Sunday, July 25, 2010

Starting at the Beginning

Current Reading: Nothing for the moment. I'm on vacation and thinking a trip to the bookstore might be just the thing...

Inspirational quote: "He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determines the end." -- Harry Emerson Fosdick

I having some trouble beginning. Not starting. Starting, I can do. But beginning and beginning well is a trick I have yet to master. As I said in a previous post, I think reading actively is important for a writer. I think it's foolish to ignore what's already been done.

And beginnings are important. Numerous agents, editors and readers talk about the importance of the first chapter, the first scene, the first paragraph and the first sentence. That's where we've got to hook the reader, to grab them and compel them into the story such that they don't want to leave until it's over. But how do you pull it off? What works?

Well, as with plots, I decided to turn to a selection of books I've read recently and really take a hard look at their beginnings. My thoughts are in italics... because, in my own head, my thoughts are in gray italics. Weird, huh?

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher:
I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. Why is the mailman early? He didn't sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed. Question of why he's early answered and replaced by new question: What's so funny about his office door?

Mainspring, by Jay Lake:
The Angel gleamed in the light of Hethor's reading candle bright as any brasswork automaton. Exotic situation: angels and reading candles and automatons. Why is there an angel in the room? The young man clutched his threadbare coverlet in the irrational hope that the quilted cotton scraps could shield him from whatever power had invaded his attic room. Trembling, he closed his eyes. Reaction shows that this is unusual, terrifying, and we read on to find out why it's happening and how he deals.

Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett:
It was midnight in Ankh-Morpork's Royal Art Museum*. Pedestrian place (museum) juxtaposed with an exotic city. The footnote here leads to a humorous aside about the city, its nature and government. It occurred to new employee Rudolph Scattering about once every minute that on the whole it might have been a good idea to tell the Curator about his nyctophobia, his fear of strange noises and, he now knew, his fear of absolutely every thing he could see (and, come to that, not see) hear, smell and feel crawling up his back during the endless hours on guard during the night. It was no use telling himself that everything in here was dead. That didn't help at all. It meant that he stood out. Introduction to an unusual character in a situation sure to cause him trouble. What's going to happen to push him over the edge?

Outrageous Fortune, by Tim Scott:
“Fuckers,” I whispered to myself as I looked at the small, pristine business card held lightly between my fingers. Reader wants to know what's on the card, and who deserves the expletive. On it were the words:“Don't you hate it when this happens?” Reader wants to know what happened.

Recovery Man, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
Jupiter filled the dome as Rhonda Shindo pressed the chip on her wrist to slow the express sidewalk. Exotic place with Jupiter, chips and sliding sidewalks. Reader wants to know where she is and why she's slowing the sidewalk. She glanced upward, always startled when the planet loomed so large. That night, Jupiter was sand-colored with streaks of brown. Sometimes it seemed redder and sometimes it had more orange. More of the exotic setting. Doesn't raise any more questions, but does put off the answer to the question the reader already has. Anticipation, delayed gratification.

Coyote, by Allen Steele:
This is the story of the new world. What new world? It begins not there, however, but on Earth, in the closing years of the twentieth century. Where? Is this based in reality? Have I already lived through the event to which he's leading up?

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman:
Shadow had done three years in prison. What for? He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife. This is about the character, and raises questions about why his love for his wife occupied so much of his time.

So what can I get from all this? (Yeah, I know... seven books is a statistically useless sample from which to draw generalizations, but if one wishes to draw conclusions, one must do so on the basis of the available sample... 'cause anything else is just makin' stuff up).
  • Questions. It's all about questions. From the first sentence, each opening raised questions in my mind that I wanted to push into the next sentence to answer. The sentences that follow might answer that question, but often there's a bait and switch as though the author were saying, "You think about that for a moment. I'm going to tell you about this first." There's the promise of delayed gratification, of anticipation that propels me forward.
  • Often, the first sentence is short and punchy.
  • The openings above seem to fall into three different types:

    • Unusual event, or usual event that doesn't play out the way it usually does.
    • Exotic setting, or familiar elements in an exotic arrangement. Probably not a good idea to extend this more than a short paragraph before introducing a character or event.
    • An unusual character, or a character with unusual attributes.

A couple of interesting and similar conclusions can be found here and here.

At one point, I had what I thought was a beautiful beginning sentence for the Magnus Somnium: "It ended in fire." I liked it because starting a book talking about an ending really raises some questions, and because it book-ended (pun unintentional) nicely with the final line of the story: "The sun rose, and the new day began in fire." Unfortunately, the book now starts in another place that works much better, so I've lost context for the line.

Oh well, back to the writing board...

No comments: