Exploring “It”

Any grammar Nazi worth his or her salt knows the atrocity of the missing antecedent.  The worst of all errors is a sentence that begins with “it” (à la, “It was a dark and stormy night”).  What I have realized, though, is that few rules like these are so unarguable that someone hasn’t broken them with success.  After all, the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have an unforgettable ring:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

In fact, this scenario where the great authors break the rules reminds me of the final rule I learned in my photography class a couple years ago.  My teacher taught us photography composition rules, such as the rule of thirds and leading lines, but then the list that he referenced ended with the tip that rules are meant to broken.  And that is where true talent often shines through.  Where some people realize they are Austens, and others discover they aren’t.

Examples of “It” in Action

Fahrenheit 451 movie image
Fahrenheit 451 (2018)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — George Orwell, 1984
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Why “It” Works

Clarity and precision are paramount when you write to explain, persuade, or inform.  However, in literature and poetry, authors can break these rules and intentionally confound readers with unclear subjects.  Sometimes a sense of mystery or confusion can be a tool instead of a hindrance.  I think this power to create mystery and suspense is part of why a sentence that begins with it can be powerful in artistic writing situations when, in other contexts, the construction would be weak.

In the opening lines quoted above, each author makes a startling claim.  If Bradbury had merely said “it was a pleasure to burn wood in the fireplace,” his readers would have responded “duh!” and slipped into boredom within seconds.  The same would have been true if Orwell had stopped at “April.”  His second clause packs the punch in the opening line from 1984 with its final word.  Because clocks don’t strike thirteen.  And if clocks are doing this, then something is wrong, and the audience already feels the wrongness with this simple, jarring statement.

Don’t state the obvious if you are going to start a sentence—and especially a book—with it.  Make it count.  Lure the audience in with a benign “it was…” and then catch them off guard.  This sentence construction is likely to fall apart without a startling claim.  In fact, I think this explains why “it was a dark and stormy night” is ridiculed, while the opening lines I referenced above are revered.  Dark and stormy nights are commonplace.  Describing a night in this way does little to set this particular evening apart from any other and fails to capitalize on the power and mystery of it.

Summarizing “It”

Based on the claims above, perhaps a simple formula is possible:  Successful sentence beginning with it = “It” + verb + startling claim (humorous, thought-provoking, intriguing, or surprising).

Now, the next time you’re about to pounce on a sentence with a missing antecedent, red pen in hand, remember that it serves a valuable role in writing and even has the power to form some of the most memorable quotes in the history of literature.  Further, if you’re feeling creative, try using it to begin a story and see if the formula works for you (please share your sentence in the comments).  Perhaps you will be the next Austen, Dickens, Bradbury, or Orwell.


References

Quotes from http://americanbookreview.org/100BestLines.asp

Image from Fahrenheit 451 (2018) from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0360556/mediaindex?ref_=tt_pv_mi_sm

Christmas Stories

Christmas has inspired many traditions, stories, and poems which fill the season with delight – the best of which point to the original tale from Bethlehem.  The following are three lovely books that I hope my readers will find time to enjoy this December.  Above all, I recommend reading Luke 2:1-20 and the Scripture passages found in Handel’s Messiah.

An Illustrated PoemThe Night Before Christmas

I have read many of Jan Brett’s Christmas books, but only this year did I discover her illustrated version of Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas.”  Brett’s illustrations suit this famous Christmas poem.  The pictures are full of warm, cheery colors and funny human and animal characters.  I also like how there is a second little story playing out in the pictures in the margins.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan ToomeyA Picture Book

Despite its uninviting title, The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P. J. Lynch is one of the best picture books I have ever read.  The writing style, story, and illustrations are splendid.  I especially love the onomatopoeia and parallelism that Susan Wojciechowski uses.

 

A Short Story

A Christmas Carol

Other than The Muppet Christmas Carol, I have never liked a movie version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and until this year, movies were all the experience I had with the story.  Then in February, I read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and illustrated by P. J. Lynch.

Pervading the story A Christmas Carol is an eeriness uncommon in Christmas stories.  But despite its ghosts, somber spirits, and icy-hearted main character, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beautiful tale of character change.

Confronted with a future of death and despair by the ghost of his former business partner Jack Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge fears he will never have a chance to change his life.  Is it already too late?  If so, why did he receive a warning?  Full of desperate hope, Scrooge travels with three spirits, remembering his past, seeing his present, and passing through what could be his own future.  Each story points Scrooge to new resolutions of personal change.  With the 20-20 vision of hindsight, he views his past mistakes regretfully, understanding better what he should have been, but failed to be.  The stories from the present show him the kind people he has mistreated and turned against himself – yet another reminder of his failures.  The future reveals that Scrooge’s current path will lead to ignominy and lonely death.  What kind of man will Scrooge be remembered as?  Or will he even be remembered?

PJLynchThough there are no open references to Christianity and Dickens held a works-righteousness worldview which plays out in Scrooge’s character changes, hints of the true meaning of Christmas and the Gospel shine through.  The Ghost of Christmas Present demonstrates Christ-like attributes of mercy and the spread of goodwill.  The possibility of heart-change echoes the message of the Gospel and reminds Christians of how wonderful, undeserved, and inexplicable God’s abundant mercy is.  Even though Scrooge “saves” himself by good works and generosity, he would never have changed without outside forces acting upon him, and this is a good reminder of man’s lost condition without God’s condescending grace.  Also, the fact that Scrooge is spared when many, like Marley, were not emphasizes the truth of unconditional election.  Nothing requires God to save all men, or even any men.  But in his inscrutable love, God has chosen to spare some.

With its very own title, A Christmas Carol reveals what this story truly is:  “a song of praise or joy, especially for Christmas” (“Carol” 241).  Dickens is reminding the world of the joy, hope, and redemption that Christ brought at Christmas for sinners that are just as selfish, miserly, and lost as Ebenezer Scrooge.

Illustrator Biography

Patrick James Lynch was born in 1962 and has worked as an illustrator of children’s books since leaving Brighton College of Art in England in 1984.  He has won many awards including the Mother Goose Award, the Christopher Medal three times, and the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal on two occasions, first for The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski, and again for When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest (“Bio”).  The Gift of the MagiIn recent years Lynch has designed posters and sets of stamps in addition to illustrating books.  P. J. Lynch has lectured on his own work and on art and illustration at the National Gallery of Ireland, The National Library of Ireland and at the National Print Museum of Ireland, as well as at numerous conferences and colleges across the U.S.  He illustrated beautiful versions of A Christmas Carol and The Gift of the Magi in 2006 and 2008 respectively.  With his gorgeous and richly-detailed paintings, P. J. Lynch makes picture books a delight to read.  P. J. Lynch lives in Dublin with his wife and their three young children (“Bio”).

Works Cited

“Bio.”  PJ Lynch.  2011.  14 Nov. 2015 <www.pjlynchgallery.com/biog.html>

“Carol.”  The American Heritage Dictionary.  2nd ed.  1985.