This week we asked our participants to talk about favorite openings of stories and novels…
Here’s what they said…
I’ve said many times that Stephanie Burgis’s Kat books are an absolute delight. They’re set in Regency England, where magic is real, but viewed as most improper by Polite Society. Proper has never stopped twelve-year-old Kat Stephenson, however. Imagine a cup of frothy hot chocolate, served in an elegant cup, with a dollop of cream–sweet, but with an edge of that dark chocolate bitterness–a perfect antidote to cold November days. The opening paragraph to Kat, Incorrigible, the first book in the trilogy, is that first sip that tells right away what a treat you’re in for:
I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy and set off to save my family from impending ruin.
I made it almost to the end of my front garden.
I love this opening because we get a frothy chocolatey cup of voice and humor and a clear signal of the adventures to come.
THE KING OF ATTOLIA
All four books in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series are wonderful, and I could quote you entire scenes that made me laugh, or cry, or both as I kept reading just to see what the main character, Eugenides, would do next. But if I were to pick the best opening among these books, I would choose the third one in the series, The King of Attolia. In this one, we step away from Eugenides’s viewpoint to Costis, a young soldier in the Queen’s guard. Costis is honest and loyal and earnest–perhaps too earnest. He’s the perfect counterbalance to the outrageous Eugenides, and this opening scene shows us the new King of Attolia through the eyes of someone who has every reason to hate the man. Except he doesn’t hate him. He’s angry, yes, and frustrated, but Costis can see beyond his own misery to the king’s difficult circumstances. The first chapter is like a foreshadowing of the rest of the book, with the events and dangers and conflicts writ small. (Or at least, smaller.) Once more, Gen proves himself a master trickster, even if we don’t see the entire trick until the very last chapter.
MASTER AND COMMANDER
The first scene in Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian, is not just the opening to the novel, it’s the introduction to a twenty-book series. The first time I picked up this book, I was entranced by this scene. The prose, the characters, the shifting perspective, the perfectly chosen details that place the reader in an early 19th century music room, crowded with British naval officers, on the island of Minorca–everything works together as perfectly as the musicians themselves. Having re-read the series a dozen times since then, I’ve come to appreciate that scene even more, because as we meet the two main characters for the first time, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin encounter each other for the first time as well, and that somewhat contentious encounter not only gives us a sketch of them in the moment, it also gives hints of their long story ahead.
I’m most definitely a mood reader. Sometimes I want an action-packed urban fantasy, or a book to share with the kids, or something completely different. It’s not uncommon for me to start about 5 books at once, reading a bit from each until I hit the one I can’t put down. I have so many favorites, but when I thought about my favorite opening scenes, these 3 first came to mind.
In middle school we were assigned The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I enjoyed it so much, I grabbed The Illustrated Man soon after. Now, I can remember enjoying it, but everything in between the prologue and the epilogue is lost somewhere in memory. The beginning and ending, however, are perfect bookends in foreshadowing and developing an ominous tone. When the Illustrated Man tells the narrator “You’ll be sorry you asked me to stay,” I still get a shiver up my spine and start hearing screams of “stranger danger.” At the same time, I’m as entranced as the narrator and want to know more, even if I also want to turn away at times. It kept an almost-teenager turning pages the first time I read it, and still stays with me.
Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews was my introduction back to the fun, action-packed goodness of urban fantasy. We open with Kate Daniels sitting alone at her table, drinking Boone’s Farm. The magic dies, the TV starts working (it’s part of a very cool world, just go with it), and she senses something bad in her house. It scurries across the ceiling, a grotesque creature “Like a thin layer of wax meted over an anatomy model.” It’s a vampire and Kate throws a dagger at it’s throat. Then Ghastek, the vampire’s navigator (it’s a very interesting, not sexy take on vampires; again, go with it), chastises Kate for being inconsiderate and says “Now I have to feed him.”
Kate’s response, “It’s a reflex. Hear a bell, get food. See an undead, throw a knife. Same thing, really.” She then learns that her guardian is dead and thus begins a journey that is still progressing. This intro got me with the non-sparkly vampires, strange world, and humor balanced with sobering danger. I was hooked (and still am).
Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis – This is a middle grade book that I fell in love with at the opening lines: “I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin. I made it almost to the end of my front garden.” Kat does not fit the mold of your usual historical heroine. You know from the start that she is not afraid to take risks, but also that she does not exactly succeed at everything either. She is brash, cunning, makes many mistakes, and also has her own magic, all the ingredients for a very fun and engaging tale. This book has become one that I’ve gifted more than a few times, and it all started with two lines that captivated me. The young readers I’ve given the book to have been entranced as well.
The purpose of an opening line in a story is to invite the reader into a new world. But when the story is a science fiction story, a fantasy, a ghost story, or any other tale of wonder, the purpose is to lure him into a world of strangeness.
The art of injecting strangeness into a tale of wonder is like cutting a diamond: a proper stroke will bring out the brilliance, and an awkward stroke will shatter the diamond.
Let me offer two examples, in an opening line, of a single strange word or phrase that tells the reader he is opening a curious door into a world not his own:
“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.” — Fellowship of the Ring, JRR Tolkien
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” — Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
Such is when it is done well. Invented words should have invented roots: something that implies the word grew up from the world. The fact that hobbits live to one hundred and eleven years is peculiar, and something of their rustic quaintness is implied by the neologism “eleventy-one.” If it is not something country gentry say, it sounds like it should be.
Again, the fact that the clocks strike thirteen hints that the future world of 1984 has gone to a decimal dial, with all the unpleasant associations of revolutionaries who revise calendars, making it Thermidor of Year One, and so on. It is done poorly when the newly-coined word has no roots and tells you nothing about the world involved.
And, of course, the other purpose is to arrest the reader’s attention, provoke his curiosity, tell him just enough of the new and strange world to allure him.
At times with his done curtly, wryly, directly:
“Marley was dead, to begin with.” A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
This establishes the spooky mood, slightly tongue-in-cheek, of the famous Dickens’ tale. It is ghost story, to be sure, but one where the ghosts perform the exorcism on the mortal, not the other way around.
“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” Blood Rites by Jim Butcher
This establishes character, namely, the personality of our protagonist, a strongly pyrokenetic and mildly pyromaniac wizard from Chicago, with the punch of a well-timed one -liner.
“On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.” — Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia
This establishes setting, for it puts across the personality of the hyperkinetic and violent world.
And adroit gambit for an opening line is to introduce an ambiguity, and oddity, which will resonant with any ambiguities present in the rest of the book. Again, two examples, both of which establish theme:
“Once upon a time there was a Martian by the name of Valentine Michael Smith.” — Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
The contrast of the oddest of oddities, a Martian, and the most quotidian of names, Smith is here on display. The reader’s eye is pulled as if magnetically to the next line to discover how a Martian can have so very terrestrial a name. Also present is the slightest hint of one of the philosophical points of the novel: Smith is a not a man from Mars, for he is not a man at all, since by upbringing he is an alien. In other words, this story asks what it means to be human, and that opening line serves to establish the question to be asked.
“Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.” ~ Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
This contrast may be harder for the modern reader, raised on reading twitters and combox flamewars, to spot at first, but the oddity of the spelling errors and the command of the doctor to write down thoughts and experiences forms a contrast central to the story, which is of a man undergoing an intelligence augmentation experiment. This tale asks, if man is an intelligent animal, what it means to be intelligent?
