It was a dark and stormy night…

Brodie Waddell

Beginnings are tricky. Coming up with an opening sentence for a great big pile of paper is never easy, especially if it’s the first great big pile of paper you’ve written. When you’ve invested at least several years of your life in a project, it can be very difficult to find some way to introduce it to your reader.

It’s customary to start with a quotation or short vignette. One of the most famous of these is Foucault’s introduction to Discipline and Punish:

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”; then, “in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds” …

This leads Foucault into a minutely description of the gory process which then shifts abruptly to the highly-regimented daily schedule laid down for ‘for the House of young prisoners in Paris’ in the early nineteenth century. These examples, he says, epitomise ‘a time when, in Europe and in the United States, the entire economy of punishment was redistributed … It was a new age for penal justice’. Although I disagree with much of Faucault’s argument here, as an introduction this is a brilliant example of the form.

Despite a strong temptation to buck this tradition, I started my PhD thesis with a quote from John Bunyan, the peripatetic Baptist preacher and allegorist. Although I stuck with that for the book, the first few paragraphs needed a lot of work. I’ll let you judge for yourself whether the result was successful. The point is: beginnings are tricky.

So, it was with great interest that I read a post by Dave Hitchcock (yet another Hindlite, or should it be ‘Hindleite’?) on the opening for his own PhD.

We begin with a stone. … Yes, with a stone. With a stone flying through the air, in the late 1690s, and hitting the head, the confident, ‘middling sort’, noggin of Thomas Smith, who at that present moment, was atop his horse, riding blithely down a road in Warwickshire, England. I think he was close to Warwick town, the county capital. But as I say, our friend Thomas was struck on the head by a stone, while atop his horse, a powerful symbol of his social status might I add, in the late 1690s.

Not bad at all. He goes on to introduce us to an ‘un-named, possibly scottish, vagrant woman who might have had an incredible fastball and a grudge against authority’. She alone is reason enough for me to want to read the thesis.

Is this tendency to open with a story confined mostly to historians and other humanists? Or is this something that social scientists do too?

12 thoughts on “It was a dark and stormy night…

  1. I started my book with a confrontational ‘This book is not about the causes of the English Civil War’. There were lots of cool anecdotes in it that I could have started with, but I wanted to get stuck into big ideas and historiographical review straight away. My more typical way of starting things is just a brief bland statement of some important facts that should be obvious, or introducing the main work I’m arguing against, which is a very traditional empirical way to do it. I tend to associate the anecdote with New Historicist literary criticism, but it does seem to have spread a long way from there.

    • I love the idea of a confrontational first sentence like yours and I definitely applaud leaping straight into the big issues. As I said, I was tempted to do something similar for my own great big pile of paper, but couldn’t resist working outwards from a Bunyan quote. I went with that because, to my mind at least, the quote manages to hit on one of the big issues of the book whilst also having the benefit of his wonderful seventeenth-century idiom rather than my own ugly academic prose.
      – Brodie

  2. I will happily send you the thesis for your reading enjoyment Brodie. I haven’t yet figured out how to work ‘fastball’ into my opening, but I do use the case of the un-named scottish vagrant on page 1, and that intro has me pretty satisfied at the moment. I also need to find a way to use ‘confidant middling-sort noggin.’


    I think it might be confined fairly closely to Historians, who are, at heart, tellers of stories. Letting a story breathe, telling it as best one can and giving the narrative space, we rarely get a chance to do that and so we do it in introductions.

  3. Loving these blog entries!
    I seem to remember agonising over my opening sentence for ages. I kept the same one for the book as for the thesis, and I’m still not sure I got it right. Anyway, I ended up opening not with a story, but with a question: ‘How does music move us?’ It’s a question as relevant to the sixteenth century as to the twenty-first – or the first, for that matter – but the answer is (hopefully) unexpected, alien, enticing and intriguing…
    p.s. ‘Foucault: historian or social scientist? Discuss…’
    p.p.s. Bravo Dave: I wish I’d thought of working ‘koan’ into my introduction!

    • Thanks, Jonathan. I think a question as an opening is an excellent idea. You managed to phrase it so as to really draw in the reader but, in addition, it also seems very honest – not an act of literary artifice – because after all our work essentially just about answering questions like that.
      – Brodie

  4. Helen Sword (in Stylish Academic Writing, Harvard, 2012) has an entire chapter on these ‘hooks and sinkers’ and has examples from most diciplines. It’s partly a rejection of the CARS “creating a research space” model which, in the hands of decent writers, does a much better job of introduction than the typical 4-move structure. I like those sort of hook-introductions, as long as they are unambigiously focused on the point of the larger study. Richard Kaeuper’s Holy Warriors (U Penn., 2009) devotes the entire first chapter to a single illistrated manuscript. David Gary Shaw does the same with the tomb of Thomas Beckyngton, formerly Bishop of Bath and Wells (Necessary Conjunctions, Palgrave, 2005, and a great book in all other respects).

    I think it is a gamble for a student to use this approach in a formal thesis. Not because I think it’s wrong, but because there are some readers who think it isn’t the propper ‘voice’ of the academic. Some readers don’t want to work that hard, they want to read what they expect to see “in this thesis I wil argue…”. I think that’s a shame, especially because new historians are given so little oportunity or incentive to work on good writing as part of learning to write good history.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, midgardarts. I’ll need to take a look at Sword’s book sometime: I’m one of those annoying (i.e. lazy) historians who obsesses about his/her writing without actually doing the work of reading up on what the experts say.

      Good point on the issue of ‘academic voice’ too. I don’t think it will be a problem for Dave (though I suppose it depends who he ends up with as an external examiner), but I agree that the gambit might not go over well in certain situations. Then again, I decided to throw the dice and gave a very, very informal job talk: they ended up giving me the job anyway. I think maybe reader/audience reactions will always be somewhat mysterious and thus any approach is a gamble.

      – Brodie

      • Thanks for this Brodie.. I think agonising over *how* historians phrase their argumentation ensures that we capture all of the fun doing history entails. Schama bangs on all the time about the influence of J. H. Plumb who, in his seminars, insisted students scrutinised *how* a historical passage was worded and styled. *What* the passage contained was, for the moment, secondary. I’m glad I read your little wake up call as I approach beginning my thesis.

        Seb Averill

  5. Pingback: Christopher Hill, class hatred and the many-headed monster | the many-headed monster

  6. Pingback: Beginnings | Will Pooley

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