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


Novelust said...

*Has Monty Python flashback at the last entry*

"Oh, no, he's signed his name under it!"

"It looks like Tess of the D'Urbervilles all over again."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for saying what you did. I'm not of the mind that an opening MUST be action, action, action. I just think that something in the opening has to hook a reader, whether it be the writing, the language, the tone, the atmosphere, OR the action.

Why do people need to make up so many rules?

Anonymous said...

Novelust, I had exactly the same reaction!

"And he's drawn the definite article "The!" Dennis?"

(Kind of how some agents apparently read unsolicited queries. "Delores..." Oh, this will never do.)

"... has crossed out the only word he's written so far... and he's gazing off into space."

That's how I write. And I'm only talking about blog comments.

Bernita said...

A certain editor claims that using "then" is the mark of an amateur...

Anonymous said...

"They had a month's honeymoon. Then he went back to Flanders: to be shipped over to England again six months later, more or less in bits....

"For two years he remained in the doctor's hands. Then he was pronounced a cure, and could return to life again, with the lower half of his body, from the hips down, paralysed for ever...."

--from the first page of Lady Chatterley's Lover

"Accept your own aloneness and stick to it, all your life. And then accept the times when the gap is filled in, when they come. But they've got to come. You can't force them."

--from later on in LCL

"Then, some sixty years ago, a sudden change took place. The gin-pits were elbowed aside by the large mines of the financiers."

--from the first page of Sons and Lovers

"Then, satisfied and shattered, fulfilled and destroyed, he went home away from her, drifting vaguely through the darkness, lapsed into the old fire of burning passion."

--Women in Love

All written by the amateur D. H. Lawrence

Anonymous said...

"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, . . . "

If one of the minions would have posted a beginning like that the rest of us would have been saying, "Get rid of some of those "it was"'s please.

I can just hear dave telling the author to prune some of those "it was"'s out of there.

Good times. -JTC

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous 12:18 -- a good opening hook can take any one of a number of forms. But most of all, it has to orient the reader, let him or her know what to expect from the rest of the story.

Not all stories have to begin with relentless action. A great opening sets a tone, states a theme, it lets you know that THIS kind of a story is about to be told and there will be no exchanges or refunds.

Anonymous said...

There's been some discussion of whether a novel must begin with tension, action, the protagonist's conflict.

While these openings are indeed lacking in action, I'd say that they are definitely not lacking in tension.

In the first, the narrator is expressing both a vivid description of the setting and its inhabitants, and his (her?) dislike (or at least disapproval.) I'm assuming (and of course I could be wrong) that the narrator is the main character, so just by this description we get to know a little about the way he / she thinks and sees the world around him / her.

The second has you picturing a forest, but not just any forest. This one is particularly dangerous and populated with poisonous frogs, snakes, army ants, etc. My skin crawls picturing myself here; is that not tension?

The third is somehwat similar. The author is putting you vividly someplace you probably wouldn't want to actually be. It's hot, smelly, slimy. Tension: I'd like to leave, though I'm curious why we're here, of all places.

The fourth may start with something unrelated to the main conflict (or not, I don't think I've read it), but it is again engaging and tense. This opening tells us (or at least reminds us) that even a moment into the future is farther than we can know, that fate will reward us or hand us our asses at its whim and we can do little but ride it out. Might not have a lot to do with the upcoming story, but the author has made me think and feel something uncomfortable yet true. Yep, there is tension here also.

The fifth made me tense because I didn't know what "furze" was.

Okay, all in all I would read on, but I'm not sure I'd say that these action-less openings really show that a good opening can lack for tension, because I think they still mostly have that. Am I wrong?


Anonymous said...

All of which underlines the fact that THERE ARE NO RULES.

Except (1) be literate, and (2) be interesting. And here "literate" has its low-grade definition, as in, "demonstrates that the writer has heard of grammar." Since that's a pretty low hurdle, the only real requirement is that you be interesting.

And a rules-based description of what constitutes "interesting" is completely impossible. That's why writing is an art.

Word verf: hekyiany. A hootenanny at which all of the swear words in the song lyrics are replaced with euphemisms.

Anonymous said...

You can't hold up 19th Century literature as a comparison to today. Standards and competition were markedly different back then. It's like all those annoying bar debates about whether Babe Ruth is a better home run hitter than Barry Bonds. Or those geek debates about whether Kirk is a better captain than Picard. Please, compare apples to apples.

If you're writing a 19th Century novel go ahead and use that kind of opening. And if you're writing down your family tree from ancient times, say "[Name] begat [Name]" a thousand times too.

Rei said...

There's a problem with EE's comments, as of those of several other posters. As Miss Snark is fond of mentioning, many of the "greats" would never get published on today's market were they not "the greats". Even a stunning success from the '60s, were it new today, isn't a guarantee of success. The market used to be a lot more tolerant of flowery language than it is today.

braun said...

