“I cannot write an essay, a short story, or even a novel until I know my first line.” That’s the first line of Ann Hood’s essay in The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House. (I highly recommend this book, as well as The Writer’s Notebook I. They’re chock-full of accessible and helpful advice.)
Hood goes on to write:
The beginning introduces the protagonist and his or her conflict. It creates tone, point of view, setting, voice. It introduces themes. Or, as Ted Kooser explains in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, the opening is the hand you extend to your reader. When the writer John Irving told me that he always knew his first line before he began writing, because by knowing his first line he then knew his last line, I understood yet another burden of the beginning: it puts into motion the events that will drive the story to its resolution. And that resolution is often the inverse of the opening.
The opening is the hand you extend to your reader. I love that!
Hood suggests reading the beginnings of a number of favorite novels. She does just that and helpfully categorizes them as: Introduction, An Old Saw, Character Description, A Setting, In Media Res, Facts, A Truism or Philosophical Idea, Dialogue, Overture, and Otherworld.
I immediately pulled a few books from my bookshelves, more or less at random, and found the following hands extended in greeting. Although they fit into different categories (some start in the middle of the action, some offer an introduction, some begin with dialogue, etc.), each beginning has a clear and unique voice.
What’s your favorite beginning?
I WRITE THIS sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring — I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle
ON MONDAYS, WEDNESDAYS and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.
The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles. She did not rap Kay’s knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate. The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name. Kay had given him the nickname. Kay was not called anything but Kay, as he was too dignified to have a nickname and would have flown into a passion if anybody had tried to give him one. The governess had red hair and some mysterious wound from which she derived a lot of prestige by showing it to all the women of the castle, behind closed doors. It was believed to be where she sat down, and to have been caused by sitting on some armour at a picnic by mistake. Eventually she offered to show it to Sir Ector, who was Kay’s father, had hysterics and was sent away. They found out afterwards that she had been in a lunatic hospital for three years.
T. H. White, The Once and Future King
CITIZENS, gather ’round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors— wherever your loudspeaker is located, turn up the volume!
In local news, our Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was seen offering on-the-spot guidance to the engineers deepening the Taedong River channel. While the Dear Leader lectured to the dredge operators, many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide our Reverend General some much needed shade on a hot day. Also to report is a request from Pyongyang’s Minister of Public Safety, who asks that while pigeon-snaring season is in full swing, trip wires and snatch loops be placed out of the reach of our youngest comrades. And don’t forget, citizens: the ban on stargazing is still in effect.
Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son
Hobbling home under a mackerel sky, I came upon a group of children. They were tossing their toys in the air, by turns telling a story and acting it too. A play about a pretty girl who was scorned by her two stepsisters. In distress, the child disguised herself to go to a ball. There, the great turnabout: She met a prince who adored her and romanced her. Her happiness eclipsed the plight of her stepsisters, whose ugliness was the cause of high merriment.
I listened without being observed, for the aged are often invisible to the young.
I thought: How like some ancient story this all sounds.
Gregory Maguire. Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
Pat Barker, Regeneration
At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now, if you please.
Franny Billingsley, Chime
It was dusk—winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.
Snow lay thick, too, upon the roof of Willoughby Chase, the great house that stood on an open eminence in the heart of the wold. But for all that, the Chase looked an inviting home— a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herringbone brick was bright and well-cared-for, its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenelated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the somber sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.
Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
“So now get up.”
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.
Blood from the gash on his head— which was his father’s first effort— is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded; but if he squints sideways, with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unraveling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.
“So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you, an eel?” his parent asks. He trots backward, gathers pace, and aims another kick.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
WE WERE FRACTIOUS AND overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled. We loved free bagels in the morning. They happened all too infrequently. Our benefits were astonishing in comprehensiveness and quality of care. Sometimes we questioned whether they were worth it. We thought moving to India might be better, or going back to nursing school. Doing something with the handicapped or working with our hands. No one ever acted on these impulses, despite their daily, sometimes hourly contractions. Instead we met in conference rooms to discuss the issues of the day.
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End
Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block? Of course I can explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower block. I’m not a bloody idiot. I can explain it because it wasn’t inexplicable: It was a logical decision, the product of proper thought. It wasn’t even very serious thought, either. I don’t mean it was whimsical—I just mean that it wasn’t terribly complicated, or agonized. Put it this way: Say you were, I don’t know, an assistant bank manager in Guildford. And you’d been thinking of emigrating, and then you were offered the job of managing a bank in Sydney. Well, even though it’s a pretty straightforward decision, you’d still have to think for a bit, wouldn’t you? You’d at least have to work out whether you could bear to move, whether you could leave your friends and colleagues behind, whether you could uproot your wife and kids. You might sit down with a bit of paper and draw up a list of pros and cons. You know:
CONS: aged parents, friends, golf club
PROS: more money, better quality of life (house with pool, barbecue, etc.), sea, sunshine, no left-wing councils banning “Baa, Baa Black Sheep,” no EEC directives banning British sausages, etc.
It’s no contest, is it? The golf club! Give me a break. Obviously your aged parents give you pause for thought, but that’s all it is—a pause, and a brief one, too. You’d be on the phone to the travel agent’s within ten minutes.
Well, that was me. There simply weren’t enough regrets, and lots and lots of reasons to jump. The only things on my “cons” list were the kids, but I couldn’t imagine Cindy letting me see them again anyway. I haven’t got any aged parents, and I don’t play golf. Suicide was my Sydney. And I say that with no offense to the good people of Sydney intended.
Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down\