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.
The opening to Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities is so famous today that the words seem timeless, even as its themes – a polarisation of political opinion and a desire to designate everything as either good or evil – feel peculiarly timely.
Dickens’s 100+ word sentence is one that would make most English language teachers blanche, so what is it about this opening that readers find so evocative? And what can we learn from this bending of grammatical rules?
Repetition isn’t always a sin
As writers, we’re often warned against repeating words or sentence formations. Yet parallel structures can be powerful when employed wisely. As a writer you need to be aware of the effect this has. Dickens’s repeated clauses make the passage feel solemn, liturgical, and even funereal – fitting, in light of what’s to come.
Keep your readers guessing
Readers love to make predictions about what’s coming next – in your plot and in your prose. By pairing opposites (‘best’ and ‘worst’, ‘hope’ and ‘despair’) Dickens allows us to guess the word that will complete the next clause. This is so effective that he doesn’t even need to include the word ‘hell’. It hangs in the air, an unspoken threat.
Lead with drama
Dickens leads with this series of hyperbolic statements only to undercut what he has just said, labelling these descriptors as the protestations of the ‘noisiest authorities’. Yet it is the catchy opening that we remember. As writers, we are often advised to start our novels and chapters with something memorable but we should be aware of how this can alter our prose’s meaning and reception.