Beginnings

I often begin my fall classes with a lesson called Beginnings. I choose opening sentences from several works of fiction and nonfiction, and then discuss with the students what we can glean about the books from those first sentences.

For example, from the opening of Anne Enright’s The Gathering—“I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event”—we learn that an adult narrator is going to try to tell us what happened to her as a child, but that she’s not a particularly reliable narrator. On the other hand, the narrator in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner—“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking in the alley near the frozen creek”—has an excellent memory.

The opening to E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat puts the author front and center: “Several months ago, finding myself in possession of one hundred and seventeen chairs divided about evenly between a city house and a country house, and desiring to simplify my life, I sold half of my worldly goods, evacuated the city house, gave up my employment, and came to live in New England.” In the opening to The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl, on the other hand, the narrator is unseen: “For once, no flowers. Past midnight and very quiet along this corridor. The clock on the opposite wall is round, a cartoon clock. Funny, the idea of keeping time—here of all places. Beneath the clock, a square calendar announces in bold what is now the wrong date, April 3.”

The amazing thing about this Beginnings lesson is how few truly excellent first sentences are out there. Look for yourself. Pull books off your shelves or wander through your local bookstore or library. You probably won’t read many awful first sentences, and you might be intrigued enough to keep going, but that captivating opening that is not only well written but reveals so much of what you need to know about the story or book is rare. Although there is my student Paula Hiuser, who grabbed us all with this: “The first time Costa Rica tried to kill me, I had been there only one week.”

First sentences are so vital, I think that sometimes they should be the last thing a writer writes.

Copyright © Paula Hiuser

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6 thoughts on “Beginnings”

  1. Excellent contrasts, Elizabeth. Sometimes that short zinger is just so effective. Oh, and by the way, I know Paula and her family. She’s a fellow Canadian and we’re proud of her.
    Elaine.

  2. I love those beginnings–what a variety, and how telling they are. You’ve used some in our classes, and they’ve helped me not only in my writing, but in selecting my reading.

    Thanks, Elizabeth. And congratulations on this website and blog!

  3. Yes – those are wonderful beginnings. And for me, beginnings are always the most difficult in writing a novel. How do I enter the story? When do I enter the story? How much does the reader need to know right away? I can’t wait to hear more from you and your class.

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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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