jack and Petunia’s house was a rickety construction beside the horse farm.
  • Petunia opened the door, looking chic in riding pants that complimented her stunning figure and long blonde ponytail.
  • “Jack’s not here,” she said, stepping out of the doorway.
  • “What?”
  • Petunia jerked her head toward the horse farm.
  • My eyes widened.
  • “Some sick-minded person,” Petunia said.
  • “That poor horse. . . .”
  • Petunia shook her head.
  • I couldn’t help returning her grin.
  • “Jack told Father Pat before he went to the horse farm.”
  • “I thought he and I were going to tell him together.”
  • Petunia troweled around the tulips in one of the barrels.
  • I wasn’t sure how much more difficult this was going to be, now that she knew.
  • Petunia snipped off a couple of dried hyacinth blossoms.
  • Petunia sighed.
  • Petunia patted my hand.
  • My body shook with anxiety as I followed Petunia down the walk and along the path to the garage.
  • Josey wasn’t there.
  • Josey turned her back on me.

Examples work better than thousands of words. Good writers know the power of paragraph first sentences. These are from the pens of  James Patterson and G. Ballard:

James Patterson, You’ve Been Warned, chapter 1 

  • It’s way too early in the morning for dead people.
  • That’s what I’d be thinking, were I actually thinking clearly right now.
  • The moment I turn the corner on my way to work and see the crowd, the commotion, the dingy gray body bags being wheeled out of that oh-so-chichi hotel, I reach for my camera.
  • Click, click, click.
  • Don’t think about what’s happened here.
  • My head whips left and right, the lens of my Leica R9 leading the way.
  • I move forward, even as something inside me is saying, “Look away. Walk away.”
  • I’m weaving my way toward the entrance to the hotel.
  • Click, click, click.
  • Parked at Jagged angles, police cars and ambulances fill the street.
  • I spy more gawkers in the windows of nearby apartments.

G. Ballard, The Empire of the Sun, chapter 1 

  • Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund.
  • Jim had begun to dream of wars.
  • To Jim’s dismay, even the Dean of Shanghai Cathedral had equipped himself with an antique projector.
  • Thinking of his unsettled dreams, and puzzled by their missing sound track, Jim tugged at his ruffed collar.
  • Outside the vestry doors the Chinese chauffeurs waited by their Packards and Buicks, arguing in a fretful way with each other.
  • Usually Jim devoured the newsreels, part of the propaganda effort mounted by the British Embassy to counter the German and Italian war films being screened in the public theatres and Axis clubs of Shanghai.
  • Jim was glad when the newsreel was over.
  • The commentator’s voice still boomed inside his head as he rode home through the crowded Shanghai streets in his parent’s Packard.
  • An open truck packed with professional executioners swerved in front of them, on its way to the public stranglings in the Old City.

Discovering we’ve slipped into beginning our paragraphs with generic and clichéd statements does not have to be an unhappy occasion. We can fix banality. We can delete the hackneyed and nonspecific. We can write to the point of our story. We can include authenticating details. We can make our story unique and uniquely ours.

 

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