I loved the excerpt Patti gave us from Elizabeth Berg's The Promises We Keep. You too? Did you want -yes, oh yes!- to keep reading?
Today I searched among my favorite novels to find examples of Les Edgerton's ten components of a great opening. The result is a longish post largely made up of other people's brilliance - indented so you can tell their words from mine.
1) The Inciting Incident
My friendship with Sharon K. Souza began with the opening paragraphs of her novel, Every Good and Perfect Gift. You may have read that we became friends at a fiction critique clinic at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. Before the clinic began, while we were reading each other's manuscripts in preparation, Sharon sent me an email. But before she did that, I'd already read the following, and knew she had both my respect and my friendship:
“Gabby, I want a baby.”2) The Story-worthy Problem
I choked on my soda, grabbed the tissue DeeDee offered as I coughed up the liquid I’d inhaled, then looked to see if she was as serious as she sounded. She was.
“I want a baby,” she said again, looking for all the world as if she’d uttered nothing more than, “Look at that, a hangnail."
I met Debbie Fuller Thomas while she was writing Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon. When she told me the concept, I thought it sounded like a good story. Then I read her intriguing first paragraph, and knew that it was much better than good:
We weren't strangers to this courtroom. The first time we came, it was to petition to have Ginger's hospital birth records opened. When you lose a child to a genetic disease that doesn't haunt your family, you want to know why.3) The Initial Surface Problem
Ever find a passage so good you have to read it aloud to someone else? When I shared the opening lines of Bonnie Grove's Talking to the Dead, my husband said, "I like her already."
Kevin was dead and the people in my house wouldn't go home. They mingled after the funeral, eating sandwiches, drinking tea, and spoke in muffled tones. I didn't feel grateful for their presence. I felt exactly nothing.4) The Setup
Funerals exist so we can close doors we'd rather leave open. But where did we get the idea that the best approach to facing death is to eat Bundt cake?
One of those delicious bookstore moments happened when I picked up The Book of Fred, a novel about a young girl raised in a religious cult, by Abby Bardi:
When Little Freddie took sick, I knew things would change, and change fast. We sat next to his bed all day, laying our hands on him and saying the Beautiful Prayer, but he just got hotter to the touch and more shivery. His skin looked yellow, like he was turning into old paper. I laid my hand on his forehead and said "Get thee hence" a bunch of times, but it didn't help. That night I had a dream that the Archangel Willie came to me and said, "Lo, Mary Fred, thou wilt be traveling down the road. Thou wilt be somewheres else when the Big Cat comes. So look to yourself and say Ho."5) Backstory
When I woke up, I said Ho a bunch of times. Then I went to see Little Freddie, but he was already gone.
The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells is all about backstory, about the way our past plays with our present.
Sidda is a girl again in the hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens. It is Labor Day, 1959, at Pecan Grove Plantation, on the day of her daddy's annual dove hunt. While the men sweat and shoot, Sidda's gorgeous mother, Vivi, and her gang of girlfriends, the Ya-Yas, play bourrée, a cut-throat Louisiana poker, inside the air-conditioned house. On the kitchen blackboard is scrawled: SMOKE, DRINK, NEVER THINK--borrowed from Billie Holiday. When the ladies take a break, they feed the Petites Ya-Yas (as Ya-Ya offspring are called) sickly sweet maraschino cherries from the fridge in the wet bar.6) A Stellar Opening Sentence
The first sentence in Walter Wangerin's The Book of Sorrows is wonderful, as are all of his sentences, especially in this novel, and in its companion (which should be read first), The Book of the Dun Cow:
Two Hens, white in a yellow field, walking with that thrust of the head which suggests that they are going secretly, on tiptoe, as spies, or comic exaggerations of spies, placing their claws with infinite care.7) Language
The thing about Latayne Scott's suspense novel, Latter Day Cipher is that it is more than suspenseful. It is also thoughtful and graceful. Witness the eerily beautiful scene of the crime that begins the story:
There on the damp pine needles, Kirsten Young lay on her back, a serene Ophelia in her dusky pond of blood. The dark irises of her bloodshot eyes stared unseeing into the branches above her. The sun had burst through the clouds after the sudden downpour and now blazed above the canopy of conifers and aspens in Provo Canyon. Deep in its recesses, the light filtered down in vertical sheets of champagne dust that played across the body.8) Character
I think it's Patti Hill's instinct for humor that allows her to create such wonderfully dimensional characters as we find in The Queen of Sleepy Eye. She knows what makes people simultaneously funny and poignant, what makes them real:
I was no bigger than a bug in my mother’s womb when the two of us drove away from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, toward our lives as a duet.9) Setting
Mom had no destination in mind. The Kaskaskia River wound through the trees like a silver ribbon. The scene reminded her of a photograph that had hung over her parents’ bed, so she parked the Pontiac and slept for the first time in three days. Months later I was born at St. Margaret’s Hospital within a stone’s throw of that parking space.
Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy won my heart forever on the first page, not because I had any idea what might take place in the novel, but because, whatever the story, I wanted to spend time in this world where the sentences ticked away the moments like the quiet swing of a pendulum:
Upstate New York.10) Foreshadowing
Half-moon and a wrack of gray clouds.
Church windows and thirty nuns singing the Night Office in Gregorian chant. Matins. Lauds. And then silence.
Wind, and a nighthawk teetering on it and yawing away into woods.
Wallowing beetles in green pond water.
Cattails sway and unsway.
Grape leaves rattle and settle again.
Workhorses sleeping in horse manes of pasture.
Wooden reaper. Walking plow. Hayrick.
Limestone pebbles on the paths in the garth. Jasmine. Lilac. Narcissus.
Mother Céline gracefully walking, head down.
Mooncreep and spire.
Gilead may be my favorite novel of all time. In her first paragraph, Marilynne Robinson lets you taste the gentle wisdom, the affection, the tender story to come.
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
Yes, yes Patti. We must keep reading.
Your turn, dear readers. Tell us the opening paragraphs that made you fall in love with your favorite novels. I can't wait to read your comments.