In my humble opinion, however, the best opening lines are ones that do more than establish character or setting, mood or theme. Here are two examples that establish what I can only call the spirit of the story, and from the very first lines of these famous tales, the living force of the personality, a subtle and unmistakable, informs the opening.
“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”— The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.” —Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe,
Here words fail. If you, dear reader, cannot hear the strange and echoing depth of wonder and wisdom promised (and, in my opinion, richly fulfilled) by the adroit mastery of implied by the archaic and pregnant word presentment or the richness implied by the deceptively simple statement that Truth is a matter of imagination, my words cannot aid you. My only task is to invite you to read these classics if you have not already, to envy you the delight of a first encounter with Leguin or Wolfe, to step aside with a bow, and fall silent.
Some opening scenes are forever memorable for their first lines. For instance, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” (Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier) or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” (The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien). As a writer, it’s impossible for me to deny the allure of a terrific opening line. I want to write something like that, something which immortalizes me, that people will quote for decades to come. Of course, there’s the minor detail that the rest of the story has to support that line, or your work ends up as a watchword for dubious prose stylings. “It was a dark and stormy night,” anyone? (from Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton – and there’s a lot more sentence after this opening phrase, just saying).
And, of course, there are a lot of stories and books out there that are overall great reads but don’t have terrific beginnings, at least for me. The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, starts off slowly with a scene about a hobbit, his upcoming birthday party and his hobbit village, and I suspect a few readers skip on to the more exciting parts. But that style of opening also follows other early fantasies in establishing a sense of place before launching the action. Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) opens with a paragraph about a small country and its landscape and surroundings, which include a border with Fairyland, though “there had been no intercourse between the two countries for many centuries.” You know that border will be the important one, but you don’t know why or how, not yet. And only you know whether or not that’s enough to engage your curiosity and interest enough to keep reading, which is the true test of any opening scene.
In thinking about the questions for this Mind Meld, I found that I had different standards for a favorite opening based on short vs. long fiction and which subgenre the works fell into. I like the slow, careful scene-setting in novels like those of Mirrlees and Tolkien, which are on my perennial reread list, but I also like the “jump right in and figure out it” approach to getting pulled into a story. One of my favorite short stories is Samuel Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah” which begins with the line “And came down in Paris” and goes on to describe the antics of a party of spacers on shore leave who aren’t anything like the spacers you’ve encountered before in science fiction.
Fritz Leiber took a more poetic approach in kicking off his story “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar,” using lines that set the tone for another tale in which nothing is quite as it seems: “Through the mazy avenues and alleys of the great city of Lankhmar, Night was a-slink, though not yet grown tall enough to whirl her black-studded cloak across the sky…” Another writer, Liz Williams, captures the jump right in effect perfectly in the opening to her story, “The Banquet of the Lords of the Night” – “Severin de Rais hurries through thistledown light, with the dangerous parcel clutched close to his heart, hoping he won’t turn a corner and come face to face with an Unpriest.”
In contrast, Joanna Russ, in another favorite story of mine, hearkens back to the older style of fantasy beginnings in her story, “A Game of Vlet,” which starts with “In Ourdh, near the sea, on a summer’s night so hot and still that the marble blocks of the Governor’s mansion sweated as if the earth itself was respiring through the stone…” and goes on to describe the capture of a group of unlikely revolutionaries and what happens next.
That need to find out what happens next is why I go on reading that scene and the next and the one after it. When Connie Willis opens her time travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral with a protagonist who’s looking for a “bishop’s bird stump,” I want to know what one of those is and why the protagonist wants it. When Lois McMaster Bujold starts Paladin of Souls with her protagonist, Ista, watching a mourning party leave her castle and contemplating her own resulting social imprisonment, I want to know more about her. And what she’s going to do to escape her prison because I’ve read a lot of Bujold and I know Ista is going to engineer an escape of some sort and she’s going to do it in a way that demonstrates her agency as a character. That’s one of the beauties of reading multiple stories and books by favorite authors: you are confident that whatever they drop you into by way of a story, it will go somewhere interesting with characters that you care about.
But most of the time you don’t know that and you’re off on an adventure with new authors and unknown characters and that’s as it should be, too. Every piece of comfort reading that I have read and reread over the years began as something new, new worlds, new characters. Because I followed where those beginnings led me, I got comfortable with the journey and it became familiar and beloved.
I’ll close out with a couple of very different favorites that I hope that readers will discover. God Stalk, Book 1 of P.C. Hodgell’s fantasy series The Kencyrath, opens with the protagonist, Jame, racing up a series of hills from unknown perils to reach the refuge of the city of Tai-tastigon: “The hills rolled up to the moon on slopes of wind-bent grass, crested, swept down into tangled brier shadows.” I do like me some lovely imagery. But I also like wit and a quirky story, so I’ll conclude with the opening line of the epistolary fantasy novel, Sorcery and Cecilia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer: “Dearest Kate, It is so dreadfully flat here since you’ve been gone, and it only makes it worse to imagine all the things I shall be missing.” The letter then goes on to mention a thwarted London Season for the letter writer due to an incident with a goat. When I read this the first time, I was immediately hooked. Because who doesn’t want to read about a London Season thwarted by an incident with a goat? Turn the page, literally or figuratively, and read on.
The first book that popped into my mind when I read this question was THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898) by H. G. Wells. After all, it features one of the most powerful first lines in English-language fiction:
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
Wells does so many things in this single (albeit long) sentence: he turns the tables on humanity, imagining otherworldly eyes watching us as we go about our business blissfully unaware; and he forces us to reconsider our place in the universe and the fact that, to Martian eyes, we are but “transient creatures” milling about under a microscope.
The power of this novel’s opening lines resides in the sense of impending danger and chilling suspense that Wells creates. We’re pulled out of our complacency and mental rut and faced with, not just the fact that intelligent life exists on other planets, but that it is threatening to us as well.
A very different kind of opening, yet just as powerful, marks Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1924) (which some of you may know as my all time favorite book ever the end period). Here, the tale of a young German man visiting his cousin in an Alpine sanatorium for TB patients begins almost leisurely, as if Mann’s trying to soothe and even hypnotize the reader into passivity. The fact that he calls the protagonist, Hans Castorp, an “ordinary” man, who plans to visit his cousin for only three-weeks- three and no more- signals, however, that Castorp is anything but ordinary, and he certainly will not be staying for just three weeks.
The journey to the sanatorium is contained within the novel’s first few pages, giving the reader a sense of movement and energy that comes to a dead stop when Hans reaches his destination. And it is that long pause which allows Mann to observe the social dynamics in a retreat for the ill and wealthy at the beginning of the 20th century.
Both Wells and Mann exploit the reader’s vulnerability at that moment when the novel begins. We don’t know what to expect, and so we read the opening lines more carefully, or several times, to get a sense of the world into which we’ve stepped and the unspoken rules of how to read it. It is this deft manipulation of suspense and anticipation that drew me quickly in these two masterpieces.
I’m going purely off memory here. What book openings stayed with me the longest? All right, the first that comes to mind is The Black Company by Glen Cook. He starts with his physician-soldier, Croaker, treating a fellow mercenary for stomach problems and from there takes us seamlessly into a world of violence and treachery. I think that may be one of the best opening chapters in all of fantasy.
