Wednesday, July 01, 2009

In the Beginning

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?


Cullen Gallagher said...

First sentences are hugely important. I often close the book after the first sentence and think about it a minute: the tone, the atmosphere, possible foreshadowing. If it doesn't put me in the mood, I try again. And sometimes I just put it back on the shelf and decide to come back another time when it speaks to me more.

Scott D. Parker said...

Openings are absolutely crucial. They make me either continue reading or, like you an Anne Rice, put the book down and never return.

For a simple opening, Dark Tower 1 is pretty good: The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed. (Key word for me is 'fled.')

Christa Faust's Money Shot: Coming back from the dead isn't as easy as they make it seem in the movies. (The entire first paragraph and page drew me until I couldn't not read the book.)

In a recent Two Sentence Tuesday post, I tried to capture the atmosphere Cullen describes. It's difficult. With the public's shortening attention span, there's less and less time to grab the reader.

Steven said...

I either prefer an opening sentence that throws me into the action, or something that is simple and descriptive, almost lyrical and poetic like the opening lines to A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway: "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels."

If you want to hear some of the worst opening sentences, Bulwer-Lytton holds a contest each year where writers submit a worst opening line for an imaginary novel. It's pretty entertaining.

Steven Till

Barbara Martin said...

Beginnings are very important. Sometimes the first few sentences don't make the mark with me, but I will read the first page if the blurb on the back has stirred interest.

An opening from Elizabeth Haydon's The Assassin King hooked me: 'The winter wind dancing over the gleaming waves, fresh with the sweet hint of a spring coming far away in the southlands, carried with it the scent of blood.'

With G.P. Taylor's Tersias the Oracle the first paragraph was all it took: 'Magnus Malachi paced the dirt floor of the old stable, then walked slowly to the open door and peered warily around its edge, deep into the night sky. He leant on a long staff, stroking its whalebone handle with his thin, grubby fingers.'

As writers we can strive to improve and perfect.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Very important. Sometimes I never read beyond the first page. GHOST STORY is one of my very favorite books.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cullen, there definitely is a mood issue for me in reading. I've read books when I'm in the wrong mood and just don't like them, but find myself better able to get engrossed at a different time.

Scott, I liked the opening for Dark Tower 1 a lot but that was also one I felt didn't live up to the promise. At least I didn't care much for it and never read any others in the series.

Steven, I love a lyrical opening as well. I almost quoted that Hemingway opening. It's my favorite by him. The second line is what I call a "perfect" line.

Barbara, ooh, I like the Assassin King opening very much.

Pattinase, mine too, and one of the few books that actually scared me.

Scott D. Parker said...

Perhaps, had I read all the books, I could have had a better judgment on the merits of the opening sentence.

Thought of another: Dickens' A Christmas Carol: Marley was dead, to being with.

A recent one if Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book: There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.

G. B. Miller said...

For me at least reading-wise, first sentences aren't that important to me.

I'm kind of odd in that sometimes I'll open a book to a random page and if it capitvates my interest enough to where I'll continue reading for another two or three pages, then I'll grab the book and start from the beginning.

Writing-wise, I'm still trying to find my comfort zone. I'm evenly split between starting off something with a piece of dialouge and starting it with a piece of scenery.

Gabby said...

I agree that good openings make the reader want to continue, but, like you pointed out, there's the possibility the rest may not live up to it. I'm okay with mediocre to somewhat interesting openings, as long as the rest of the book is interesting. Mine and my hubby's favorite new opening line is from Sanderson's Elantris: "Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity."

laughingwolf said...

the best advice on openings i read was from a screenwriting guide: grab your audience by the throat in the first scene and don't let go til you type the final period.

jodi said...

Charles, I always, in addition to the book jacket, read the first page. I gotta feel it--or not. Sometimes my current mood will dictate whether the book makes my cut that day or not.

Cloudia said...

I love to read opening lines.
I took some care with my own: counterintuitive hopefully arousing interest to know more...

Your relationship sounds like ours. we 4 are very lucky folks indeed!

Aloha and thanks for the thoughtful lesson. I like your openings!


Comfort Spiral

ivan said...

Hm. Hate to disagree with you but Fred Saberhagen's opener “In what felt to him like the first cold morning of the world, he groped for fire'" is arrestting, but maybe he should get a citation for bad grammar.
I ain't no grammarian, but read it again:
Who groped for fire? He?
Did the morning grope for fire?

Can't worhip these cats blindly.
At leasst that's my half-a-buck.
Maybe I've had so much jubjuctive mood, I've gecome in DICK-a-tive.
Yeah, some students have called me Moby.

Charles Gramlich said...

Scott Parker, I've generally not liked King's fantasy nearly as much as his horror. Misery and Salem's Lot were truly fine works, though. And he has a lot of great short stories. I definitely like the Gaiman one.

G., the thing about dialogue to me is that it's major purpose is to create character but I can't get to know the characters instantly with dialogue opening where I seem able to judge the characters better with openings that show them acting.

Gabby, well, if I 'only' read books with perfect openings I wouldn't get far. I will certainly keep reading a book with an average opening, as long as it involves me.

laughingwolf, yep. If only it were that easy to do.

jodi, I'm the same way. Fortunately, I've got many hundreds of unread books around so I can always find 'something' that will meet my momentary tastes.

