Creating Compelling Openings Part I

by Richard Goodman

The beginning of your story, essay, or novel carries more weight than any other part of your work. This is simply because it is the beginning. The reason for its prominence is similar to seeing anything for the first time. Your senses are attuned. Your expectations are high. You’re looking intently at what’s there. It’s analogous to seeing a person for the first time. When someone walks into a room, a person you’ve never seen before in your life, you experience that person intensely. What is the person wearing? How tall is she or he? What color are his or her eyes? How does he or she walk? What can you read in his or her face? Are you attracted to him or her? And on and on, a flood of impressions, things noted and stored, judgments made with an alert, impressionable mind.
The next time that person enters the room, though—i.e., your second line or second paragraph—everything is calmer, the intensity is far less. You may have certain new impressions or observations, and the first ones may be refined, but that second look is nowhere as potent, as intense, as the first. That person may not be old news, but he or she is certainly not new news.
Looking at your first sentence, or the first paragraph, that way is helpful. (When I refer to beginnings here, I’ll freely allude to the first sentence as well as to the first paragraph as the situation requires. The principle is the same.) And revelatory. It shows you the impact it can have. And does. It can help you to understand the opportunity you have as a writer here.
There are certain things the beginning of your story can do and, because of its position, its first-in-line-ness, is poised to do. (Let’s call all the categories—novel, story, essay—simply, “story.”) But there is one thing it must do: compel the reader to continue reading. Or, to put it another way, to make the reader unable not to read on. If the reader stops cold after the first line, it doesn’t matter what else that line does, or what follows. Granted, the reader is usually fairly tolerant at the beginning of a story. He or she will usually give you the benefit of the doubt and continue reading, but if the first sentence—or sentences—aren’t especially inviting or tempting, the reader is already wary and perhaps even slightly disappointed. You have a strike against you.

Some examples from the world of fiction:

Call me Ishmael.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

None of them knew the color of the sky.

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Each of these openings fulfills, in its own way, the task of being irresistible. Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Stephen Crane and James M. Cain each do it in his or her own way, of course. Each first line has a compactness and confidence, a sense that there is more here and that the “more” will be worth your while. You don’t want to know, in Moby Dick, why they call him Ishmael.  You are very attracted to the slightly ambiguous way the narrator introduces himself—is that his real name?—and, more important, by the simple, taut way he presents himself, in three words with great energy and economy. With Jane Austen’s first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, you encounter grace and wit melded perfectly, here a promise of writing that appeals to our highest refinement. Crane’s opening line to his story, “The Open Boat,” following that title, tells us a great deal about those in the open boat, but not enough. We read on. James M. Cain’s first sentence in The Postman Always Rings Twice, promises to be the exact opposite of Austen’s ride, and, if we are in the mood for hard-boiled fiction, that’s just fine by us.
Of course, these lines can, and do, other things as well. The tone is definitely set with “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” This will not be The Importance of Being Earnest
We each have our own favorite first line or lines, and this essay could continue for quite a while just naming them, beginning with a great favorite, “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” (Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.) Suffice it to say that there are many more, but, as the radio announcers say, our time is limited.
What can, and should, an opening do, besides being irresistible? It can provide information. Not necessarily by providing facts—although it can do that—because information can be emotional or tonal. It can, speaking of tone, set the tone. It can create a sense of drama, mystery or tension.  It can introduce a character. It can hint at a problem. It can engage the reader by the voice of the narrator. It can foretell the ending. (“In my beginning is my end,” T. S. Eliot wrote.)  It can do all of these things, or some of them, at the same time. It’s a unique opportunity. You’ll have only one first opened door with your story. Only one, “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?”
How do writers take advantage of the opening of their story and use it skillfully to accomplish what they need to do? We can begin with the simple act of dispensing of information. There’s no better example of how that’s done well than the Preface of Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Remember that when this book was published in 2001, very few people had ever heard of Seabiscuit, much less had known anything about the horse’s remarkable, unlikely drama. That seems incredible now, after the hugely successful book and the equally successful movie, but it’s true. Not only that, Hillenbrand knew very well that no book about a horse had ever done remotely well in the history of American literature. (I’m excluding books for children and young adults, because this book is not in that category.) She had her work cut out for her. Here’s what she did to counter that in the first paragraph of the book’s Preface: 

In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.

What she does here, foremost, in this brief paragraph, is to get the reader to understand how big, culturally speaking, Seabiscuit was. First, we notice the famous—and infamous—company she puts Seabiscuit in: Roosevelt, Pope Pius XI, Clark Gable. Mussolini and Hitler. But it’show she puts Seabiscuit in that company that makes this so convincing. The names are intricately balanced. If you were to diagram them, poetically speaking, it would be AAA—all the political figures—; B—the Pope—; and CCC—all the well-known cultural icons. Look closely, and you’ll see this paragraph is even more fully balanced. The year 1938 is at the start of the paragraph, and it’s also near the end. The word “newspaper” is placed before the litany of names, as well as after. Hillenbrand further provides a sense of balance with the litany itself: “was not”; “wasn’t”; “nor was”; “wasn’t even”, setting up the dramatic “It was.” Having been set to expect a person, we are, instead, given the name of a horse. That horse—the one who was more famous that Roosevelt, Clark Gable or the Pope—was named Seabiscuit.
No good artist ever does anything without a reason. So you can be certain that every single thing in this paragraph was done deliberately. The effect is to get you to look at this horse in a way you’ve never looked at another horse and to believe this is going to be a story worth reading. Of course we know the denouement to this paragraph is going to be Seabiscuit. That’s the name on the cover of the book. So how can we still be surprised? We’re surprised by the facts that we didn’t know, and by how they’re presented to us. This writing is the result of patient crafting, but it’s also the result of research and of marshaling facts. These facts didn’t just fall from the sky, though; Hillenbrand rooted them out—obsessively, as she herself describes it. To find those facts she began, “prowling Internet search engines, memorabilia auctions, and obscure bookstores, writing letters and placing ‘information wanted’ ads, and making hundreds of calls to strangers.” She didn’t stop until she found what she was looking for. This, with her craft, produced a gem of an opening paragraph.
Let’s look to drama, to a dramatic beginning. For that, turn to Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss. To say that it caused a big stir when it was published in 1997 would be the very definition of understatement. It’s the true story of an affair Harrison had with her father. You may be shaking your head already, saying, well, how could younot make a dramatic opening with that kind of material? Dramatic subject matter does not a dramatic opening necessarily make, however—or a book, for that matter. Here’s how Harrison introduces this inflammatory material:

