Monday, August 21, 2006
Old Beginnings 4
There's been some discussion of whether a novel must begin with tension, action, the protagonist's conflict. One of the most frequently praised novel beginnings is this one:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
We are given nothing about the plot except a description of the time in which it's set--and we don't even know what time that is.
Below are five beginnings that consist mainly of description. If you would read on, you're probably of a mind that decent writing is the only ingredient needed to hook a reader, that in the hands of a good writer, any story can be made interesting. (Of course, you may have the back cover, word of mouth, reviews to tell you where the books are going.) If you wouldn't read on, you're probably of a mind that these novels got published either because they're from a time when this type of opening was in vogue, or they're by authors who'd already made names for themselves, and didn't need to hook the reader. Either attitude is fine; no one can tell you how to choose your books. But for editors and agents, stellar writing will keep the pages turning.
The sources are posted at the bottom of the page.
1. Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. We would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. It was a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness. The men and women who frequented the Amateurs stayed drunk all of the time, or all of the time they could afford it, mostly on wine which they bought by the half-liter or liter. Many strangely named apéritifs were advertised, but few people could afford them except as a foundation to build their wine drunks on. The women drunkards were called poivrottes which meant female rummies.
2. Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.
First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.
3. The temperature of the Refuge varied from 99 degrees Fahrenheit to 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Steam lay perennially in the air, drifting and billowing sluggishly. Geysers of hot water spurted, and the ground was a shifting surface of warm slime, compounded from water, dissolved minerals, and fungoid pulp. The remains of lichens and protozoa colored and thickened the scum of moisture that dripped everywhere, over the wet rocks and sponge-like shrubbery, the various utilitarian installations. A careful backdrop had been painted, a long plateau rising from a heavy ocean
Beyond doubt, the Refuge was modeled after the womb. The semblance couldn't be denied--and nobody had denied it.
4. Right here and now, as an old friend used to say, we are in the fluid present, where clear-sightedness never guarantees perfect vision. Here: about two hundred feet, the height of a gliding eagle, above Wisconsin's far western edge, where the vagaries of the Mississippi River declare a natural border. Now: an early Friday morning in mid-July a few years into both a new century and a new millennium, their wayward courses so hidden that a blind man has a better chance of seeing what lies ahead than you or I. Right here and now, the hour is just past six a.m., and the sun stands low in the cloudless eastern sky, a fat, confident yellow-white ball advancing as ever for the first time toward the future and leaving in its wake the steadily accumulating past, which darkens as it recedes, making blind men of us all.
5. A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.
The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distantrims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.
Old Beginnings 4
1. A Moveable Feast....Ernest Hemingway
2. The Poisonwood Bible....Barbara Kingsolver
3. The World Jones Made....Philip K. Dick
4. Black House....Stephen King and Peter Straub
5. The Return of the Native....Thomas Hardy