Next, I’m thinking of Dragonlance. The first book: Dragons of Autumn Twilight. We start with a barmaid who is surprised when an old man arrives and starts rearranging the furniture for a very special party that will kick off a grand adventure. Then we get to meet the heroes as they assemble at their old stomping grounds, none of them aware that their world is about to change forever.
Of course, that one is very similar to another fantastic opening: Gandalf visiting Bilbo in The Hobbit to prepare for a special dinner party…
Lastly, I want to mention the opening of the Conan saga, as the young Cimmerian is running from a pack of hungry wolves, soon to find a refuge (he thinks) and face the Thing on the Throne. The prose is so red-blooded and vibrant with an edge of eerie.
Those are my picks.
I like it when books just jump right into it. Don’t worry, I’m a savvy reader and can catch up to the story, no matter where the author chooses to start the book. I don’t have to be eased into it, with a place, a time, a main character. Nope, just toss me into the middle of conversations, the action of an event. I don’t need to be coddled. I like things messy at the beginning. I don’t need all the answers right away. With that in mind, here are three examples of books and me hitting it off from the first page.
Grim humor quirks my eyebrow and has me reading further. Kory M. Shrum’s Dying for a Living starts out with:
“Good morning, Mr. Reynolds.” I used my best sing-song voice. “Are you ready to die today?”
“I don’t think we should stand so close to him,” said Ally and pulled me away from the bed. “And don’t talk with your mouth full.”
Obviously there is more going on here, a story that came before this one, and I want to learn about it by reading this story. The humor, the impending death, and the hint of familiarity is a good mix and had me intrigued from the beginning.
Culture clashes often work well on me, getting me hooked from the beginning. And by culture clash, I mean something that isn’t in tune with modern-day American culture. For instance: Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth starts out with, ‘The small boys came early to the hanging.’ Kids at an execution, and not just any execution, but a hanging (which can take over 20 minutes if the victim must slowly choke to death). And the boys not only show up, but are early. So of course I need to know why they are early. This line has not only hooked me once, but three times in my life.
Finally, I am drawn to beauty. I love the lyrical. All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear starts off with: ‘Eiledon is bejeweled in its towers and its arcologies, glass and steel and chrome, elegant masterpieces of architecture and technomancy. There are citizens that never leave these hothouse spires. Along the riverfront, buildings are older, solid stone and brick, bristling with gargoyles and fantastic with murals and relief carvings and stained glass.’
Eiledon sounds like a mysterious place that holds wonder, magic, and very possibly, good food. I want to visit.
The start of a book needs to do two things for me: Introduce something about the world the story is set in and interest me in the book’s premise and/or character(s). There are some beginnings that stick with me because they are exciting and action-packed. There are some beginnings that hook me because their premise or introduction is just that interesting.
On the action-packed side of things, I remember Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Man Who Never Missed by Steve Perry. The first chapter of Snow Crash made a pizza delivery so exciting that I almost missed a plane flight. Unfortunately, because it was so action-packed, the rest of the book was a letdown. In The Man Who Never Missed, the opening line is “Death came for him through the trees.” It was a promise of action and interest that followed through for the whole novel. I enjoyed the book and the entire series by Steve Perry.
On the quieter, intriguing side of things, I think of Stephen King novels, and remember the openings from Dune by Frank Herbert and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. With Stephen King, you know his novels will begin with an almost pastoral setting to introduce the characters and/or the monster. You know what you’re getting into since he writes sprawling epics. I can sit back and let the story unfold.
With Dune, the opening line, “A beginning is a time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” and then the introduction of the character Paul with the line, “In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”, I was hooked and wanted to know more. That was all I needed to sit down and settle in. I understood what kind of book Dune was.
With Old Man’s War, the opening line, “On my 75th birthday, I did two things: I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” As a military brat, I was intrigued. The rest of the chapter wasn’t action-packed but it was fast enough paced to be intriguing and made it hard to put the book down.
Opening chapters really need to express what the world is about and the story to be told. They also need to give you a good idea of the character(s) and where they are coming from—at least on the surface. Finally, the opening of a novel is a promise to the reader. It needs to follow through. Those that don’t, or trick the reader, fail.
Instantly I saw the question I made a pile of books. When the pile started teetering, I realised that maybe so many opening words and scenes that I love can’t all be shared at once. My stack of books doesn’t mean that all openings are magic: so many writers overwork their first lines and scenes and leave me hoping that there will be something special to make up for the carefulness and obviousness of those beginnings. Two books where this doesn’t apply, where every words works, are Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising and Allyse Near’s Fairytales for Wilde Girls. I shall talk about them back to front, for outside has just reached 39 degrees C and my brain is back to front. The Australian summer may be a fearsome thing, but this is only spring: everything’s backwards today.
The opening of Allyse Near’s Fairytales for Wilde Girls sums up the book so precisely that it resonates all over again, the second time through. It sums it up, and it hints at the unchancy and it announces, straightforwardly, that this tale will be dark. This story is Eleanor Farjeon’s The Silver Curlew, for adult teenagers, and the opening tells us so:
“Once upon a time,” the opening sentence says, “Isola Wilde was watching late-night television with her eldest brother, Alejandro, when Channel 12 broadcast a live suicide.”
“Once upon a time” is one of the profound truths of Fairytales, and so is the suicide. Alejandro, Isola’s brother, is true, too, in a way that will only make itself manifest as the novel progresses. In other ways, he may not be true at all, for “Once upon a time” is so true that it makes reality somewhat shaky. The first few pages builds on this and builds more until I wasn’t sure what to expect or how to read it. I had to read more: I couldn’t stop until I had found out. It’s an easy opening to love.
Quite a different form of love is the opening of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising:
“Too many!” James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.
“What?” said Will.
“Too many kids in this family, that’s what. Just too many.” James stood fuming on the landing like a small angry locomotive, then stumped across to the window-seat and stared out at the garden. Will put aside his book and pulled up his legs to make room. “I could hear all the yelling,” he said, chin on knees.
Such a gentle beginning. No deaths. No horror. No shock at all. No indication that this is a tale of wonder. No indication that Will’s world is about to transform and that he’s going to be the centre of something very strange. No indication of anything untoward, in fact.
This opening has a natural rhythm that pulls me in. That rhythm lends a music to everything that follows. It strengthens so much of the early story: I can tell you how Will talks (and that he doesn’t talk often) and what his role is in his family. It isn’t long before Will’s strangeness starts to change the world around him, and because of this beautiful early grounding I always think of Will as himself, and never as a strange being able to do extraordinary things. There’s a comfort to the opening, a sense that all’s right with the world wherever Will is.
“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his.” ~ Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
Invisible Cities is a series of vignettes told to the Khan by Polo. This first scene encourages the reader, much like Khan, to listen and maybe not believe everything Polo says. This turns out to be much harder than it sounds.
“The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here.” ~ Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
This is quite possibly the best Pizza Delivery Debacle ever. It sets up characters memorably and puts them in motion while establishing the world. Not a perfect novel, but a darn memorable scene.
“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway.” Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear
The voice here is what makes this scene crackle. And all the rest of them too. Cannot wait for Karen Memory to hit the shelves this winter.
“I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy.” ~ “Johnny Mnemonic”, William Gibson
Johnny Mnemonic isn’t my favorite Gibson story, but this is absolutely one of my favorite first lines and a great action scene. The contrasts grabbed me, then told me exactly what was going to happen next and made me want to see it.
