Beginnings are exciting. Moving to a new home. Launching a new career. The first weeks or months of a new relationship. (In many ways, my relationship with Lana still seems new after years of togetherness.) There is promise, hope, and some uncertainty in beginnings. I even like the beginning of a meal at a new restaurant, or the first sip of a strange new brew. It could be that something wonderful is in store.
For readers and writers, the beginning of a story, whether one they are reading or writing, has the same promise, hope, and uncertainty. I love openings. I love to read good ones and I strive to write them. It’s not easy.
To me, the single best opening sentence of any book I’ve read is from Fred Saberhagen’s First Book of Swords. “In what felt to him like the first cold morning of the world, he groped for fire.” Perhaps inevitably, the rest of the book did not quite live up to that promise.
Two great openings that did live up to the promise are from Joe Lansdale’s The Nightrunners, and from Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, a masterpiece of suspense.
Here’s Lansdale: “Midnight. Black as the heart of Satan. They came rolling out of the darkness in a black ’66 Chevy; eating up Highway 59 North like so much juicy, grey taffy.”
Here’s Straub: “Because he thought that he would have problems taking the child over the border into Canada, he drove south, skirting the cities whenever they came and taking the anonymous freeways which were like a separate country, as travel was itself like a separate country.”
These openings captivated me; I had had to read more. But I’ll tell you one opening that shut me down immediately. It was to Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire “’’I see-‘ said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.” I put this book down immediately and have never read any of Rice's vampire/witch books. It just seemed so completely lame.
There are those who will accuse me of liking purple prose, but I don’t. I like intensity. I like emotion. I like to be dragged in by the power of the prose. I like to be made uncomfortable. The Rice book opened with a complete lack of threat. We seem to be sitting in a comfortable chair, perhaps having a cognac and a cigar. That’s nice on a cold winter night, but it’s not what I want to invest my reading time in. It’s not what I want to invest my writing time in.
Here's the opening to the first short story I sold, called “Still Life With Skulls.”
“There were eyes in the canvas that I had never drawn, desert eyes of bronze, sulfur eyes like cicatrixes, and river eyes of green--eyes full of dark wings and teeth. There were round mouths open to the night air, and sanguine tongues whose dance burned with holy words. And in the chiaroscuro wastelands of the unfilled canvas there were ruins whose outlines I could not yet trace. I knew only that they held a bitter rapture and smelled faintly of ashes.”
This is the beginning to the second vampire tale I sold, called “A Cold of Snow and Ghosts:”
“He ran northward across the frozen tundra, with the pure light of the Aurora streaming above him in broad arcs that sparked green and red with ionization. His flying feet seemed barely to skim the ground, leaving behind prints in the snow that were as delicate as fallen petals, and as ephemeral. Over his shoulder hung a caribou stag with its throat wrapped in a necklace of frozen black blood. He hoped that he would be in time.”
What about you? How important are beginnings for you? Whether in reading, writing, or anywhere else? What are some of your favorite openings?