The opening paragraph of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ – and why it’s terrible

17 Oct

Back in April I found myself sitting next to a friend’s wife at a wedding party, when she asked if I’d read a certain book.

“It’s called Fifty Shades of Grey,” she said. “It’s amazing. I just can’t put it down.”

I’d never heard of it, but from that brief conversation it seemed to sweep across the nation like a swarm of locusts, or an outbreak of ebola, until, only a few weeks ago, I was sitting in a car with my two aunties, both of them in their 60s, while they discussed it.

“I’ve heard it’s very saucy,” said my Aunty Pam.

I’m not sure “saucy” is the word I’d use. Though I hadn’t – and still haven’t – read it from beginning to end, “saucy” is how I’d describe Barbara Windsor’s bikini top flying off in Carry On Camping. Not a novel with at least one reference to anal fisting.

Anyway, as I said, I’ve still not read the whole novel, so you may be wondering why I consider myself qualified to pass judgment on it. Maybe you’ve read something I’ve written and wonder why I consider myself qualified to pass judgment on any novel. Either way, I’d like to point out I’m not judging the type of novel that Fifty Shades sets out to be. There is plenty of room for popular fiction, for trashy fiction, for erotic fiction. What I object to is bad writing.

“But who are you to say it’s badly written? It’s sold billions of copies!” Says the exaggerating straw man in my head. “How many books did you sell?”

“Ouch,” I reply. “You’re my straw man. No need to get personal.”

Whenever anyone mentions a “straw man” argument, I picture these guys.

Others, real people, have asked me why it’s badly written, what makes it badly written. Is it that it started life as Twilight fan fiction? Certainly not. As I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, the history of fan fiction is a long one, and encompasses everything from Virgil’s Aeneid, through Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (a kind of spoof sequel to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela) and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre).

Is it that it was initially self-published as an e-book? Again, no. There are many genuinely good self-published authors out there, but they are people who have actually worked hard and practiced their craft (or who were born with an innate talent) and who are particularly good at self-editing.

No. The problem with Fifty Shades is one of mechanics, of the basic engineering of almost each and every sentence. The reason I haven’t read it past page 4 is because it hurts my eyes.

Like this.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

  • “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.”

Obviously the italics are mine, but I’ll go through this sentence by sentence to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

  • “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.”

Okay. This is the opening line, and it really doesn’t scan. Try saying it aloud. Doesn’t “I scowl at myself in the mirror” trip off your tongue a little easier? Everything that follows will illustrate the character’s frustration. Throwing that three syllable word in there makes the sentence cumbersome.

  • “Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.”

Where to start? “Damn my hair” should probably have been followed by a full stop or a semi-colon. The punctuation here is all over the shop, so we can’t really be sure what she’s trying to say. Is the narrator’s hair her “ordeal”? Is Katherine Kavanagh’s illness a serious one? In which case, is your hair really all that important? What is the main point here?

“Like, what if *this* is Katherine Kavanagh, you self-centred b*tch?”

Okay. Next line:

  • “I should be studying for my exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission.”

Again, it’s a question of what scans. “I should be studying for next week’s exams” is more economical. “Trying to brush my hair into submission” sounds a little verbose (not to mention, given the book’s subject matter, unintentionally funny), and maybe it’s just me, but I can’t quite believe that three lines in we’re still on the narrator brushing her hair.

  • I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush.”

Nothing wrong with the repetition. That’s the kind of writing I’d expect. But does she really recite this mantra several times? Out loud? Because if she does, I’m now picturing a mad person, or Annette Benning’s character in American Beauty.

“I will SELL this HOUSE to-DAY. I will SELL this HOUSE to-DAY.”

What follows is a multiple pile-up of unnecessary commas: “Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush.” When she could have just said, “Reciting this mantra several times I attempt, once more, to brush it under control.” Sounds petty, but if you try reading it aloud it’s all stops and starts. And she is still brushing her fucking hair.

  • “I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up.”

Her “exasperation” is already implied, the reader isn’t dumb, and it’s a five syllable word that comes only a few lines after the three syllable “frustration”, making yet another sentence unnecessarily clumpy. As for the “pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me”, this is what we call an “info dump”. The writer wants to give a physical description of the character as quickly as possible, so tips all that information into a single sentence. Unfortunately, thanks to the leaden sentence structure, you may have to re-read the line to work out she’s talking about herself, and not some other girl.