“Now that things have gone the way they have, everyone’s got a story. Everyone’ll tell you how they or their friend, which you can see in the way they say it they want you to think means them, knew Jack.” ~ “Jack,” China Miéville
This is the winner of award for most angels stacked on the head of a pin. A short story from a different perspective in Mieville’s Bas-Lag. the line and the scene contain chilling layers that play out all the way through.
“The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak above the storm-wracked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.” ~ A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuinn
This is my favorite scene-of-becoming. I love the myth of it, the zooming in from great to small, but more than that, I adore the poor goats and young Duny who doesn’t quite know how to deal with them.
“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river, it was always hungry.” The Famished Road, Ben Okri.
Pure scale and scope. And also it loops. Beauty and a desperate need to know what a road eats, in thirty three words.
After an eternity, it was beginning to end.
My favorite opening line is above. Why is it my favorite? No idea. Possibly because it’s the only one I can remember. I can even read it in French.
Okay, not the only one. I can also recall:
Who is John Galt?
Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes.
Oh, and the opening of Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, and Gone With the Wind.
A good friend’s favorite opening line is: It was a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you.
What do the first line and the one right above have in common? They were both written by Roger Zelazny. (Opening lines of Nine Princes of Amber and Trumps of Doom, respectively. The other two are Atlas Shrugged and The Book of Three.) Mr. Zelazny had some good opening lines.
But, fun as snazzy opening lines are, there’s more to a beginning than just a few pithy words. So what makes a good beginning?
Well, I’ve been thinking about this for some days now, and I’m totally baffled. Almost every book I really love has a very long, slow beginning. Exactly the kind of beginning that no one wants to write (or read) nowadays.
I think the reason I like books with slow beginnings is that I like books that really go somewhere. And really developing requires a solid set up. Often these setups take time.
So the question is, why do I keep reading? When I pick up a book and the beginning is slow…not a fight, not a sex scene, not action packed. Why do I read?
Curiosity. Something intriguing is going on, something subtle.
Of the openings I mentioned above, I think the one I like the most is The Book of Three. As a child, I knew what it was to long for something wondrous but to be stuck with the mundane. So, I felt an instant kinship to the young man who wanted to make swords but was constrained to a practical horseshoe. (Though horseshoes also sounded mighty romantic to me.) This made me very curious about who he was and what was to become of him. Would he find the adventure he longed for?
And that is what a good beginning needs…something that makes the reader wonder about the question that the story goes on to answer.
Beginnings are so important. I re-wrote the opening of Empire of Dust so many times looking for the perfect first sentence. In the end I’m not sure I found it, but I found one that works because it drops the reader right in the middle of the problem. But I’m not going to quote my own opening here. Instead I’m going to start off with the opening of John Wyndham’s classic 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids, because this is not only the first adult SF book that I read (age 12) it also has the most memorable opening sentence ever, one that’s stayed with me ever since: When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there’s something seriously wrong somewhere. The first scene describes Bill Mason’s awakening in hospital, eyes bandaged having almost lost his sight in a triffid attack. Nurses are absent and all organisation seems to have broken down. On tentatively removing his own bandages and discovering that he can still see, it’s then revealed that everyone else has gone blind overnight after watching a pyrotechnic meteor shower. Thus begins what might be the fall of humanity and the rise of alien, murderously mobile plants, and we are plunged into a post apocalyptic scenario which reminds us how thin the veneer of society is.
My favourite book, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, may not have the very best opening sentence, but it gets the job done: Cazaril heard the sound of horsemen on the road before he saw them. Moving forward from there, however, the first scene quickly sucks you right in. It introduces Cazaril, surely one of the best protagonists ever, establishes the setting and the ground-rules of magic and also the extent to which the five gods, Mother, Father, Daughter, Son and Bastard, are going to play an active part in events. The pace is measured, but full of rich detail and not without incident and intrigue (an unexpected windfall, a corpse dead in mysterious circumstances). Tantalising bits of backstory are drip-fed into the narrative. Why is Cazaril, once a soldier, scholar, courtier and spy, now walking slowly and painfully back to Valenda, hoping merely find refuge? What broke him, physically and mentally? You know this is a man who would not be easy to break. Even in misfortune he possesses quiet dignity and integrity, and exhibits an inner strength which he doesn’t recognise, but the reader does. And now I’ve read the opening scene for the purposes of writing this I’m going to have to read it again. Well, that’s no hardship!
Another book I re-read time and time again is Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, a Discworld novel from somewhere around the middle of Pratchett’s oeuvre. Though there are always good jokes in Discworld novels, Pratchett is anything but a one trick pony. This book is a masterclass in dramatic tension. The book opens with the single sentence paragraph: Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream. But he finished shaving before he did anything about it. Sam, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is now a Duke and about to become a father for the first time, always a worry because his wife is not in the first flush of youth. He presents a laconic, unflappable, world-weary exterior, but there are things he does care about, his wife and the City Watch being two of them. When Sam realises that the lilacs are in bloom we immediately get the question that Pratchett is going to take the whole book to answer. It’s that time of year again. What’s so special about lilacs? You have to read the whole book to find out. Via the magic of the Unseen University Sam is accidentally torn away from impending fatherhood and dumped back into his own past to track down a murderer and teach his own younger self how to be a good copper. If he succeeds, however, he may well destroy his own future. The will-he / won’t he tension is woven through the narrative and doesn’t let go until the very last moment.
Of course, as well as great openings, all three books follow through with excellent middles and satisfying endings. Promises fulfilled.
When I open a book, I feel a bit off kilter, willing to believe in the world, but still cold to the work, uncertain if I’ll really be able to give myself to it. So I love it when a book engages in foreplay, wooing me, intriguing me.
The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, for instance. To begin with, Michael Swanwick’s fabulous opening line:
The changeling’s decision to steal a dragon and escape was born, though she did not know it then, the night the children met to plot the death of their supervisor.
Wait. Stealing a dragon? And the children are going to kill someone they work for? The dragons aren’t flesh, but iron, products of the steam dragon plant, part of an utterly believable 19th century industrial dystopia. The story launches without explaining the milieu, suggesting depths and withholding answers. Details, both droll and disturbing, keep us turning the pages: the next Maiden Moon, the sly SAFETY FIRST poster, the cast iron Time Clock, patrolling cyborg hounds. How did he do it? With mystery, perfect and original details, high concept and subtle writing. The story becomes vast and deep, and it is all suggested in the first few pages.
His Majesty’s Dragon. I do love historical fantasy, so Naomi Novik’s book had an advantage starting out. But would this one pull me in? The story begins as the 18th century English naval captain, Laurence, captures a French ship. And then:
“Sir, . . . begging your pardon, but there’s something queer in the hold.”
Every novel opening should have a few killer lines! The hold famously contains a dragon’s egg. It’s hatching, and the implications–military and personal–are profound. The dilemma is immediate: who will risk bonding with the dragon, forever tying them to the creature? We soon meet a character for the ages: the dragon Temeraire. Like The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, the book delivers high concept right off the bat. Novik doesn’t wait to introduce her fabulous dragon character nor does she hesitate to bring forward the stakes. There are some info dumps here, but I guess it proves there are no rules. What is the secret of this opening? Don’t hold back. Deliver the goods.
Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron. Here I was skeptical. I dislike vampire stories, and don’t find vampires sexy or wonderfully horrific. But Kim Newman’s WW1 alternate history grabbed me. At the opening, the protagonist, Lieutenant Winthrop, is being driven through a winter landscape by Sergeant Dravot. When I got to the 6th line, I was hooked:
Sergeant Dravot had a dead man’s indifference to climate.
