This is going to be a post on a bizarre pet peeve of mine.
This advice isn’t as universal as my dozens of other posts on writing. It’s an idiosyncrasy of my own personal taste. Yet, of all the writers I think of as taking the craft of prose seriously, I can’t find anyone that makes this “mistake.”
It’s only found in books by people who pump out quantity over quality, so I think there’s actually something to it.
Definite and Indefinite Articles
Here’s a quick refresher on definite versus indefinite articles. An indefinite article is used when talking about a thing in general. In other words, not a specific thing already known to the listener. Example:
A cat cried outside my window all night long.
The indefinite article is “a.” Definite articles are used to refer to a specific thing known to the listener.
There is a cup of water. The cup is brown.
In this case, “the” is the definite article. Here is the lesson for today: Do not use definite articles too early in a novel or story. This will take some unpacking, because, obviously, it’s often appropriate to use a definite article in the first sentence.
I know, this sounds like nitpicky nonsense. Here’s an actual example first sentence of an entire novel.
Bob set the glass of water down before going to the bedroom.
Let’s ignore the fact that this also violates Lesson 1 in this series (come on, is setting the glass of water down really where this story begins or at least a vital detail?!).
I’ll first say that this is a noble effort. She uses an active verb, and a specific detail is given (though, a glass of water is quite generic).
But why is there a definite article? The reader has not been exposed to the glass yet, so it isn’t known.
Don’t freak out on me that this is absolutely ridiculous. Every time I encounter this, I cringe at how strange it sounds to my ear. I hear your complaint: how can this be avoided?
First off, something like “Bob set his glass…” reads much better to me. The possessive article is still somewhat definite, but it indicates Bob is the one familiar with it and not necessarily the reader.
Also, “Bob set a glass…” sounds correct as well. My guess is that many KU authors read other KU authors, and this creates a cycle of subconscious imitation. Using a definite article in a first sentence has become the norm, unfortunately.
There are times when it is fine.
When is the Definite Article Correct?
The sun crested the horizon, and a streak of red jutted across the sky.
Here it’s fine because the reader is already familiar with the sun, the horizon, and the sky. In other words, we know which one she’s referring to.
But I’d like to return to a deeper problem and the core of this lesson. If you find yourself using a definite article for an object unfamiliar to the reader, don’t quickly change it to an indefinite or possessive. Ask yourself why that object is there.
In almost 100% of cases, the more fundamental problem is that the object shouldn’t be mentioned at all.
Converting to the Subject
If the object is important enough, then really emphasize it by making it the subject of the sentence. In that case, it is okay to use a definite article.
The glass of water sparkled on the counter. Bob wondered if they’d be able to lift the killer’s prints off it as he wandered to the bedroom—the scene of the crime.
Now it makes sense.
It’s not just “a” glass of water, but a highly specific one that plays a crucial role in the opening of the novel. This opening draws the reader in. There aren’t just objects and details for no reason. The glass is mentioned to create tension in the scene.
There are also hundreds of exceptions to this rule, so don’t go posting a bunch in the comments or something. I’ve seen books where this rule is broken and it works. It’s like all writing advice: break it when you have good reason to.
Here are some obvious exceptions. You have to use a definite article if referencing a proper noun (It happened while listening to the Beatles).
There are also common phrases and colloquialisms that use definite articles (It was the best of times). But the most common exception is if the scene has been set enough that the object in question could be inferred by the reader.
Here’s the opening to A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall.
Pay close attention to “the” versus “a” versus “her” in that paragraph.
Egan uses “her yellow eye shadow” because the reader hasn’t been exposed to it. She uses “the mirror” and “the sink” because Sasha is in the bathroom of a hotel.
If a reader hasn’t envisioned a mirror or sink, they aren’t familiar with standard bathrooms. But Egan uses “a bag,” because the reader wouldn’t envision a bag on the floor from any of the previous information.