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  Lesson 3: A Few Great Novel Beginnings

In this lecture, we'll look at several memorable beginnings from published novels. We'll analyze why the opening sentences work, and think about how we can apply the principles of these beginnings to our own first chapters.

You'll find some classics among these books, as well as some novels you may not have heard of. Each author achieves something special in the opening paragraphs. Each author serves to set the scene, catch the reader off guard, and create the sensation that something is not quite right, that something is, indeed, out of the ordinary.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting begins with an image: an actual snapshot. Chapter one boldly introduces the theme of forgetting—a forced forgetting in service to a flawed and ultimately corrupting political ideal.

In February 1948, the communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice in a millennium.
Gotwald was flanked by his comrades, with Celmentis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head...

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall.

Notice how chapter one locates us in space and time—Prague, the Czech Republic, zeroing in on Wenceslaus Square, the country's most famous landmark, which is at center of the Prague Spring and, later the Velvet Rebellion.

Chapter one also alerts us to the historical context. The photo will reappear a number of times in the novel, a kind of objective correlative that hammers home the idea of erasure, of corrupted narrative, of the way in which story becomes propaganda. The first chapter is just a few paragraphs, taking up less than a full page. And yet, so much is accomplished!

Chapter 2 goes on to introduce us to the protagonist, Mirek. We have an inkling of what's going to get him into trouble—this diary that he keeps, which will ultimately be used against him and the woman he loves.

It is 1971, and Mirek says: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory and forgetting.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

The very first sentence creates a mystery that the story must solve/explain:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Immediately there is the question—how can someone be born twice? The remainder of the paragraph reveals what he means:

Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study, "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Psueudohermaphrodites," published in The Journal of Pediatric Endrocrinology in 1975. Or maybe you've seen my photograph in chapter sixteen of the now sadly outdated Genetics and Heredity. That's on page 578, standing naked beside a height chart with a black box covering my eyes.

Notice that we go from the academic and dry--the medical journals--to the visceral and physical: the boy, standing naked with a black box covering his eyes. Readers with intellectual curiosity will be patient up to a point, but they still want something tangible, something they can see or feel or hear or touch. That black box is the thing that grabs us and pulls us into the narrator's experience.

The next paragraph is a sort of autobiographical sketch, hitting the major points in the narrator's life, his most notable characteristics:

“Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other."

On page two, the narrator launches into the story of his own birth, and from there backtracks to Greece in the early 1900s and proceeds to tell the story of his grandparents' incestuous marriage, and then his parents' incestuous marriage, by way of explaining how he got to be how he is. This is an epic novel, interweaving the story of the burning of Smyrna, Detroit during the Great Depression, prohibition, the Nation of Islam, and other historical goodies into the personal story of the Stephanides clan.

Structurally, it's a doozy. In terms of openings, it's interesting in that it telegraphs so much about the narrator himself, but also about the scope of the novel.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Surely one of the most famous opening lines of all times, right there alongside Tolstoy's line about happy and unhappy families:


“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

Thus begins an epic story of Latin America, told from an omniscient perspective. Note that a novel's beginning establishes both the voice and the point of view—who's speaking, and from what distance. The second and third lines really hone in on this omniscience:

At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names,and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

About Grace, Anthony Doerr

The first chapter (a little over a page) places us with a man on an airplane, traveling away from the tropics. Immediately, we are inside the setting:

He made his way through the concourse and stopped by a window to watch a man with two orange wands wave a jet into its gate. Above the tarmac the sky was faultless, that relentless tropic blue he had never quite gotten used to. At the horizon, clouds had piled up: cumulus congestus, a sing of some disturbance traveling along out there, over the sea...

The sensation of the plane accelerating and rising was like entering a vivid and perilous dream.

Notice, again, something out of the ordinary in paragraph one: the "disturbance traveling along out there," a disturbance that gives the reader a feeling of nervousness. By the end of the page, we are "entering a vivid and perilous dream."

The opening paragraphs convey something about what is important in the novel, although there is no way for the reader to comprehend yet the thing's importance—no way to know that this is a man whose life has been devastated by dreams. Page three (ch 2) introduces the man and the inciting action, which also happens to raise a question:

His name was David Winkler and he was fifty-nine years old. This would be his first trip home in twenty-five years—if home was what he could still call it. He had been a father, a husband, and a hydrologist. He was not sure if he was any of those things now.