A vampire as a rather unremarkable driver? Again, the use of surprise and mystery. We are plunged straight into the milieu, and brought up to speed with the lightest of touches. The author’s decision of what to say and what to withhold is, like putting in golf, a matter of touch. This opening finds Winthrop, who is not a vampire, but a warm, arriving at a tight-knit British air corp unit composed of vampires with real personalities. Kim Newman’s original concept–aside from the WW1 setting–is that vampires are neither monsters nor alluring half-humans beset with self hatred. They are rather another species of human, and as such they are soldiers, politicians, heroes, and chauffeurs. It succeeded for me because of high concept, subtle and believable dialogue and a tense opening.
My instinctive first answer was Neuromancer by William Gibson, because it has one of the best and evocative opening lines in all of science fiction. But then I took a closer look at the question and realised that while I love the opening line of Neuromancer for its sheer evocativeness, I don’t really love the opening scene itself all that much.
However, it reminded me that I like evocative openings that give a strong sense of place and juxtapose the familiar with the strange, just like Gibson’s “sky the colour of television”. The urban fantasy subgenre is particularly good at creating landscapes that mix and familiar and the strange and thus draw readers into their world. So I’d like to nominate the opening of Night Rising by Chris Marie Green which plunges the reader right into a mist-enshrouded, neon-drenched Los Angeles, complete with a freak accident that kills a film star and a blood-drinking thing in the sewers. The reason this opening is so effective is that it begins with the familiar, a neon-lit nocturnal Los Angeles (though I suspect that mist isn’t quite that common there), and then slowly introduces the strange, namely the accident that doesn’t seem entirely natural and finally the blood-drinking creature in the sewers which definitely isn’t.
The gradual introduction of the strange into a familiar setting is a common technique for crossgenre works that mix elements of one or more genres. Night Rising is a good example, because like many urban fantasy novels, it mixes elements of fantasy and crime fiction. Another example of this technique is the opening of Naked in Death by J.D. Robb a.k.a. Nora Roberts (and the series is definitely science fiction, though it’s usually marketed as romance and/or crime fiction). This novel, the first in a long running series, begins with NYPD detective Eve Dallas waking from a nightmare and going through her morning routine in her tiny apartment. Small details such as the fact that Eve has a voice-controlled shower and reads her morning paper on a computer screen (both of which were definitely still in the realm of science fiction, when the novel was published in 1995), that she gets her morning toast and coffee from a device called an Auto-Chef and that the traffic outside her apartment is airborne gradually make it clear that Eve’s reality isn’t our own and that the novel is instead set in the relatively near future of 2055. So Roberts/Robb takes the cliché opening of a crime novel and gradually injects the strange into this stereotypical scene to acclimatise the reader (and the Robb novels were and continue to be marketed primarily to crime fiction and romance rather than to SF readers) to the idea that this is not your usual mystery.
Something from the Nightside by Simon R. Green uses the same approach, since the book, again the first in a series, begins like every hardboiled detective novel ever, with a down-on-his-luck PI sitting in his dinky office, when a beautiful, desperate and – most importantly – wealthy woman walks in and offers him a job, all narrated in a laconic first person voice, of course. It isn’t until several pages in that the reader realises that neither the case nor the detective nor – it later turns out – the client are entirely normal. So once again, we have a very stereotypical scene that gradually turns into something quite different and a great deal more bizarre.
So in short, I like evocative openings, which gradually introduce the speculative element into a familiar setting or scene. This doesn’t mean that the more direct in medias res openings can’t be effective either and indeed SFF has some excellent examples such as Lothaire by Kresley Cole, which starts out with a very annoyed demon eviscerating five priests intent on exorcising her and then leaving a teenaged trailer park resident whose body she had possessed to deal with the aftermath. When I first read this opening scene in an online preview for the novel (on behalf of a German friend who’s a fan of the series and wanted spoilers for the next book), my first thought was, “Wait a minute, this is marketed as a paranormal romance?” My second thought was, “When does the book come out? Because I simply have to know what happens next.” Mind you, I hadn’t even read the series, I was merely checking out the preview for a friend.
So if an in medias res opening is as hooky as that one, it is certainly irresistible for me. But in general, I prefer the quieter and more atmospheric openings.
“The Lost Memory of Skin” by Russell Banks
This novel starts in a library. The main character (only ever known as The Kid) walks in, and he’s terrified. He’s scared there will be children there, or teenagers. He asks the librarian to find out if there is a National Sex Offender list, and as she does so, we realise that he thinks he’s on it; that he is scared of the teenagers and the children because he has to keep away from them.
The thing is, already he’s quite likable. Already I’m curious about him and think he’s quite sweet, and then we find out he’s a sex offender?
It’s brilliant stuff. Making us care for someone, then telling us they’re a monster.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.
In the opening scene, the familiar is strange. It’s a school gymnasium, but only the ghost of one. There is only the memory of what once happened there; a hint of people, a memory of school dances. This is described with a wistfulness and a sense of deep longing. So we know that much has been lost, and that our narrator feels the loss sharply.
Of course it only gets worse from there.
A Boy and his Dog by Harlan Ellison.
This story had a profound effect on me when I first read it, and it still has that power. It opens, after an intro, with Vic, a teenager, and his dog, Blood, attending the movies. Vic has to check his weapons, and he pays with tins of food both for him and his dog. It’s all told with a vicious, angry tone, which captures so perfectly the world as it is above ground in this story. The relationship between dog and boy is instantly fascinating, and every word of the opening sucks me in to want to know more about this world, and about Vic and Blood.
The Thing with Feathers by Norman Prentiss
Prentiss has the ability to make my skin crawl, in the best possible way. In this novella, he opens with a beautiful description of a box of feathers arriving in the mail. Then, he tells us how the feathers are fashioned to resemble fish hooks. And then those hooks are pressed into the flesh, slowly and deliberately.
It is such an evocative image, and the action so purposeful, I had to read on.
“Lowland Sea” by Suzy McKee Charnas
The opening to this story gets me every time. The opening line, “Miriam had been to Cannes twice before” sets us up to believe this will be a particular kind of story, but by the end of the second paragraph, we learn this is not to be. There is so much that is enticing in the opening, from the hints at disaster, to the second and third mention of a film festival. It’s this juxtaposition between disaster and entertainment that draws me in to this amazing story.
“She Said” by Kirstyn McDermott
This story opens “Finally, the sound of weeping stopped…” and I’m hooked already. The weariness of the tone (‘Finally’) and wondering what will happen, now the weeping has stopped? If the weeping isn’t the end of the story, but the beginning, what the hell is going to happen next?
What happens next is visceral, disturbing and horrifying. The opening is not a tease. It’s a warning.
I’m currently mesmerised by the opening scene of Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman. It begins, ‘On the steps of the old mission house, the Sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican.’ By anyone’s standards, it’s an arresting beginning, made all the more grotesque because of the pelican’s almost casual despatch of the pigeon: ‘The whole business had come as a surprise to everyone involved, not least of all it seemed to the pelican herself, who had engaged in the attempt almost absently and now appeared to be wishing it was over and done.’
