Beginnings

I think the opening of a story or novel is the single most important part. Well, that’s a dumb thing to say if you’re thinking in terms of getting something published. At one point in my checkered career I had access to the slush pile at Holt, Rinehart & Winston in New York. Hmm, thought I, pretty interesting opportunity. I picked up the ms. off the top and started read. With each paragraph, with each page, I kept waiting and hoping it would get better. It didn’t. Lesson 1: it never gets any better than the beginning. Lesson 2: you don’t have to read ten pages; if the first page isn’t good, the next 300 won’t be good, either.

So: openings. What makes a good beginning? I’m sure everyone has his own ideas. Here’s mine.
Take a look at this opening:

On an exceptionally hot evening early in July, a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, toward K. bridge.

He had successfully avoided meeting his landlady on the staircase. His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storied house and was more like a cupboard than a room. The landlady who provided him with garret, dinners, and attendance, lived on the floor below, and every time he went out he was obliged to pass her kitchen, the door of which invariably stood open. And each time he passed, the young man had a sick, frightened feeling, which made him scowl and feel ashamed. He was hopelessly in debt to his landlady, and was afraid of meeting her.

And another:

The day broke gray and dull. The clouds hung heavily, and there was a rawness in the air that suggested snow. A woman servant came into a room in which a child was sleeping and drew the curtains. She glanced mechanically at the house opposite, a stucco house with a portico, and went to the child’s bed.
“Wake up, Philip,” she said.
She pulled down the bed-clothes, took him in her arms, and carried him downstairs. He was only half awake.
“Your mother wants you,” she said.
She opened the door of a room on the floor below and took the child over to a bed in which a woman was lying. It was his mother. She stretched out her arms, and the child nestled by her side. He did not ask why he had been awakened. The woman kissed his eyes, and with thin, small hands felt the warm body through his white flannel nightgown. She pressed him closer to herself.
“Are you sleepy, darling?” she said.
Her voice was so weak that it seemed to come already from a great distance. The child did not answer, but smiled comfortably. He was very happy in the large, warm bed, with those soft arms about him. He tried to make himself smaller still as he cuddled up against his mother, and he kissed her sleepily. In a moment he closed his eyes and was fast asleep. The doctor came forward and stood by the bed-side.
“Oh, don’t take him away yet,” she moaned.

Both openings do two things that I think are absolutely essential: establish the plight of the main character in a way that draws the reader in. But just the fact of showing (as opposed to telling about) the plight from the character’s pov tends to accomplish this. This assumes that the plight the writer has chosen is sufficiently serious and of a nature and with a character that is appealing.

The first is, of course, “Crime and Punishment.” The second is W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.”
What’s interesting about them is that they both start the same way, with the day and a weather report of a sort. I think up until the media revolution in the second half of the 20th Century this was a much more typical way to begin a novel. But one more interesting thing about this technique is that it is also the conventional way of starting scene in a film: first the overall establishing shot, then either zoom or cut to something more specific within that overview. How many movies do you see, even today, that start with the pan across a cityscape or a countryside or a moving shot going somewhere? All the transitions in the TV show Seinfeld were exteriors of the outsides of buildings. It’s a convention, a shorthand, like pronouns.
Dostoevsky makes one simple, straight-forward and definite point about his main character. No digressions.
Maugham’s example is far more complicated, and I haven’t really included enough of it, but in the next few paragraphs the sick woman in the bed feels Philip’s feet, especially his one club foot. And then she dies, and the main character of the novel is Philip, whose plight is that he is growing up an orphan with a club foot.
In terms of technique, though, the really interesting thing about Maugham’s opening is how he shifts the pov around, and he does it so deftly that the reader never really notices or cares — he does it without a single jarring note to the reader. First there’s the weather report, completely objective, author’s pov. Then a woman servant comes into a room where a child is sleeping. Author’s pov. Then the servant looks out the window and this justifies the author’s putting in the architectural details. It would be quite awkward to stick in anything about stucco houses and porticos without the servant’s look. So we have a bit from the servant’s pov, then we have a bit from the sick mother’s pov, and then we have a bit from Philip’s pov. Just like that. And it works perfectly smoothly. Actually, it’s even more complicated than this, because in the next paragraph or two we get the doctor’s pov.
It seems to me that Maugham’s genius in this is his feeling for providing just the information that the reader wants, and supplying it just before the reader realizes he wants it. So that when the next sentence does arrive, it gives the reader a sense of movement in a direction that makes perfect sense. It would be so easy to write a scene like this and make a complete hash of it. Can that kind of sensitivity be learned? I have no idea. Like most things, it can probably be improved with application.
I think it’s the fundamentals are what’s important, especially in the opening. Simplicity, directness, showing clearly in a dramatic way the point you want to make, the direction you’re going.

Maybe you don’t have to know the point and the direction when you first write it down, but I think you certainly have to be working from that pov when you go back and edit your stuff.

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