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Start Your Story Write... err, Right

#19, March 27, 2015


Spring has sprung, and I’ve been thinking about beginnings.


The beginnings of books, that is. Novels, specifically. Writers often struggle with opening paragraphs, opening sentences, even the very first word. How can you snare a reader in just a few sentences? How can you create that initial spark of energy, the energy that must carry the reader along until the end without ever giving them a reason to put your book down? What’s the secret?


Well, there is no secret, for one thing. It’s a matter of talent and style and what kind of story you’re telling. Take this opening, for example. It has been hailed as one of the greatest opening paragraphs of all time, and I agree (not having read every book in the world throughout history, of course, but hey, ya gotta go with what ya know). Here is the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House written in 1959 by Shirley Jackson:


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 steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.


The Haunting of Hill House is a horror novel, but it isn’t horror as we think of it today. Horror is not slasher fic, no matter what Netflix says. It doesn’t even have to have a stitch of violence about it. As defined by the Horror Writers Association: “Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives the primary definition of horror as ‘a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.’ It stands to reason then that ‘horror fiction’ is fiction that elicits those emotions in the reader.” If we use that definition, then I’d say that Jackson’s opening paragraph is successful in a wonderfully itchy-under-the-skin kind of way. If you like horror, it’s irresistible.


Then there’s fantasy. Do I really need to identify this opening paragraph?


In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.


This opening is successful in so many ways! It has that once-upon-a-time feeling that shouts out, “Hey! We got us an epic fantasy here, folks!” It identifies the species of the main character and tells us a bit about him/them before we even meet him/them. Most interestingly of all, at least to me, is the fact that it emphasizes comfort, which plays a huge role in the story. Bilbo, like all hobbits, treasures his comforts, and from the minute Gandalf shows up, those comforts are slowly stripped away: his sense of peace, then his sense of security, his possessions, his food (very important!), his community, his reputation, his lifestyle, even his quiet hobbit future—pretty much everything that Bilbo IS, changes. Adventures tend to do that to a guy.


For you romance readers, here’s the opening of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 epic Gone With the Wind:


Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin — that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.


Charm. That’s Scarlett in a nutshell. She’s got buckets of other traits, but in the end she always relies on her charm to get what she wants and/or needs. There’s no mention of Rhett yet, but even at this initial stage we sense that whatever this story is about, Scarlett will get what she wants/needs. And lordy lord, does she ever!


The detailed description of her features may bother some aspiring writers—we’re always told not to go into physical description, that it will slow our books down and bore our readers. Obviously, this depends on how a description is written. This description of Scarlett isn’t really about her face as much as it is about her in general, her personal history, and her time and place in the world. This is a novel about the Civil War, after all, so establishing historical time and place is essential.


Re-read it again. In one paragraph we get an overview of Scarlett’s personality as well as her features; we’re informed of her admirers, the Tarleton twins (very important, as her social butterfly nature is pivotal); and we learn her ancestry (essential for the Civil War aspect). The mention of bonnets, veils and mittens tells us her social standing and, by association, more about her personality and social class expectations without directly stating those facts. And the tone of the language is light and conversational, a bit witty and full of detail—an indirect definition of the gossipy Southern society into which we’re about to fall.


That’s one info-packed paragraph!


Let us turn now to that fellow who wrote all those classics that everybody’s heard of but comparatively few have actually read: the stories of Charles Dickens. This is the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, written in 1859:


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.


This is the kind of opening that says, “This story encompasses BIG events and BIG themes and the entire gamut of human experience from A to Z, so put on your hiking boots and pack a lunch!” In the immortal words of Stan Lee, ‘nuff said.


Then there’s this little snippet from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:


Call me Ishmael.


It’s not simply a piece of information, though it is informative. It’s not the first person aspect that catches us, either. This is a command—“You there. Yes, you. Do what I tell you. Call me Ishmael.” Kinda hard to put down after that.


I’m sure you’ve notice that all of the examples I’ve cited are from classics. So why do I turn to them and not more modern examples? The language and tone are from another time, so why should anybody care? We write so differently now!


Yes, we do, but we can learn from the classics, and we should because they have stood the test of time. Styles and cultural norms and language usages have come and gone, but these novels and more like them are still being read with enthusiasm.


So what’s my point with all this? Um… frankly, I’m not sure. I’ve taught creative writing classes, and I’ve discovered that many aspects of writing can’t really be taught. Not like math or science can be taught, anyway. Those of us who have made headway in this art we call Creative Writing can only present ideas and examples and then, using our experience, try to guide students to their own useful conclusions.


Perhaps my next blog will continue this topic. I’ll think more on it. Till then, as my hubby says, write if you get work!


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