Beginnings Once More

Photo by Jim Barrett
Photo by Jim Barrett

Every year, I do a class that I call Beginnings. I look at the beginnings of several fiction and nonfiction books and note the ones that I consider particularly well written. (And occasionally the ones that are poorly done.) Sometimes I simply pull books off my shelves. Sometimes I prowl the new releases at my local bookstore. Sometimes I look at either current bestsellers or recent award winners. Invariably, a theme will develop, and I can draw comparisons between the various beginnings. So this week for class, I looked at beginnings once more.

This time I pulled books off my shelves for fiction and chose current bestsellers for the nonfiction, with one exception. I also used H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a book I own, which was a bestseller and award winner when it was published in 2014. The other three nonfiction books were histories: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff, and The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. The opening for each book was precisely detailed. Brown’s book begins with the when—Monday, October 9, 1933—and the where—Seattle—and follows with a detailed description of the waterfront on that day. Schiff informs the reader how many people the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed in 1692, and when. In The Wright Brothers, McCullough opens with a portrayal of a photograph of the brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright. Helen Macdonald also opens with a description, giving the reader an evocative sense of place:

Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. There are ghosts here: houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.

What impresses me about these openings is that the author immediately establishes his or her authority. With these details, with this command of place or person or history, the authors are assuring the reader that they know what they’re talking about. But they also add their own insights. After the executions, Schiff writes: “a stark stunned silence followed.” In describing how Wilbur is looking off to one side in the photograph, McCullough adds: “as though his mind were on other things, which most likely it was.”

In the four novels I chose, I found something similar—excellent details—and another element besides. In each novel, the beginning drops readers into a moment when events have already happened. Because the author chose to start here, in this moment, the reader is assured events are going to continue to happen, quickly. So in Child of My Heart, Alice McDermott begins by listing all the animals—tame and wild—and children—relatives and otherwise—the first-person narrator cared for one summer. Frankie, in Sue Miller’s The Arsonist, “would remember the car speeding past in the dark … would remember that she had been aware of the smell of smoke for a while.” Kate Atkinson does not name her protagonist in the opening of Life After Life, but follows a woman into a café, swiftly establishing that we are in Germany and that this café caters to the leisure class as they indulge in “coffee, cake and gossip.” And the ominous opening paragraph from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See :

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. “Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town,” they say. “Depart immediately to open country.”

These eight books—and so many others—set high standards with their fabulous openings. Look at your beginnings, be it essay or short story or novel or nonfiction. Do you have precise details that draw the reader in and establish your authority that you know what you’re writing about? Do you drop the reader into a scene in such a way that they will want to keep reading to find out what happens next? First sentences, first paragraphs, are so vital. But then so is the next paragraph, and the next, and the next. But it starts here.

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1 thought on “Beginnings Once More”

  1. I love this. Makes me want to read all the first sentences of books lying around the apartment. Here’s the one from the book I read to p. 36 last evening. “Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining-car window with a delight almost physical.”

    This morning I requested “Boys in the Boat” from the library. I will not be reading more of Harper Lee’s early literary attempt.

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In which I blog about the days I write and the days I don’t write; about teaching about writing; about reading (which is never enough); and occasionally about music, because sometimes a three-minute song can tell as good a story as a novel.

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