This two-page chapter takes place entirely on the plane, but on page 5 of the novel we will step back in time and will not return to the plane, and the present action, until page 195, about halfway through the novel. We'll talk more about structure in a later lecture, but it's worth mentioning that this is a very effective structure technique: beginning the novel with a character in a moment of peril, then walking away from it and returning much later, so that the reader wonders, in the intervening chapters, how we're going to get back to where we were.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway begins with Clarissa Dalloway on the curb, waiting to cross the street.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
For Lucy had her work cut out for her...

Again with the out of the ordinary: we know, from the phrasing of the first sentence, that under normal circumstances someone else would be buying the flowers.

In the third paragraph, we have a flashback to Mrs. Dalloway as an 18-year-old girl, bursting open the windows and taking in the morning air, with a feeling of dread, a feeling that something awful is going to happen.

How fresh, how calm...the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen...

It is apropos that the novel begins in the morning, with the duties of the day laid out before our heroine, as the novel is to take place in a single day. It also begins with a symbol, an objective correlative of sorts—the flowers—which will come up again and again: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."

In paragraph three we hear Big Ben tolling—that symbol of time that is so present in the novel—time made all the more important by the fact of Clarissa's illness. And we have a sort of wildly celebratory mood, reaching its fever pitch at the end of the third paragraph:

In people's eyes, in the swing tramp, and trudgel in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

Note, not just any moment in June, but this moment in June. Remember, always make the reader aware of why this story is being told at this time.

The Puttermesser Papers, Cynthia Ozick

The book revolves around the adventures of a modern-day feminist Don Quixote in Manhattan. It's a picaresque—following the heroine from one adventure to another—and thus it is fitting that the novel begins with a description of our heroine. And this is a traditionally sound place to begin. Let us know who we're supposed to care about, whose trials will form the conflict of the novel. It helps to see our protagonist, but it's more important to begin to have an understanding of who that person is at the core. You'll get more traction by dropping a sentence about the character's background than by merely describing her appearance:

Puttermesser was 34, a lawyer. She was also something of a feminist, not crazy, but she resented having Miss put in front of her name; she thought it pointedly discriminatory; she wanted to be a lawyer among lawyers. Though she was no virgin she lived alone, but idiosyncratically—in the Bronx; in furry slippers left over from high school she roamed the same endlessly mazy apartment she had grown up in, her aging piano sheets still on top of the upright with the teacher's X marks on them showing where she should practice up to. Puttermesser always pushed a little ahead of the actual assignment in school too…

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

'Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male,' such were the two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange pages it perambulates. Humbert Humbert, their ator, had died in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952, a few days before his trial was scheduled to start…

The opening paragraphs of Lolita alert the reader to the conditions of the narrative—a story within a story, a found manuscript. Nabokov also does an odd thing structurally; he gives away the ending! We know from the first sentences that Humbert Humbert has been caught and is dead—we know this before we enter into our reader-narrator relationship, in which we are seduced by the very alive-seeming HH. We even learn that Lolita is dead, although it's by a different name—her married name—“Mrs. Richard Schiller"—so that by the time we get to the point in the novel where Lolita marries, we've probably already forgotten that she died in childbirth.

In essence this novel has two beginnings—there is Dr. John Ray Jr.'s “forward"—and there is Humbert Humbert's famous beginning: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta."

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

We meet Charles Bovary as a young boy in the lycee. We immediately sympathize with him, as he is clearly entering school as the underdog.

We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a "new fellow," not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every one rose as if just surprised at his work...

The new fellow, standing in the corner behind the door so that he could hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen, and taller than any of us. His hair was square cut on his forehead like a village chorister's; he looked reliable, but very ill at ease. Although he was not broad-shouldered, his short school jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have been tight about the arm-holes, and showed at the opening of the cuffs red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings, looked out from beneath yellow trousers...

We began repeating the lesson...

The voice is a collective first-person, a “town" “we," as in The Great Gatsby. In the early pages, Charles Bovary appears so vulnerable. We also see him as a mama's boy, which will fit in with his later cuckolding by his second wife, Emma Bovary.

For anyone who hasn't read Madame Bovary, I highly recommend it. Because it is out of copyright, it's available to download for free on Kindle. Get it here.

Conclusion

In the examples presented here, you've seen a number of different ways of introducing the reader to your narrative. We've seen description of setting, description of the protagonist, and a number of "inciting actions." In each of these examples, we are aware of something out of the ordinary. If the conflict isn't already made directly clear, there is the strong possibility of conflict. And thus, we keep reading.

Consider this:

As you look at your own opening pages, or as you sit down to write them, consider this:

What reason have I given the reader to turn the page?