This is a pinch hitter edition as SensibleShoes deals with real life.
I've been thinking a lot about beginnings of novels, mainly my own deficiencies in the area. One of my college professors told me a million years ago that I used "warm-up pitches" for three or four sentences before I really got rolling. "In media res!" he said. But the advice and time haven't laid a glove on my infinite loquacity. I just can't seem drop the reader into the fiery furnace of the action; I belong to the gradual-approach, scenic-route, let's-stop-for-lunch school of writing.
Sensho has addressed beginnings, but it's been a while, and then she talked about first sentences. Hopeless. I'm not ready. Let's try first paragraphs.
In the spirit of Hermione Granger, I took to the Muggle library (internet) for advice.
Introduce your protagonist! Introduce a catalyst or conflict! Hint at the protagonist's core need! Have a hook! one website exhorted. This seems to reflect the modern consensus, and I bet Sensho would like it.
Another took a more mechanistic approach a la Novel Writing For Dummies: (1) Decide what will happen in the book; (2) Decide who the characters are and make a list of them; (3) Make an outline; and (4) Write the first paragraph using all these decisions.
A third, and my personal favorite, said "Meh. First paragraphs aren't all catchy. And they don't share common characteristics. They're just good if I say so."
Bouyed (don't have to be catchy!) but confused (how can this one blog guy decide on everyone's first paragraphs?), I turned to Literature. And found that Everyone on The Internet Is Right (in reverse order)! Check these out:
1. The Meh (first sentences that don't hurl you anywhere like a thunderbolt):
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.Admit it. The Lord of The Rings begins with a whimper.
To a lesser extent, so does Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone:
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.Though by Deathly Hallows, Rowling had certainly become a fan of:
2. The Hook
The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands pointing at each other's chests: then, recognising each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and set off, side by side, in the same direction.A more subtle, and famous, Hook:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.3. And then there are the ones that reach out from the book and grab you by the throat and drag you in, the Fully Monty ones with the protagonist, the catalyst, the conflict, the core need etc.
Here's a 50 year old one that still scares the pants off strong men, from The Haunting of Hill House, with the house itself as the main character:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone…Here's a more recent version, from just-published Jinx:
In the Urwald you grew up fast or not at all. By the time Jinx was six he had learned to live quietly and carefully, squeezed into the spaces left by other people, even though the hut he lived in with his stepparents belonged to him. He had inherited it after his father died of werewolves and his mother was carried off by elves.It seems to come down, as so many things do, to the immortal words of Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within a great opening paragraph; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."
But there is one thing that all the great ones have, IMO. They set the tone of the novel that follows, for better or worse: Ironic detachment in Austen, ponderous whimsicality in Tolkien, the unimaginable scariness of the unknown in Jackson. Even more than the protagonist, the catalyst, and the hook, it's the tone that sucks the reader into the world of the novel. The echo of that first paragraph of Pride And Prejudice reverberates throughout the book, and the same for the others (except Tolkien added Orcs).
Have at it!
Write the first paragraph of Your Novel, involving one of these loglines:
*Belinda learns that her rival Adelaide is plotting to marry Belinda’s beloved Lord Postlethwaite-Praxleigh (pronounced Puppy) in order to get her hands on his jeweled sash.
*A callow youth must find the Jewel of Togwogmagog in order to save the kingdom, aided by his Stout Companion.
*Goodwife Thankful Goodheart feeds her hens and minds her own business until that awful Agnes Addlepate starts causing trouble in the village.
*A stranger comes to the Wiltchester Dragon Farm, wanting to buy a baby dragon. Why does ace dragon breeder Jocasta Entwhistle sense trouble?
*Private investigator Celia Spunk's client wants her to find the Chainsmoke Killer. He turns out to be closer than anyone could have imagined.