Literary Insights: The Importance Of Beginnings

Writing A Strong Opening For Your Book

By Susanne Carter

As with pubs and shoes, you know you’re reading a great book from the second you’re inside it. In the right hands, a novel’s beginning alone can make you feel like you’ve just fallen into a fast-flowing river, snatched away from reality and hurtled downhill. — ShortList

I have a confession to make. I lie to my friends. I tell them I give books at least ten pages before deciding whether or not to put the book down or continue reading so they won’t think I’m a complete literary snob. But I usually know by the end of the first paragraph whether or not the book is going to make me feel like I’ve just fallen into a fast-flowing river and snatch me away from reality. By the time I turn the first page (or not), I know if I’m going to ignore dust bunnies, forfeit sleep, and stir the soup distractedly with one hand while holding the book in the other because I can’t put it down.

As January brings the start of another new year, I am reminded of the importance of beginnings. When Stephen King begins writing a book, he believes the crafting of the opening paragraph is often a very slow process, but a critical one. “I will lie there in the dark and think,” he says. “I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.”

A writer’s first sentence establishes what King refers to as a “crucial sense of voice—it’s the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there’s incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.”

In this guest blog I discuss beginnings of writings—both fiction and non-fiction—whose voices have invited me to “come in here” and to which I have listened. In the Writers’ Notes I analyze what makes these beginnings an invitation to keep turning the pages.

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf. She often quoted lines of poetry; she never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letters weighed 10 ounces. They were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefully return the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.

I love this imagery-rich opening paragraph, which introduces us to a typical grunt who served during the Vietnam War. By the time I’ve read the first 271 words, I feel like I already know Jimmy Cross. I can tell this is going to be my kind of short story—one that focuses on character more than plot—and one that probes the psychological impact of war on typical soldiers. As the story progresses, we’ll meet six more soldiers who serve in Jimmy’s platoon and come to know them intimately through O’Brien’s descriptions of the litany of physical and psychological baggage they lug with them into combat—both the tangible (a girlfriend’s pantyhose around a soldier’s neck for good luck, M&Ms, comic books, a VC thumb, toilet paper, tranquilizers) and the intangible (grief, terror, love, longing, shameful memories, and the common secret of cowardice).

Canada by Richard Ford

First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.

Not many writers would dare to reveal the plot of a 418-page novel in the first paragraph. But that’s exactly what Ford does in Canada, which I found intriguing, if not a bit risky. What might happen in the remaining 417 pages if we already know the plot? Although the robbery and murders are revisited later in the novel, it is not these events that are the focus of the novel, but rather their influence on the coming of age of an adolescent boy. Instead, the novel concentrates on the young narrator’s reflections upon what has happened in his life and his attempts to make sense of them. This makes for insightful reading that probes deep below the surface of the plot.

Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a black-and-white terrier mix, played at her feet. Mom’s gestures were all familiar — the way she tilted her head and thrust out her lower lip when studying items of potential value that she’d hoisted out of the Dumpster, the way her eyes widened with childish glee when she found something she liked. Her long hair was streaked with gray, tangled and matted, and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets, but still she reminded me of the mom she’d been when I was a kid, swan-diving off cliffs and painting in the desert and reading Shakespeare aloud. Her cheekbones were still high and strong, but the skin was parched and ruddy from all those winters and summers exposed to the elements. To the people walking by, she probably looked like any of the thousands of homeless people in New York City.

I love memoirs about dysfunctional families and this is one of the best. It only takes two paragraphs to convince me that Walls has both a gift for writing vivid descriptions and a very idiosyncratic mother.  I immediately resonate with her “voice” and become absorbed in her reflections of growing up in and eventually escaping from a very flawed family.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Come, Japanese!

On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years—faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.

Otsuka’s poetic language and use of a collective “voice” to narrate this novel intrigue me.  I begin to identify with these young and apprehensive Japanese mail order brides brought to San Francisco between the first and second world wars.   From this opening paragraph I want to follow these women as they reinvent their lives as new wives in a strange land.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn. He didn’t appear to be very old: 18, maybe 19 at most. A rifle protruded from the young man’s backpack, but he looked friendly enough; a hitchhiker with a Remington semiautomatic isn’t the sort of thing that gives motorists pause in the forty-ninth state. Gallien steered his truck onto the shoulder and told the kid to climb in.

The hitchhiker swung his pack into the bed of the Ford and introduced himself as Alex. “Alex?” Gallien responded, fishing for a last name.

“Just Alex,” the young man replied, pointedly rejecting the bait. Five feet seven or eight with a wiry build, he claimed to be 24 years old and said he was from South Dakota. He explained that he wanted a ride as far as the edge of Denali National Park, where he intended to walk deep into the bush and “live off the land for a few months.”

Gallien, a union electrician, was on his way to Anchorage, 240 miles beyond Denali on the George Parks Highway; he told Alex he’d drop him off wherever he wanted. Alex’s backpack looked as though it weighed only twenty-five or thirty pounds, which struck Gallien—an accomplished hunter and woodsman—as an improbably light load for a stay of several months in the backcountry, especially so early in the spring. “He wasn’t carrying anywhere near as much food and gear as you’d expect a guy to be carrying for that kind of trip,” Gallien recalls.

I like the fact that John Krakauer chose the last person with whom Chris McCandless had contact to begin his riveting investigation into the life of a young man who walked alone into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 and never returned. The driver’s description of McCandless’s lack of preparedness for such a venture and his remembrance of their conversation offer intriguing details that make me want to know more about this enigmatic young man and his tragic venture.

Writers’ Notes:

Whether they are describing their mothers dumpster diving in New York City or young men wandering into the Alaskan wilderness totally unprepared, these writers all demonstrate distinctive voices with the following qualities that beckon me to continue reading:

1. Poetic prose:

All of these authors write with lyrical prose that seems to flow effortlessly. As a reader, the way a piece of literature is written is as important as what is written. Vivid descriptions, interesting metaphors, and a remarkable mastery of the language demonstrated by writers such as these from the very beginning keep me turning the pages.

2. Characters that are stronger than plot:

These writers concentrate much more on character development than plot. What the soldiers in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” lug with them into combat is much more significant to the story’s development than what happens to them in the jungles of Vietnam.

3. Insights that are meaningful:

Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle invites me into the world of a dysfunctional family from which the children ingeniously escaped. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild summons me to join his investigative journey to discover what happened to Chris McCandless alone in an Alaskan wilderness. These are invitations to learn vicariously about experiences I find fascinating.

4. Approaches that are creative and sometimes risky:

Julie Otsuka’s use of a collective voice to narrate The Buddha in the Attic and Richard Ford’s synopsis of the plot in the first paragraph of Canada both intrigued me with their innovation and willingness to experiment with the novel form.

These are the kind of beginnings that make me feel like I’ve just fallen into a fast-flowing river, and I am assured that I’m going to enjoy the ride.

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