I’m fascinated by beginnings. That is, the first words that fall into a reader’s brain when she opens up a book. Not all stories have evocative openings. I was fascinated to realize that some of my favorite novelists do not, in fact, write intriguing first paragraphs and yet I continue to read their work and love it.
But there is something about a good opening that drags us into the book and makes us want to know what the heck the writer meant. We are caught on the first word and must read the first sentence. Smitten by the first sentence, we must read the first paragraph. Intrigued by the first paragraph, we must read the first page … and so on.
If the writer has done his or her job especially well, we keep that sense of breathless anticipation of what comes next all the way through to the last scene, the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last word, the last period.
“Ahhh!” we say. “Bliss.”
And we may wish we didn’t have to put the book down. Which is why successful series are so the rage. Can any Harry Dresden fan imagine what it would be like if Jim Butcher had written only Storm Front? Or if Seanan McGuire had only penned one Toby Daye novel? Imagine the world without The Two Towers and Return of the King, or how much joy we would have foregone if Laurie R. King had stopped after Beekeeper’s Apprentice.
Unthinkable, I tell you.
So, to celebrate intriguing beginnings, I have here collected some favorite beginnings from books I’ve read, beginning (ahem) with the essence of brevity…
Call me Ishmael. — Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Marley was dead, to begin with. — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
You see, I had this space suit. — Robert Heinlein, Have Space Suit, Will Travel
All this happened, more or less. — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Then there are conversational beginnings, in which the reader becomes the neighbor sat down at the table over a cup of tea … or root beer.
The kettle began it! Don’t tell me what Mrs. Peerybingle said. I know better. — Dickens, A Cricket on the Hearth
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ”The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. — Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. — John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable. — Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Most of the above selections were from “classic” literature. I’d now like to turn to those writers who inhabit my favorite stomping grounds—outer space, inner reality, magic, miracle and mystery. Shirley Jackson is one of these, of whom Stephen King wrote that her opening paragraph for The Haunting of Hill House was the kind of “quiet epiphany” that every writer longs for. It begins thusly…
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay heavily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. — Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
In contrast, I offer the opening paragraphs of my other favorite “haunted house” story, a lone, creepy tale penned expertly by Anne Rivers Siddons.
It doesn’t matter what other people think. Not anymore.
Our friends are going to think we’ve taken leave of our senses, and we are going to lose many of them.
This is the sort of thing that engenders mild teasing or pleasurable gasps of not-quite-believing fear when it is kept within the bounds of the group. It is something else entirely now that we have spread it out for all the world to see. That isn’t done in our set. It lacks taste, and though we don’t use the word, class.
Worst of all, we have believed the unbelievable and spoken the unspeakable. Yes, we will lose our friends. We cannot worry about that either.
For the Harralson house is haunted, and in quite a terrible way. — Anne Rivers Siddons, The House Next Door
Now, I come to a pair of writers my life happily intersected—Ray Bradbury and William Patrick (WP) Kinsella.
I met Ray Bradbury when I was pregnant with my middle child. I had him sign my copy of Martian Chronicles, told him I was a writer because of him, and gave him a copy of my first novel. He wrote a novel that stands in my heart as one of the most evocative collections of words in the English language.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners. – Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes
And this from a new novel by the writer who introduced me to the field of dreams (and who makes a starring appearance in my story in the recent Future Games anthology…
“You appear to be a man in your late 60’s,” the Gringo Journalist says.
“I have always been what I appear to be,” replies the Wizard. “And,” he adds, the words barely audible above his creaking breath, “I always tell people what they want to hear, whether it’s truth or fiction.” — WP Kinsella, Butterfly Winter
And here are a couple from writers of two of my current favorite series.
The discover of a sign of true intellect outside ourselves procures us something of the emotion Robinson Crusoe must have felt when he saw the imprint of a human foot on the sandy beach of his island. I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked Sussex Downs and nearly stepped on him. In my defence I must say that it was an engrossing book… — Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
I never used to keep close track of the phases of the moon. So I didn’t know that it was one night shy of being full when a young woman sat down across from me in McAnally’s pub and asked me to tell her all about something that could get her killed. — Jim Butcher, Fool Moon
As for me, beginnings are something I strive to do well. I’ve written some I’m very fond of. Sometimes they come to me in a flash of inevitability, like the opening of Taco Del and the Fabled Tree of Destiny or A Princess of Passyunk (Book View Café Press), which actually arrived in the voice of the character telling the tale.
Lord E Lordy wanted the Wiz. That’s where the Last Little War got started. — Taco Del and the Fabled Tree of Destiny
If Market Street ever flooded, South Philly would be an island. — A Princess of Passyunk
Other beginnings just flop out onto the page and others require coaxing and others, threats. Brevity, I have found, does not always equate with ease of passage. Here are a few more from my own work, just ‘cos I like ‘em.
It was a normal day for Beckett Hodge, which is to say an extraordinary day, for Beckett Hodge attracted extraordinary situations, things and people the way black pants attract white cat hair. — “Pipe Dreams”, Analog
My family has always gone down to the Sea in ships. I am told that the first Dunbar shipped out of Norway on a leaky Viking longship. Probably a stowaway. — “The Doctor’s Wife”, Analog
And since I mentioned WP Kinsella’s connection to my short story “Distance” (in Future Games), I’ll close with the first lines of that story…
In the movies, you were slumped at your computer console, fast asleep, surrounded by empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers, when the system pinged. You woke on a tide of adrenaline, flinging candy wrappers and crumpled cans to the lab floor and, after a moment of disorientation, realized WHAT THAT SOUND MEANT.