We’ve all been there—frozen by indecision: Character or conflict, voice or setting? They all look so good! Some writers just can’t choose, and decide that a little of each may be the best course of action. The result is long, sometimes unwieldy sentences which stretch the boundaries of acceptable grammar. The opening sentence in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, when examined by a grammarian, is actually several sentences all smushed together with commas—the dreaded compound comma splice! Still, very few people accuse Dickens of cheating in his first line.
The height of the sampler platter method is found in the first page (or so) of Double or Nothing, Raymond Federman’s 1971 novel.
“Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of [sic]19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen” (100BestLines.asp 95).
I’d recommend your first line not be as long—few can pull off this style as well as Federman. But you can have fun with it. Explore the possibilities. Try combining the first two or three sentences and see if it reads better. Maybe, for your story, the sentence can be more than the sum of its parts. The beauty of this style is the ability to add details you’d not really thought of before, and the more details you add, the more the story changes. For example, take a typical scenario of a man who walks into a small roadside diner—but of course in fiction, he can’t just walk in. Let’s ratchet up the tension and make this a fateful encounter, but not with a blonde bombshell—someone far less cliché, someone unexpected, and up the stakes. We’ll say, for the purposes of this paper, that it’s a life-and-death game. We might write, “If I knew when I’d walked into the bar and sat next to the lonely widow with blue hair, the one eating lintel soup and counting quarters, mumbling about their new design and how the pictures were all wrong and how certain states should be ashamed of what they consider their defining qualities, that she’d end up saving my life, I may have listened a little more closely, really listened, instead of minding my own business, drinking my coffee, and trying to look like I wasn’t listening.”
Before writing the line, we may have no idea who this woman is or how she’ll end up saving the protagonist’s life—but isn’t that part of the journey? Writing should be organic, an act of discovery as much as an act of revelation, and the sampler-platter method can be instrumental in bringing about surprises.