Pelicans don’t feature much in the rest of the novel, so the more pelican-oriented who read the novel may well have felt led astray by this opening but for me it served as a signal that this novel, like Harkaway’s previous work, would be dealing with oddity in a very matter-of-fact way, and this proves to be the case. Having read the novel, one can then return to that opening scene, with that image of a casual scooping up and engulfing, and realise that the pelican’s action has all along served as a metaphor for the activities of competing powers within the story. If you happen to know that the pelican is an old Christian symbol of intense mother love this opening scene becomes even more significant (the story goes that the pelican pecks its own breast in order to feed its children with blood, although another version claims that the pelican kills its own children, and stricken with grief brings them back to life with its own blood – both versions work here). And for my own part, I find pelicans generally unsettling – comical and yet that pouch under the bill is so deeply, deeply disturbing, especially when filled with pigeon (see Youtube for more details). But whichever way you look at it that first encounter with the pelican sets the tone for the novel.
It is the quirky opening lines that tend to immediately stick in my memory: Chris Priest’s Inverted World: ‘I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles’ would be a prime example, as would the opening to Neuromancer. The idea that ‘television tuned to a dead channel’ might be a colour will always be mysterious, even though the nature of the mystery will change. I wonder now if that sentence doesn’t contain its own very different story. But if I’m honest, I’d have to go back to the novels to check what else happened in the opening scenes.
Other opening scenes are more unassuming yet stick more readily. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen may begin with a folktale Prologue about a wizard but the magic of that storytelling (and it is a story that will eventually resonate through most of Garner’s work) is almost immediately dispelled by the prosaic opening of Chapter One, an old-fashioned railway carriage in a train bound for Manchester. True, Colin and Susan are shortly to find themselves riding to Highmost Redmanhey in an anachronistic pony and trap, but Garner is clearly deliberately jostling the reader’s expectations, and that’s interesting because it feels like a challenge: read on if you dare.
Compare that to the opening of Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe, with young Tolly travelling first by train, then by boat ever deeper into the darkness of an East Anglian winter. Boston keeps on pulling the reader away from everything she is certain about, into a world stripped of visual cues, to be finally confronted by the house that contains warmth, light, magic in a fairytale happy ending or new beginning. I still love that opening sequence even if I’ve come to find Boston’s broader vision of Green Knowe just a little too cloying for my taste. (There’s a certain similarity too with the opening sequence of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights and Kay Harker’s first encounter with Cole Hawlings and his Toby-dog at the railway station.)
You see a similar gradual detachment from the familiar in the opening of Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, a book I’m currently rereading: ‘As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendour of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.’ The cataract of roses is a gorgeous image in itself, but I like that disconcerting shift between the fact of being a stranger and yet being able to list all the things one had missed. It invites me to read further, to find out how the narrator overcame that initial lack of familiarity. Also, I like long enticing lists of wonders.
Jan Morris did something similar with the opening line of Last Letters From Hav: ‘There can be few people nowadays who do not know the whereabouts of Hav, but when I first went there in the 1980s it seemed an almost chimerical city.’ Here, it is implied that you must be rather ignorant if you don’t know about Hav – everybody knows about Hav – so of course you read on to fill in the gaps in your knowledge.
Looking at this, I’m struck now by how many of the opening scenes I like most are associated with travel, a movement away from the known and familiar towards something strange and unsettling, a stripping away of the certain, like those long train journeys across dark flooded landscapes that Miyazaki is so very fond of. Although they are, mercifully, notably lacking in pelicans.
This is a question that opens the floodgates for me, it seems. I am not of the view that openings must drop the reader into the action, though of course there are great openings that do that. A good example of an opening that just punches the reader in the face from the start is the start of Tad Williams’s Otherland: City of Golden Shadow:
“It started in mud, as many things do.
In a normal world, it would have been time for breakfast, but apparently breakfast was not served in hell; the bombardment that had begun before dawn showed no signs of letting up.”
The great trick of this opening, once it has grabbed the reader’s full attention, is that this is actually not a World War I novel; and that the world that unfolds from here—or worlds—will take the reader a long way from the trenches. One of the great things about the Otherland series is how its premise allows Williams to fully unleash his boundless imagination. But we begin in hell, and this grabs our attention from page one.
For me this is the exception, when it comes to favorite openings. Something much quieter, for example, is this one from Robin McKinley’s Hero and the Crown:
“She could not remember a time when she had not known the the story; she had grown up knowing it. She supposed someone must have told her it, sometime, but she could not remember the telling. She was beyond having to blink back tears when she thought of those things the story explained, but when she was feeling smaller and shabbier than usual in the large vivid City high in the Damarian Hills she still found herself brooding about them; and brooding sometimes brought on a tight headachy feeling around her temples, a feeling like suppressed tears.”
The last time I read this book was probably more than a decade ago, yet this opening has for all these years stuck in my mind. It’s hard to articulate what that quality is, when a novel draws you into it like quicksand from the first page; here if I had to guess, I would say it’s for a number of reasons. We have a mystery, from the first line: there is a story we want to hear, that is clearly of emotional significance to the protagonist. There is a “large vivid City” hinted at, to explore. And perhaps most of all there is the emotional depth that the words and their rhythm evoke. To begin with depth, from the start, promises that more is to come.
Lastly, what is perhaps one of my favorite sentences, let alone favorite openings of a novel. From Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay:
“Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.”
Like the McKinley quote, this sentence works on more than one level. Gorgeous detail draws the reader immediately into an unfamiliar world; at the same time, the sentence structure works on us, too, evoking the erudition and poetic sensibility of the character. That the character is recalling Xinan after two years alone in the mountains may also explain the evocative power of the sentence; far removed from the splendor of Xinan, he understands its splendor more clearly than perhaps he did when in the midst of it.
The opening that instantly comes to mind for me is Madeline L’Engle’s famously ballsy opening to A Wrinkle in Time. “It was a dark and stormy night.” Full stop. End paragraph. When she throws down that hackneyed gauntlet I feel like she’s reaching out to me with a firm handshake, a wry smile and a little twinkle in her eye. The sheer confidence of it just slays me. “Come along with me,” I can hear her say. “I just know you’re going to love this.” And of course I do.
I remembered Peter S. Beagle’s opening paragraph of The Last Unicorn as something special even though I couldn’t recall his exact words. When I pulled my ancient paperback down from the shelf to look it up (ahhhh old book smell!), it wasn’t hard to see why it had leapt to mind:
“The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.”
Purple, yes, but hot damn. Try reading it aloud to really feel the rhythm and flow, and that gorgeous sibilance. It’s hypnotic, and it pulls you right into the text.
I’d also like to take a moment in defense of prologues. I love a good prologue. Sure there are a lot of bad ones, but I’m against the idea that a prologue is always an indication of lazy writing. A really great prologue can give me a sense of satisfaction and anticipation at the same time, and that’s amazing.
In a good prologue, it’s the last line that does the heavy lifting. For instance, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s prologue gets off to a fun start:
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
After a little rambling about the universe and the titular book – including one of my favorite lines in all of sf/f, “And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…” – it ends with this:
“It begins with a house.”
Bang. It’s simple, direct, gives me a little shiver. I have to turn the page to see what’s next.
But I have to stray out of sf/f to mention one of my favorite prologues. It’s from Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel. It begins like this:
“They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not anymore, though.”
A nice, spooky opening. From there we get a visceral account from our narrator, Philip, about the day his guardian Ambrose took him to the crossroads to see a murderer’s hanged body. From there it slides into Philip’s troubled musings on the events we’ve yet to see – much as the unnamed narrator does in du Maurier’s more famous novel “Rebecca” – and then ends with this corker, addressed not to us, but to the hanged man:
“Had I looked back at you, over my shoulder, I should not have seen you swinging in your chains, but my own shadow.”
