Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Opening Paragraphs I Have Loved

Patti's post on Monday reminded me how much I love that delicious moment when I spot a new novel in a bookstore, pick it up, and turn to the first page. Will this story fascinate/frighten/enchant me? Will I find something transcendent?

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.”

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."
2) The Story-worthy Problem

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.

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?
4) The Setup

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."

When I woke up, I said Ho a bunch of times. Then I went to see Little Freddie, but he was already gone.

5) Backstory

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.

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.

9) Setting

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.

August 1906.

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.

10) Foreshadowing

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.


Janet said...

I've always been very fond of the opening of A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is considered one of the classics of literary science fiction - well worth the read. No ray guns, sorry. You might be particularly interested, seeing as it involves a religious order in a desert. ;o)

As an opening, this gives us a wonderful sense of place and culture, as well as the dry, understated humour that infuses the whole book.

Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice's Lenten fast in the desert.

Never before had Brother Francis actually seen a pilgrim with girded loins, but that this one was the bona fide article he was convinced as soon as he had recovered from the spine-chilling effect of the pilgrim's advent on the far horizon, as a wiggling iota of black caught in a shimmering haze of heat. Legless, but wearing a tiny head, the iota materialized out of the mirror glaze on the broken roadway and seemed more to writhe than to walk into view, causing Brother Francis to clutch the crucifix of his rosary and mutter an Ave or two.

Rosslyn Elliott said...


This is a great post that reminds me of a wine-tasting--just a little sample of each to show us the flavor. I enjoyed it.

I really like all of your chosen opening paragraphs execpt one: the opening of Mariette in Ecstasy. For me, that author's style is too mannered. I would put the book down immediately if I encountered that style in a bookstore. It's just like what Kara DioGuardi told Kris Allen on American Idol last week: for me, Mariette in Ecstasy is "trying too hard." :-)

But that's the beauty of differing taste! Many people must have loved Mariette in Ecstasy.

Here's one of my favorite opening paragraphs:

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence, and masters called him Scrubb. I can't tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn't call his Father and Mother "Father" and "Mother," but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers, and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on beds and the windows were always open.C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderI especially admire the way that Lewis writes what looks like a pure character description, yet he still creates conflict to draw in the reader. Eustace and his parents are in conflict with the world, and despite the beautiful subtlety of this paragraph, I HAVE to keep reading to find out what happens to this unpleasant boy.

Michelle said...

I've always loved:

"Fire is a lovely thing."


Kathleen Popa said...

Oh, now see Janet? You've gone and convinced me to buy A Canticle for Leibowitz, and SciFi isn't even my thing. But the opening does sound irresistable.

Rosslyn, it is like a wine tasting, isn't it! Yes, I love the Narnia books too. Read them all aloud to both my boys.

Michelle, thanks for quoting Saint Bertie. You're so sweet. For all you readers out there who are thinking to enter our Audience with an Agent Contest, one excellent reason to get your manuscript into the hands of Wendy Lawton of the Books & Such Literary Agency is that she might just decide to represent you, and Books & Such has the kindest, most thoughtful, most supportive office assistant, Michelle Ule. (To learn more about the contest, follow the link for "Promotions" under our header.)

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

Hmmm, great post. I recently wrote an article for a writer's magazine with the same idea - look at great novel beginnings to see what works, then apply that to your own writing. These are definately intriging beginnings! :)

Janet said...

:o) There are many genres that don't appeal to me, but I'm usually willing to read the cream of the crop. Good writing and story-telling transcends genre. And Canticle definitely qualifies. It explores the intersection of faith and science and society, has superb, complex characterization, and, as you can tell from this snippet, wonderful prose.

Miller was one of the WWII bombers that attacked the monastery at Monte Cassino, which tormented him for the rest of his life and provided the themes for Canticle, in case you're interested.

Another great beginning:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.Theme, main character, setting, scope, potential conflict: all in one very short sentence. There's a lot to be said for the power of simplicity.

Carla Gade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carla Gade said...

I've read many a great novel, but I must post this that made me gulp! I could not put the book down until I had read it in two days.

"This Street Is Impassable, Not Even Jackassable. Rachel Van Buren reread the sloppily painted dripping red letters splattered across the rickety sign. Even as she watched, its supporting post tilted forward, better exposing an endless blanket of mud stretching up behind in and beyond.
Where are the trees, Lord? Why, it's nothing but mud and scrub brush."

The Measure of a Lady by Deeanne Gist

Carla Gade said...

I must also comment on this, for I believe it has captured many readers for nearly two centuries. It just may be the most memorized first paragraph ever, at least the first sentence.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

Of course, this is from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Steve G said...

How about this one... eh? eh?

"When you hear the name Gabby Wells, the word ‘pristine’ probably doesn’t leap to mind. While not a gun slinging thug, I’m no sainted aunt, either. There have been instances, incidents, that, should they be made public, would cast me in a rather bad light. And I need all the good light I can get at the moment.
You want a for instance? My third husband – there’s a for instance for you. One day I come home and oh boy, there it was in black and white – he was cheat, a nogoodnik just like the two bums I married before him...."

'Course, it may be a year before you get to read the rest...