Cloudia, I actually keep a file I all the Perfect line, which has a lot of openings in it.

ivan, well, I'm no grammar whiz but I think the grammar of that opening is fine. "In what felt to him like the first cold morning of the world" keeps the focus on "him" as the subject. Then "he groped for fire" is a following clause that ties the "he" back clearly to the "him." I see a lot of weird grammatical constructions, especially when writers include four or five clauses in a sentence, but this one seemed fine to me.

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent, and I totally agree with the point about being made to feel uncomfortable (at least at first). That's a good thing, from food to fiction.

Anne Vis said...

Interesting article, Charles! I also have put books down because I did not like the first sentence! For some reason I think we need some sort of emotional connection to what we are reading in order to make it captivating.

Mary Witzl said...

Beginnings are terribly important for me. I can still remember standing in front of the library bookshelves as a little kid, deciding whether or not I'd check the book out after reading the first paragraph. I used to feel very powerful, putting the book back or stacking it on the table in my take-home pile.

I'm more forgiving now, as an adult. As a kid, I was a ruthless and exacting reader who settled for nothing less than perfect.

Randy Johnson said...

It's funny, the one opening line that sticks in my mind and I can't remember the title. It was a short story by Alan Dean Foster(and laying my hands on the collection is not an option because of my propensity to loan books. I should have learned by now).
Anyway, after racking my brain, I'll just give you the line.

"This is the story of two people and how three of them died."

Say What? I, of course, had to immediately read the story to see how that was possible. And now I can't remember the title.. This is embarrassing.

G. B. Miller said...

Interesting point of view about dialouge you have there. I suppose there is something to be said about wanting to experience a character more deeply in a scene as opposed to having him/her say something right off the bat.

I guess its something I need to work on a little bit. I haven't quite got that comfortable yet starting out a story with a partial description (although I am getting there) right off the bat.

the walking man said...

If ya can't set the hook in the first twenty words i am going to escape before you get a second chance. i may read on a couple of chapters but the hook just isn't there in most cases.

Chris Benjamin said...

beginnings are so important to me i often write good ones, become attached to them, and loathe having to cut them when they no longer fit the finished product.

My favourite beginning to a poem of mine:

Your mouth tasted like a train.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, yeah, the discomfort lets you know you're not in Kansas anymore so to speak.

Anne Vis, I've especially done that when I was just in the wrong mood. Sometimes I have a low tolerance for what I see as uninteresting.

Mary Witzl, that's intersting. I think I'm more ruthless now, but we may be talking about a different kind of thing. I know I had little truck with "classics" when I was young becuase the few I'd been forced to read were so bad. So maybe that's similar.

Randy Johnson, hum, that does sound interesting. I've only read a few novelizations by Foster. I read only one of his non-novelizations, icerigger maybe. Don't remember much about it, but his novelization of The Thing was truly great.

G., it may be partly my training in behavioral psychology. People are revealed far more by what they do than what they say. Their words are not as important to me as their actions.

Mark, I don't usually give up on a book in the first line, Anne Rice aside, but I'm like you. A page or two, five at the most, and I know.

benjibopper, I know what you mean. I will work excessively to make what I think of as a good opening work. But if I do cut it I always save it in another file just in case. Intersting start to that poem.

Lauren said...

Openings are slightly critical for me, but more the first few pages verses the first few lines. Although, I have been turned off my the first couple lines. Yeah, something talking about the vampire walking slowly would make me shut the book and never open it again.

Rick said...

Purple prose is such a subjective term that I have a hard time paying much attention to it. And frankly, I liked your openings better than those of Lansdale and Straub. They're great, but you must have been in the zone when you created the openings of yours that you cited. Nice work, Charles.

Heff said...

With most things, I'm more in to the ending.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

They say the opening line sells the story; I think too often in a writer's attempt to make an impact, and to imbue the line with urgent meaning, the line instead becomes something ridiculous.

But hey, after "Call me Ishmael"...everything else kind of falls flat.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lauren, most of the time I give a book a few pages too. Except when something really lame turns me off.

Rick, thanks. Those openings are very descriptive, I find, and I like that sometimes. Although not always. You're right, purple prose is very subjective.

Heff, the opening sells your first piece, the ending sells your second.

Stewart Sternberg, I'm sure openings can be overwritten but I like a bit of heightened language to catch my attention. AS for "call me Ishmael," that's a pretty lame ass opening line.

Travis Cody said...

I think it depends on my mood. But in general, beginnings to me are about more than the first sentence or paragraph. It's easy enough to get a faulty first impression.

So even if the first few lines don't launch me directly into the action, I give it more time. I've been rewarded many times by a great read that didn't seem to begin well.

Charles Gramlich said...

travis, oh yes, I'll generally give most books more than that one paragraph or so, but I just love it when I find an opening that really hits me hard.

sarah said...


I just stopped by from a link on walking mans blog. Interesting thoughts, beginnings, whole books, life seems a long series of them.
I never thought, like really, about the first lines in a book but definitely now will focus more. Good advice.)
As to interview with a vampire, i did read it and was for me one of the most moving books i have ever read but I read it for a course so the beginning would have made little difference to me continuing.

Interesting thoughts, thank you,


oh and gratz on 20 years.))

FS said...

"This is the story of two people and how three of them died."

This is from the opening of Alan Dean Foster's "The Emoman." It's in the first paragraph, although not the opening sentence.