You're not wrong - if you stretch the definition of tension to the breaking point.

I'll say it again, tension does not equal interest! Tension comes from an unresolved situation. That can be part of the setting, but in the above passages it's mostly not. Instead they spend time setting tone, mood, atmosphere, etc.

Evil Editor said...

You can't hold up 19th Century literature as a comparison to today.

80 percent of the excerpts were from 20th-century novels. 67 percent if you include A Tale of Two Cities.

And you have no idea how many 19th-century books I looked through just to find two that began with 150 words of description.

Anonymous said...

Number 1--ack. I hate this. That isn't to say it's not good, cause it is quite decently written. There's just nothing I loath reading about more than a bunch of drunken, unwashed Frenchmen. Even freaking cowboys would have been better.

Ooh, I love number 2. The descriptions are vivid and unique--the forest that eats itself. Awesome.

Number three is also well done, though 2 seemed more organic. I didn't like the 99/101 fahrenheit sentence--it's a degree (haha) of scientific detail that I don't find necessary, although there may be some signifigance later.

4 wasn't bad. Again, I'd rather see "just past dawn" than "just past 6 a.m."

5 seemed to drag at the start, but finished up nicely.

I'd likely read on with all of these--except the Gallic tosspots, that is.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and my actual opinions on the writing:

#1. Ack. Hemingway. I hate Hemingway. Does this opinion make me a philistine? Then so be it. But there's just something about Hemingway that always rubs me the wrong way. I really can't explain, since I love good writing and Hemingway undeniably wrote well. But that's just how it is.

#2. Not only would I read on, I did. I picked this book up at random from the "new arrivals" table back when it was a new arrival (1997 or so), casually plunged in, and the next thing I knew I was standing in line at the register. What an unbelievable book, by the way.

#3. I love it.

#4. This one doesn't really do it for me, though I can't explain why.

#5. It's good. I haven't read this one, but I know I'd keep going. (I love Hardy the same way I hate Hemingway. You want a 19th-century book with a great beginning? Go read the first chapter of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Remember, it's old, so you need to give it more than just a page to hook you. :-P )

Anonymous said...

I knew there was a reason I didn't want to actually READ Dickens, but I didn't realize it was because he could make even EE's blog dull. My eyes glazed over & I quit reading halfway through the first sentence. Of course, I think I've read shorter novels ... :-)

Cheryl said...


aly said...

EE, I think I accidentallly hit the "publish" button twice on my last entry, so please disregard and just publish one (if I pass the screening). Sorry! Don't bother publishing this comment either, unless you just want to up your quota (which you certainly don't need to).

-a devoted minion

none said...

Talking of 'it wases', earlier this month I wrote an E-Prime version of the opening to A Tale of Two Cities, as part of my insane rant, I mean cogent argument, against the idea that the verb 'to be' should be eliminated from fiction writing.

Let's see...

The best of times existed alongside the worst of times, and the age of wisdom alongside the age of foolishness, the epoch of belief alongside the epoch of incredulity, the season of Light right next to the season of Darkness, spring hoped while winter despaired, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we all went direct to Heaven, we all went direct the other way--in short, the period so far resembled the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on us regarding it, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

(anon#4 (I think you're #4), you could just take a peek at David Copperfield, which has the most wonderful evocations of childhood in it, before you dismiss Dickens altogether)

Evil Editor said...

aly said...
EE, I think I accidentallly hit the "publish" button twice on my last entry,

Not sure you hit it at all, as this is the only one that I received.

Anonymous said...

To add to Buffysquirrel regarding Dickens:

Try Bleak House, with all that fabulous fog and the enigmatic Lady Deadlock, or Our Mutual Friend, with all that evocative garbage. (Literally: the central symbolic object in the story is an immense heap of trash.) Both of them open beautifully, and both of them (once you're used to the style) become page-turners quickly enough. Dickens was writing for a magazine audience; he knew a thing or two about holding their interest.

Bleak House, in particular, is well worth a read.

Writers should read as much as we can get our hands on, and as many different kinds of writing as we can get our hands on. And Dickens is still around on the bookshelves because, guess what, he could really write.

(I write science fiction, by the way. And here I am talking about Dickens.)

Anonymous said...

I recently dumped the entire first two chapters of my novel (except for the first paragraph, which was a brief flashback) in order to comply with the neverending advice from editors, writing tutors, etc. to "start with the action". What it's meant is that chapter 2 now has to include all sorts of background info in order to explain "what the hell just happened" - info that I'd previously woven into the deleted two chapters to set the scene. To avoid an infodump I had to cut back much of the detail, eliminate three characters and remove an entire subplot that affects every subsequent chapter.

I've read too many recent novels that don't start with action to believe it's "necessary", but since I'm a first-timer trying to catch the attention of agents who often only ask for five pages, if that, I guess I'm playing it safe.