Like this girl?

But at least, after over 100 words dedicated to the subject, she’s given up brushing her hair. Next line…

  • “My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.”

Nope. She’s still talking about her hair, and again in a sentence that bumps and rattles its way towards a full stop. To be honest, I’d have probably scrapped this line altogether; it doesn’t really do anything.

So there you have it. The opening paragraph of a book which has now been read by 8 billion people (or something), and not one of them a professional editor.

“So?” Says the catty straw man. “What’s the problem with that? Who needs editors, anyway? They merely stifle creativity. Look how successful she is. Good on her, I say.”

Well, the problem isn’t one of trash selling. It always has and always will. The problem is one of lowering an audience’s expectations. The most popular writers have often – though not always – been brilliant in their own way. Go read early Stephen King (when he could still deliver novels less than 800 pages long), or Leslie Charteris, or Jacqueline Susann, or Patricia Highsmith, or Raymond Chandler. They wrote bestsellers, pulpy bestsellers, but they knew how to craft a sentence, develop characters, and fashion together a story arc. Their fans, as a result, had high standards.

What Fifty Shades does is lower the bar, lower readers’ expectations, and – from a didactic point of view – encourage a sloppy level of communication, in which it doesn’t really matter how well you communicate something, so long as your reader is hooked on the smutty bits, or has a crush on your vapid hero.

Civilisation is only, well, civilised when it communicates ideas successfully, when people understand how to string sentences together and how to read and process those sentences. Fifty Shades, with its desperation to clog up paragraphs with as many adjectives as E.L. James can pluck from her thesaurus, turns language and writing into little more than a hefty word count. From a writer’s point of view, seeing it become the most talked about novel of the age is like a footballer watching some 34-year-old man who has a kick-around with his mates every Sunday become ‘Sports Personality of the Year’.

Followed by his becoming the “face of Gillette”.

“Yes,” says the straw man, eager to have the last word. “But don’t tell me you’re not just a little bit jealous of all the money E.L. James made from that novel.”

And, in return, I scowl, with frustration, at myself in the mirror.

Author

David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

12 Responses to “The opening paragraph of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ – and why it’s terrible”

  1. mspeacock89 October 17, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Ignore your straw man this time, the book is garbage and you communicated that beautifully :)

    • thedaillew October 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

      Ha ha! Thank you. It really is an inexcusably terrible book.

      • Alex Price October 17, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

        You’re just gutted none of your Dr Who fan fiction has enough fisting in to be sell infinity billion copies.

      • Alex Price October 17, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

        Rather annoyingly, I’ve just noted a really big typo in my previous comment which somewhat ruins my attempt to wind you up.

      • thedaillew October 17, 2012 at 7:44 pm #

        See… if only BBC Books had green-lit my pitch for ‘Doctor Who and the Fistotrons’…

  2. Jolie Du Pre October 17, 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    I tried to be supportive of E.L. James. I even attended one of her book signings. However, I couldn’t get past the first half of book one. The writing failed to pull me in. In addition, I got completely sick of seeing the words “Oh my!” over and over. ~~ I generally don’t like it when authors diss other authors. Much of that dissing has to do with jealousy. Period. However, in this case, the Fifty Shades of Grey series is poorly written and authors pointing that out is not born of jealousy. However, in E.L. James’ defense, she HAS found her audience. When I attended the book signing, I attended it with women who had read each of the books COVER TO COVER – and they loved them! They were ecstatic over her books. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you or me or others don’t like the Fifty Shades of Grey series. E. L. James has found her audience. ~~ That’s my goal. To find my readers. My goal is not to try and please everyone.

    • thedaillew October 17, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

      Oh, absolutely. I suppose my point is that that same audience would be equally served by something well-written, so it’s a shame that they settle for something so poor. Though we can talk about the craft and the workmanship of writing, from a purely commercial perspective it’s not as if a piece of good writing costs more than a piece of bad writing. It’s not like comparing, say, a fine, handcrafted wardrobe with something you’d pick up in Ikea. And good writing isn’t the exclusive province of highbrow, “literary” fiction. I genuinely hope E.L. James is enjoying her success, and that her novels make her readers happy, but it saddens me that there is a whole generation of readers settling for a shoddily-made flat pack wardrobe when they could have had a sturdy, handmade one for exactly the same price!

