As a writer, my motto is, “Well begun is half done.” But that’s about developing a solid outline, and applies equally well to fiction and nonfiction. Writing a good lead sentence for a nonfiction article is of course important. But in the case of fiction, the question of where to begin the story can be rather vexing.
The Latin phrase in medias res, “in the middle of things,” is a valuable touchstone. Begin at a moment in the story when events have already started bubbling up. This is a fairly modern idea, however, and has as a great deal to do with the desire to sell books. If someone picks up your book at the bookstore and opens it to page 1, you want to grab them from the very first sentence.
John D. MacDonald, who sold a lot of books, once started a novel with the sentence, “We were just about to give up and call it a night when they threw the girl off the bridge.” This is an approximate quote — those paperbacks are in a box in the garage. But you get the idea.
Here’s the opening of The Neon Court, the third volume in Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series (paragraph breaks omitted): “I thought I could hear footsteps in the darkness behind me. But when I looked again, they were gone. I was in the middle of a sentence. I was saying, “… ‘dragon’ is probably too biologically specific a way to look at the …” Then someone grabbed me by the throat with the fist of God, and held me steady, while the universe turned on its head. There was a hole in the world and no fingers left to scrabble. I fell into it.” We have no idea what’s going on here, but the writer is doing her damnedest to make sure we will want to keep reading!
This sort of opening was not always the fashion. Here’s a rather more relaxed opening, which you may recognize:
This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history. Further information will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself, the first Hobbit to become famous in the world at large, and called by him There and Back Again, since they told of his journey into the East and his return: an adventure which later involved all the Hobbits in the great events of that Age that are here related.
Many, however, may wish to know more about this remarkable people from the outset….
I’m trying to find an agent for a novel that I’ve written (the first volume in a projected series). Agents typically ask to read the first ten pages — but if you think you have ten pages to get the agent hooked, you’re kidding yourself. If they don’t like the first paragraph, you’re dead in the water. So I’ve been thinking about how to strengthen the opening of my book. While pondering this question, I wandered down to the local public library and happened to pick up a volume containing three novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Today she’s best known — or known at all, really — for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it wasn’t her only work. The opening passage of The Minister’s Wooing gives us a unique look at the question:
Mrs. Katy Scudder had invited Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Jones, and Deacon Twitchel’s wife to take tea with her on the afternoon of June second, A. D. 17–.
When one has a story to tell, one is always puzzled which end of it to begin at. You have a whole corps of people to introduce that you know and your reader doesn’t; and one thing so presupposes another, that, whichever way you turn your patchwork, the figures still seem ill-arranged. The small item which I have given will do as well as any other to begin with, as it certainly will lead you to ask, “Pray, who was Mrs. Katy Scudder?” — and this will start me systematically on my story.
The danger, which Stowe alludes to, is that if you jump straight into the middle of things, your reader may be more bothered and bewildered than bewitched. And the more complex the tale, the greater the danger. I once encountered (I won’t say “once read,” as I quickly gave up) a fantasy novel in which about fifteen names of people and places were shoveled into the first four pages in a panic-stricken attempt to explain the back-story to the reader, but without any explanation of who or what any of them was. I’m sure it all made perfect sense to the writer. But as Stowe wisely points out, you know a lot of things that your reader doesn’t.
The openings of Henry James’s novels tend to be rather opaque, but one has the sense that something is being described that is, if not of great moment, certainly worth pondering. I haven’t read James’s The Spoils of Poynton, but I think its opening illustrates this quality:
Mrs. Gereth had said she would go with the rest to church, but suddenly it seemed to her that she should not be able to wait even till church-time for relief: breakfast, at Waterbath, was a punctual meal, and she had still nearly an hour on her hands. Knowing the church to be near, she prepared in her room for the little rural walk, and on her way down again, passing through the corridors and observing imbecilities of decoration, the aesthetic misery of the big commodious house, she felt a return of the tide of last night’s irritation, a renewal of everything she could secretly suffer from ugliness and stupidity. Why did she consent to such contacts? why did she so rashly expose herself? She had had, heaven knew, her reasons….
This is all very mysterious, but it’s so well written that the reader (at least, the reader who has a decent vocabulary and can parse long sentences) is bound to feel confident that all will eventually be made clear.
Somewhere in the chasm that separates Kate Griffin from Henry James, I’m hoping to find a sweet spot.