(I submitted my query for the Evil One's pleasure a few weeks ago, made some changes and queried some agents - so far, three requests for partials and one for the full.) (Thanks, EE.)

Anonymous said...

1. I probably wouldn't read on, although it wasn't bad.

2. Wow! I would definitely read on! What a fascinating, vivid description. This opening gives me faith that the writer is capable (and likely) to deliver something fabulous.

3. I would probably read on, in that this describes a pretty intriguing place, reasonably vividly.

So it was surprising to me that Philip K. Dick wrote this bit, because I haven't liked anything of his thus far.

4. No. I was confused, rather than interested. It sounds like the writer is trying hard to be deep, and apparently I'm not sufficiently deep (or patient) to enjoy wading through the result.

5. No, but I might read a bit farther just to be sure, simply because it's old, and slower beginnings were more common back then.

Kanani said...

This is an outstanding and wise post, EE.
I once sat in on a workshop taught by a crime novel author. She and I are good friends but our approach is different and governed by who we are. She likes the fast action: someone dies, gets maimed, is missing or searching on the very first page. It works for her.

Those who were searching for a style, took her advice and adhered to it. It worked for some, but not for others.

Personally, I think it's the influence of TV and movies that are behind this approach. The two hour movie, the 30 second commercial. Yes, it works for some writers and some books. But not all, especially in the literary genre in which for many, the scenery acts as an important backdrop which influences mood, thought, and action.

It's impossible for everyone to do the same since we vary so widely. When looking at work of 150 words, I tend to look at how the writer has strung the language together, to give feedback on whether the writer has conveyed the imagery correctly (and has he or she intended). But I really can't get into plot or conflict, as those are revealed bit by bit. The novel lends itself nicely to an evolution of character, motivation and desire.

Anonymous said...

May I refer you to the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House"?

Anonymous said...

mark said... 1. Ack. Hemingway. I hate Hemingway. Does this opinion make me a philistine?

I said: Number 1--ack. I hate this.

My name is Kis, and I hate Hemingway. Please, Mark, come in, have a seat, and introduce yourself to the rest of us.

McKoala said...

I think that I often urge people to get to the action because I'm not prepared to read bland writing without some kind of instant story gratification to drag me in. If the writing is good then I can hang on a while! So let's look at these and see if I mean what I say...

1. Yes, I'd read on. This is clearly building toward something. Description with atmosphere and meaning.

2. Yes. Having said that, if this were from a minion I might be urging them to cut some of the adjectives. The word 'overdone' might occur...

3. I think so. I'd need another paragraph for this one.

4. Yes, but I want action and I want it soon.

5. Can't answer this one as I'm not coming at it for the first time - but I often find Hardy frustratingly slow.

This would be an interesting exercise to do with books that were published in the last ten years or so, rather than these. Would we find as many descriptive beginnings?

Evil Editor said...

This would be an interesting exercise to do with books that were published in the last ten years or so, rather than these.

#2 and #4 were published in the past 8 years.

McKoala said...

OK, so now you know that I had no idea what they were...

Anonymous said...

EE, thanks for doing these. Here are my reactions:

#1 Since I love Paris, I'd keep reading. I also liked the first line, having no problem with "Then"
#2 My favorite of the five, just terrific stuff, draws me in
#3 The description didn't engage me, although I did like the short, second paragraph.
# 4 Great stuff, I like the fat, confident ball, and the way the description was tied into the notion of time and sight
# 5 Oooh, Hardy

none said...

EE, just change your name to Canute...

Anonymous said...

For the sake of clarity, we should perhaps remind everyone that ...he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home... meant something different when this piece was written. OK?

Anonymous said...

Dickens is Dickens is Dickens and he's Dickens for a reason. At one point, I wouldn't have made my worst enemy read anything by him, but then you look at the sheer brilliance of his tone and style. His opening banter in A Tale of Two Cities provides the perfect dichotomy for not only the setting, but for his characters. Dickens is ripe with the rich/poor paradox, so his "mundane" opening is quite ingenious. Whether you'd read on or not is irrelevant. As to the other openings, #4 has to be one of my favorite openings of all time, and I'm not even a Stephen King fan. I'd bet my eye teeth Peter Straub wrote the opening. Who uses the word "vagaries" anyway. Amazing writing; far from "boorrring." Kingsolver's piece is good as an opening, but her detail gets much better as the novel goes on. I'm not a Hemingway fan, so I found his opening a bit trite. Dick is in a class of his own, and far better description than any Bradbury or Asimov (with the exception of Anthody) I've ever read. Repetition has its place in literary writing, which Hardy has definitely mastered. Good description though. Overall, I think editors are overrated anyway, second only to film critics. They have your b$%@s in their hands, and most are puppets of a much larger lifeforce anyway. Too much power is not a good thing, and many a great writer has lost that battle to an embittered editor who never made it as a writer.