How could you put the book down after that?
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”But while I frequently do enjoy sci-fi and fantasy that puts fantastic elements front and center, the opening scenes that stick most in my mind tend to feature a hauntingly human element. The beginning of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, for example, is downright macabre: a B-list science fiction writer named Allen Carpentier, all too eager to impress a handful of con-going fans, sits on an eighth-story window-ledge to down an entire bottle of rum – only to be tragically upstaged.
It was like drinking flaming battery acid. There was no pleasure in it. I’d regret this tomorrow. But the fans began to shout behind me, and that made me feel good until I saw why. Asimov had come in. Asimov wrote science articles and histories and straight novels and commentaries on the Bible and Byron and Shakespeare, and he turned out more material in a year than anyone else writes in a lifetime. I used to steal data and ideas from his columns. The fans were shouting for him, while I risked my neck to give them the biggest performance of all the drunken conventions of Allen Carpentier.
With nobody watching.
The bottle was half empty when my gag reflex cut in and spilled used rum into my nose and sinuses. I jackknifed forward to cough it out of my lungs and pitched right over.
I don’t think anyone saw me fall.
And since this Inferno is a modern update of Dante’s original, the recently-deceased Carpentier becomes our viewpoint character for a journey full of hellish panoramas and demonic novelties – and yet this not-even-three-page opening vignette is almost more potent than any of them. Part of it is the gruesome everyman element: it’s hard to watch Gwyneth Paltrow coughing and feverish in Contagion or see the elevator scene in the first Resident Evil movie without a touch of real dread, because the part of your brain that says Don’t worry; that couldn’t really happen to you is uncomfortably silent. Strange, awful accidents happen every day, often to people who ate their Wheaties and griped about traffic without ever thinking that they might not make it to dinner.
But while it’s easy enough to kick off a story with someone getting hit by a bus, the Inferno example strikes me as a masterful one. Anyone can fall out of a window, but Allen Carpentier’s death couldn’t have happened to anyone but Allen Carpentier – and his shallow, showboating insecurity tells us everything we need to know about the hero we’re about to go through Hell with. That mixing of the universal with the specific is a hallmark of a great story, and to see them so well blended in an opening scene (whether or not death is in the cards!) promises me that I’m in for a terrific read.
My favorite story openings have two main things in common: they’re strange, and they raise questions in my mind. Maybe it’s a fantastical setting I want to explore, or a mundane setting shown in an unusual way. Maybe there’s an atmosphere of foreboding, or an eccentric character who seems conflicted, or just something a little off kilter. And naturally all this needs a beautiful, confident delivery—a real artistry with language and attention to detail.
One of my favorites is Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. In the opening, we find out that a man and his dog are about to materialize and dematerialize—just as they have every fifty-nine days for the last nine years. Until now, the man’s wife has refused to let anyone in to observe this “tragic family affair,” but finally she has agreed to let an outsider into the estate to see the strange event.
It’s already a fascinating set up, but even better when delivered with Vonnegut’s amazing sense for timing, mischievous humor and beautiful prose. The opening page has this lovely rhythm of repeating phrases and words, each beat revealing a little more, a little more, drawing the reader in close before he suddenly zooms out to the wide view for the little kick at the end. No snoozing on Vonnegut’s watch.
There was a crowd.
The crowd had gathered because there was to be a materialization. A man and his dog were going to materialize, were going to appear out of thin air—wispily at first, becoming, finally, as substantial as any man and dog alive.
The crowd wasn’t going to get to see the materialization. The materialization was a strictly private affair on private property, and the crowd was emphatically not invited to feast its eyes.
The materialization was going to take place, like a modern, civilized hanging, within high, blank, guarded walls. And the crowd outside the walls was very much like a crowd outside the walls at a hanging.
The crowd wasn’t going to see anything, yet its members found pleasure in being near, in staring at the blank walls and imagining what was happening inside. The mysteries of the materialization, like the mysteries of a hanging, were enhanced by the wall; were made pornographic by the magic lantern slides of morbid imaginations—magic lantern slides projected by the crowd on the blank stone walls.
The town was New Port, Rhode Island, U.S.A, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way. The walls were those of the Rumfoord estate.
China Miéville’s opening chapter to Perdido Street Station is another favorite. He’s a master at crafting huge city-sized illusions that seem real and beg you to explore. At the start of Perdido Street Station, his talent for describing a living, breathing, writhing, reeking city carries us through until we reach the two characters: two sensual lovers, naked and waking up in an attic room, dust motes hanging in the air. But we get our first clue that this is no ordinary morning scene when the man Isaac reaches behind to scratch his itchy arse and bursts some kind of grub parasite feeding there.
Our assumptions about the couple are then fully subverted when they sit down for breakfast, and Isaac feels a little disgusted by the way his lover eats: she holds the food with her mandibles while her inner mouth parts pick at it, and looks at him with her compound eyes. She’s one of an insect-headed race who lives in his city, and their relationship is a secret because of the scandal it would cause. We see his contrasting emotions as he prides himself for overcoming his disgust and his society’s norms, mixed with his guilty desire for her. “I am a pervert, thought Isaac. And so is she.”
Contrasts, conflict, sensory detail, style, strangeness, intrigue… this has everything I love in a beginning.
I also love the opening to Samuel R. Delaney’s Trouble on Triton, as much for the strangeness as the delivery. Here, you’re immediately dropped into the main character’s head, listening in on the odd running commentary of his mind. Overhead, the city’s sensory shield swirls pink, orange and gold, and a turquoise Neptune is rising. A woman walks past with blue bangles on her breasts, and then a man passes by with a cage over his head and one on each hand.
The casual way these bizarre details are thrown in already hooks my curiosity, but it’s also his strange prose I love. It reminds me of jazz, the way he tosses out the so-called rules and makes use of sentence fragments, parentheses, dashes, interruptions and switch-backs to beautifully capture the swirling, flickering chaos of a human’s thoughts. Some might find it too strange and jarring, but to me it’s lovely.
He thought: I am a reasonably happy man.
The sensory shield (he looked up:—Big as the city) swirled pink, orange, gold. Cut round, as if by a giant cookie cutter, a preposterously turquoise Neptune rising. Pleasant? Very. He ambled in the bolstered gravity, among ten thousand fellows. Tethys? (No, not Saturn’s tiny moon—a research station now these hundred twenty-five years—but after which, yes, the city had been named.) Not a big one, when you thought about places that were; and he had lived in a couple.
He wondered suddenly: Is it just that I am, happily, reasonable?
And smiled, pushing through the crowd.
And wondered how different that made him from those around.
I can’t (he stepped from the curb) look at every one to check.
Last but not least, I loved the beginning of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, my favorite read this year. Even from the very first sentence, you know something is wrong is this world and that things are going to get weird.
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to the swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats.
After this, every piece of information in his opening chapter reveals new mysteries, which together build up to create an increasingly eerie atmosphere and a quiet suspense. The dozens of subtle curiosities draw you on and the strangeness creeps up on you to unsettle. After the first chapter, I was ready to follow his story anywhere.
The most effective way to open a narrative for me is to somehow manage to encapsulate the feeling of the story in tight rich language while introducing the wonder of the world of the novel. I prefer openings that evoke a sense of mystery and an air of something unusual afoot.
