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

A Dystopia Discussion

Dystopia originated as a literary genre in the early 1900s and continues to grow today.  Despite this genre’s gloomy outlook on life, and the problems that dystopian books often possess, this type of literature has value although many people may not realize it.

To start with, dystopia allows readers to step back from the story, the setting, the entire world that a dystopian novel has created and judge decisions and society more objectively than would be possible in a more realistic novel.  This chance to judge more objectively is a rare opportunity.

The GiverIn addition, dystopia experiments with how decisions affect parts of life.  The genre deals with questions like, “What would happen if…?”  The Giver by Lois Lowry delves into what happens when the government takes over every part of life, choosing one’s family, food, clothes, hair style, job, spouse.  As a result of this all-pervasive way in which the government treats its citizens, people lose their uniqueness, their ability to make decisions.  They are weak, emotionless, and heartless.  The Giver also shows how creating total equality and sameness turns out for this world.  The world of The Giver loses animals, colors, memories, hills, snow.  Anything that disrupts a peaceful and orderly life or brings pain and heartbreak is sucked from the world.  Lois Lowry shows that quiet, peaceable lives are nothing without self-made choices, love, real family, real friendship, or honesty.

Dystopia has another benefit as well, though, for it often acts as a warning: take heed of what this made-up story has shown you and keep this story from becoming true.  Once again, The Giver provides a good example.  One of the warnings it voices is, “Don’t let the small freedoms one has be taken, or one will lose all of one’s freedoms.”

Dystopia is not a perfect genre, and a diet of any one type of book is unhealthy.  However, one should not pass by dystopian books just because they are dystopia, for even this dark genre has its benefits and can be thought-provoking and instructive.

Writing with Wings

Years ago, while I was contemplating what made certain movies great and others not-so-great, my thinking went like this: good stories need to have a message—they have to teach the viewer something. But they’ve also got to be entertaining, because if the story isn’t interesting then nobody will care about the message.

Horace
Horace (drinking something dulce, perhaps?)

Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was articulating the age-old purpose of literature as expressed by Horace in the Latin phrase “utili et dulce,” which means “useful and sweet.” The “useful” bit is the teaching aspect and the “sweet” bit is the part that entertains.

This two-fold purpose is almost everywhere one looks, so in this article I’m going to use the word “literature” to mean “a story told in an artistic way.” Notice that this definition of literature does not demand any definite form—it can be fiction, non-fiction, a poem, a movie, etc. Not an ordinary definition, and not one I typically use, but it may be helpful for this discussion.

Instructing and Entertaining

Why should literature be both instructive and entertaining? To find out, let’s not trust to the word of an ancient Greek alone. Leland Ryken, Professor of English at Wheaton College, points out that an even older source than Horace expounded this viewpoint: The Bible. Ecclesiastes 12:10 says:

The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly (NASB).

The first part of this passage “delightful words” corresponds with the “delighting” bit, while “words of truth” corresponds to the “teaching” bit. So we see that even the Preacher sought to write what was both true and beautiful!

This is an important connection for writers to make, and I have found both in my own experience and through observation that emphasizing one side of this balance too heavily is very easy to do. Teach too hard and a Christian work of fiction becomes little more than a jazzed-up sermon. Tell a story that entertains exclusively and the reader may experience thrills but ultimately find the story forgettable.

However, I believe that in particular the “delighting” aspect of literature is neglected in Christian writing (although lately I haven’t noticed it as much. Perhaps we’re improving?). I used to be this way: I would come up with a good moral that I wanted my story to have, and then I developed a story that reflected that moral. I focused entirely on the teaching component of literature and completely ignored the entertaining part. The results were contrived, lifeless characters who did things not because certain actions were part of their character but because that’s the way it had to be for me to get my message across. Needless to say, this is not an effective (or affective!) way to write.

Much more could be said (and has been said) on this topic, but the essence is still this: the purpose of literature is both to instruct and entertain. They’re like the two wings of an eagle, and both must function together for the eagle to soar.

There are other reasons why writers should embrace the two-fold purpose of literature, and to gain a fuller picture I would recommend reading The Christian Imagination. It is a collection of essays (most, but not all, of them very thought-provoking—that’s the problem with collections) by Christian writers about reading and writing that fueled the ideas in this post, particularly the essay entitled “’Words of Delight’: A Hedonistic Defense of Literature,” by Leland Ryken.