      • Jolie Du Pre October 17, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

        Speaking about Americans: We work hard; we don’t like to nap; many of us are stressed on a weekly or daily basis. When we have a few minutes to relax, often we don’t want to labor over well-written books. We want “junk food.” (Toni Morrison, for example, is an excellent writer, but her books are difficult to understand.) We want a quick fix. We’re on our iPads, our smartphones, our laptops. Our attention spans are short. I wish I could say only uneducated people love the Fifty Shades of Grey series, but that would not be true. The books appeal to a wide range. Frankly, I believe it’s the sexual component that attracts people. All the well-written erotica books before Fifty never got the attention. As an erotica writer, I am pleased that at least the books are bringing attention to other erotica books. I was in the airport last month, and I saw books written by some of my fellow erotica writers on the airport bookstore shelves next to the Fifty series. That was great to see.

      • thedaillew October 18, 2012 at 6:42 am #

        But that’s the thing. “Well written” doesn’t have to mean Toni Morrison (who, I’ll admit, I’ve struggled with). If we’re going to compare popular fiction with junk food, you can either make a burger out of scraps off the abattoir floor, or you can make it out of veal – the thing is, to a publisher or a reader, the veal burger doesn’t cost any more than the burger made of scraps. It’s no harder to eat, eating it is a nicer experience, and it’s not going to give you food poisoning! ‘Fifty Shades’ is a burger made (badly) out of scraps. There’s plenty of erotic fiction (and horror, and sci-fi, and crime fiction) out there that’s made of veal.

  3. psychedk October 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    I couldn’t possibly agree more. I have no issue with the contents either, or with erotic literature at all (except perhaps that 50 Shades actually gives a wrong portrayal of a D/s relationship, but that’s another story), it’s just really really terribly written. I read a 2 page review of it in a Danish newspaper and the reviewer also focused on how juvenile the language was, not to mention repetitive and clumsy. Anna chews her lips and sighs and moans her way through every. single. page. She refers to Christian’s and her own sexy parts as “it” and “down there”, and while this might work fine for a perhaps more prudish American audience, we in Western Europe have seen and read far worse (or is that better?). it comes off as silly. And this is written by a married woman of 50? As the reviewer ends her article, she hopes that the author at least has money enough to buy herself a good shag XD

    It’s great that it started as fanfiction, and it’s great that fanfiction is becoming more mainstream and accepted, and that there are newspaper articles about it and just last week in a radio program about literature that I always listen to, the topic was fanfiction. I just wish it wasn’t represented by such an amazingly bad example of writing when there’s so much GOOD fanfiction out there! It sort of puts the whole thing in a bad light! Arg!

    Aaaaaaah, with that off my chest… :)

    • thedaillew October 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

      Agree with you 100%. I’d never denigrate fan fiction. I’m far too aware that a lot of what I’ve written exists within the same ballpark! And as well as having a rich heritage, the real fan fiction, the non-licensed stuff, can allow decent writers to try new and interesting things with established characters – stuff you’d never be able to do on TV or in the official novels. And no, I’m not necessarily talking about slash fiction! (Yikes.) I’m just baffled/fascinated/horrified that something so technically dreadful, regardless of taste, has sailed up the bestsellers chart.

      • psychedk October 18, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

        One does wonder where the editor is in all this…

        I’ve followed Doris Egan’s blog for some years and she once revealed how she, Jane Espensen and I think another writer friend wrote and read fanfiction (Jane even slashed Spike/Xander on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, hah!). Not for their own shows though, (due to possibly copyright issues that’s a big no-no apparently), but for another I can’t remember the name of. So yeah, it’s definitely something that is spread across a wide variety of viewers and amateur and professional writers alike and it’s a wonderful creative tool to explore and expand your writing skills. I’ve heard the mantra that it’s lazy to write fanfic, why don’t they just make up their own characters, etc. They don’t seem to realize that writing about established characters within a pre-defined universe, and do it in character, takes a special kind of skill, just like making up your own original characters does. That some are so lucky they get paid to do it is just an added bonus! ;-)

        By the way, received a frustrated text from a friend who was in a bookshop full of women with 50 Shades under their arm. I then showed her your blog entry. She swore to print it out and shove it in the face of anyone who even mentions the book to her! XD

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