Some authors are able to do this with the first line such as in Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler: “Doro found the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages.” In a single sentence Butler loaded the readers mind with all kinds of questions: What are seed villages? Who or what is Doro that he has made not just one but many of them? And what kind of woman could catch the interest of such a person? There is the method of creating an opening scene where something is somewhere where it shouldn’t be as in Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni: “The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.” Of course, one would not expect a Golem at all, much less in the bowels of a steamship. In Woman of the Dunes by Kobo Abe, his first line was “One day in August a man disappeared.” It almost sounds casual in its description of this mystery. What happened to the man? Where did he go? Did he leave of his own will? Is he still alive?
Then there are the opening scenes that manage to paint a world in washes of color, layered with descriptive language so beautiful leading the reader to believe the rest of the book has be as marvelous. The opening for Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is an wonderful example of this –
Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.
On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there in the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.
And the opening to John Dollar by Marianne Wiggins is another example of lovely layered language that delivers an homage to religious imagery, deepening the mystery of how such a scene could come about –
They appeared with the sun at their backs on the crest of the hill after daybreak, black figures, threading their way toward the sea through the gray rocks and heather into the town of St. Ives.
The old Indian descended first, leading the donkey on a tether; Charlotte rode across the donkey’s back. Charlotte’s hair had gone from gold to white when she was rescued from the island years ago, and it fell around her now, wild and full and loose, because the Indian had thought it looked its best that way. The Indian had rinsed the long white hair in tea she brewed from flowers of the English chamomile, then she had anointed it with almond oil, but hadn’t found the courage nor the faith to bind it up. Neither has she closed the eyes, folded the arms, entwined the fingers, nor wrapped the body with cloths soaked in linseed oil to stanch its putrefaction. She had known her mistress to have died before so this time she sat vigil, not daring for a full day to disturb the body from what she thought could be a deep but only temporary sleep.
The feelings of these openings pull me in and cause me wonder what could have happened to make such scenes possible.
Another kind of opening that I like are so fantastical in their construction that I simply must read on. Ted Chiang’s novella Tower of Babylon is a wonderful example of this–
Were the tower to be laid dawn across the plain of Shinar, it would be two days’ journey to walk from one end to the other. While the tower stands, it takes a full month and a half to climb from its base to its summit, if a man walks in burdened. But few men climb the tower with empty hands; the pace of most men is slowed by the cart of bricks that they pull behind them. Four months pass between the day a brick is loaded onto a cart, and the day it is taken off to form a part of the tower.
Another example of opening into the fantastic is the windingly beautiful world created by Eugie Foster—a wonderful author and person who left this life much too soon—in her novelette Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast –
Each morning is a decision. Should I put on the brown mask or the blue? Should I be a tradesman or an assassin today?
Whatever the queen demands, of course, I am. But so often she ignores me, and I am left to figure out for myself who to be.
Dozens upon dozens of faces to choose from.
1. Marigold is for Murder
The yellow mask draws me, the one made from the pelt of a mute animal with neither fangs nor claws—better for the workers to collect its skin. It can only glare at its keepers through the wires of its cage, and when the knives cut and the harvesters rip away its skin, no one is troubled by its screams.
A book is a heavy investment for a reader. They need to feel that their mind is being held in steady hands, that the author’s scalpel will not slip and cut where it should’ve nipped. The opening is where authors can showcase their skill and demonstrate that the pages to follow will be worth reading. In other words, the opening is a place to develop trust that the journey to come will be wondrous.
Readers and editors don’t ask much of a story’s opening paragraph. We just want it to set the tone, describe the environment, introduce characters, and hint at the mystery that will unfold. Here are three of my favorites:
“One of the new Sikorsky gunships, an element of the First Air Cavalry with the words Whispering Death painted on its side, gave Mingolla and Gilbey and Baylor a lift from the Ant Farm to San Francisco de Juticlan, a small town located inside the green zone which on the latest maps was designated Free Occupied Guatemala. To the east of this green zone lay an undesignated band of yellow that crossed the country from the Mexican order to the Caribbean. The Ant Farm was a firebase on the eastern edge of the yellow band, and it was from there that Mingolla—an artillery specialist not yet twenty-one years old—loved shells into an area which the map depicted in black and white terrain markings. And thus it was that he often thought of himself as engaged in a struggle to keep the world safe for primary colors.”
“September 20—Of course the first thing I looked for was the fire watch stone. And of course it wasn’t there yet. It wasn’t dedicated until 1951, accompanying speech by the Very Reverend Dean Walter Matthews, and this is only 1940. I knew that. I went to see the fire watch stone only yesterday, with some kind of misplaced notion that seeing the scene of the crime would somehow help. It didn’t.”
“Kamala Shastri came back to this world as she had left it—naked. She tottered out of the assembler, trying to balance in Tuulen Station’s delicate gravity. I caught her and bundled her into a robe with one motion, then eased her onto the float. Three years on another planet had transformed Kamala. She was leaner, more muscular. Her fingernails were now a couple of centimeters long there were fur parallel scars incised on her left cheek, perhaps some Gendian’s idea of beautification. But what struck me most was the darting strangeness in her eyes. This place, so familiar to me, seemed almost to shock her. It was as if she doubted the walls and was skeptical of air. She had learned to think like an alien.”
These Hugo and/or Nebula Award winning classics come through on all counts. In his opening to “R&R,” Lucius Shepard maintains his exquisite control over the English language while letting us know that the story takes place during a future wartime in Central America. The beginning of Connie Willis’s “Fire Watch,” informs the reader that we are back in time, but that it’s complicated. Only yesterday, the character saw a stone that isn’t there now. This is another war story, though any historically knowledgeable reader knows that this narrator is probably on safer ground than Shepard’s Mingolla. Yet we learn that someday, a “crime” from which the character has not recovered will occur on the fire watch stone. James Patrick Kelly’s opening to “Think Like a Dinosaur” introduces us to an apparently hard and possibly dangerous individual. We won’t know the true extent of what it means to “think like an alien” until we reach the stories end. Until we get there, we won’t really know who the hardened and dangerous individual is, either.
The beauty of many of the best openings is that we only understand the layers of meanings in those words when we finish the tale. They resonate with additional connotations the second time through. I wanted to find out what the fire watch stone was on my initial reading of the novella. Later, rereading the beginning, I nearly cried. I would never cry over this Kamala Shastri, but the chills are deeper when I read the opening now. While set-up is very important, the openings to stories that don’t resonate with me are often just that. There are no added layers of meaning in their opening paragraphs. They are just tell me that this thing happened, and then this thing.
A story doesn’t have to be an award-winning classic to have a resonant opening. The beginning of every story that I publish in Asimov’s and many of the stories I can’t take work on several levels. Here’s the start of a tale from the October/November 2014 issue that is laden with significance.
“The first body to slide out on one of Lab-14-H’s morgue slabs was a chimp, and seeing its slack and frozen face startled me more than anything had since the accident. I jumped, and my new heart dropped a beat like a person stumbling off a curb. It was a giddily familiar sensation, so as soon as the shock wore off I smiled with genuine happiness—I’d been scared, physically scared. I acknowledged the feeling with joy.”
I had to read the rest of Emily C. Skaftun’s “Diary of a Pod Person” to find out why the character’s new heart skips a beat, why feeling a sensation fills her with joy, and what the second body was. Unwrapping the beginning of an interesting story is one of the great rewards of reading for a living.