We meet at airports. We meet in cities where we’ve never been before. We meet where no one will recognize us. One of us flies, the other brings a car, and in it we set out for some destination.  Increasingly, the places we go are unreal places: the Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon—places as stark and beautiful and deadly as those revealed in satellite photographs of distant planets, airless, burning, inhuman. Against such backdrops, my father takes my face in his hands.

What we notice right away is that it’s written in the first person plural. “We.” That’s a little bit unusual. What’s more intriguing, though, is how the “we” is used. Right away, the reader knows there’s something illicit, wrong, or forbidden. Why meet at an airport? Why meet in cities where you’ve never been before? Why be afraid someone will recognize you? And, of course, the ultimate question: Who is “we”? Notice that in the second paragraph Harrison continues with the mystery, still not naming who the other half of “we” is. We do know from the first sentence in the second paragraph that “we” is just two people. Then we have the litany of “airless, burning, inhuman” places where “we” meet: “the Petrified Forest, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon.”  These descriptions point to something remote in the human spirit, something hard to survive. What is that?
Then: she tells us. But look at how she tells us. She lets it slip out casually, almost unnoticed—and it would be, if the word “father” weren’t so astonishing in this context: “Against such backdrops, my father takes my face in his hands.” She doesn’t say: “The person I meet in these airless, inhuman places is—my father.” She skips that stage and goes right into their erotic activity together, what is truly forbidden, the answer to why they’re meeting in those remote places. Because although we know there is something emotionally dangerous involved, we don’t know exactly what that something is yet. If Harrison simply said that person was my father, we still wouldn’t know. We do now. The revelation is even more shocking, because we’re walking in on them in the middle of it. Imagine what this opening would be like if it were written in an obvious way. 
The lesson here is not that you need something this explosive to write about, but that you should construct the releasing of information in a deft, poetic way, taking your time, looking at how you can inform the reader as well as surprise him or her. To be patient.
The beginning of poet and memoirist Molly Peacock’s essay, “Passion Flowers in Winter,”about the 18th century English botanical illustrator, Mrs. Mary Delany, demonstrates the salutary effect of the personality of the narrator can have on the reader. Here’s how it starts:

Imagine starting your life’s work at the age of seventy-three, as Mrs. D. (This is what they call her in the Print Study Room at the British Museum.) Mrs. Mary Delany, a student of Handel, a sometime dinner partner of Jonathan Swift, and a devoted subject of mad King George invented the precursor of what we call collage. One afternoon in 1773, she noticed that a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium. She made this visual imaginative connection shortly after the death of her beloved second husband, Dr. Patrick Delany, while she was staying at a friend’s house. (Some house! It was Bulstrode, the British estate, ancestral home of the Duchess of Portland, Mrs. Delany’s lifelong friend.)           
Peacock begins her piece with the marvelous fairy-tale like, once-upon-a-time, hopeful word “Imagine.” We see that the word is directed to us. “Imagine starting your life’s work at the age of seventy-three…” You meanmy work? Yes, yours. Peacock also employs a minor but appealing technique. She gives us a series of asides. Not just any kind of asides; they feel like she’s whispering to us in the back of a lecture hall while the speaker goes on. She does this with parentheses. Look at the first one: “(This is what they call her in the Print Study Room at the British Museum.)” We get an inside look at the museum, a little private tour. The second is so casual, it’s close to gossipy: “(Some house! It was Bulstrode, the British estate, ancestral home of the Duchess of Portland, Mrs. Delany’s lifelong friend.)” This is a way in which the narrator speaks directly to us, the reader. She knows about us. She cares about us. This technique of parenthetical asides is one you can use yourself. It requires discretion, of course, but more than that it requires the desire to open the windows and let some fresh air into your story.
It’s worth noting a technique that all three beginnings have in common. It’s simple but highly effective. That is: grouping things in threes. You see it in the Preface to Seabiscuit: three statesmen, three cultural icons. You see it in The Kiss, in the first paragraph. We, we, we; the three places they visit; the three modifiers used to describe those places. You see it in The Paper Garden: “…a student of Handel, a sometime dinner partner of Jonathan Swift, and a devoted subject to of mad King George…” Notice, too, that Molly Peacock does this for essentially the same reason as Hillenbrand: to make Mrs. Delany important, or significant, in our eyes by placing her next to these figures we all know. Why is it that all three of these writers—and many more—feed us information in threes? No in twos, not in fours, not in sixes, but in threes?
It’s a matter of rhythm, of melody, but it’s also a matter of symmetry. We usually associate that word with a one-on-one relationship. The left side is symmetrical with the right side. There are numerous iconic examples: yin-yang; two-faced Janus; the masks of tragedy and comedy; before and after, and so on. Things in threes, though, are just as symmetrical. The symmetry lies in the imperfection, in the lack of one-on-one; it’s a more human kind of symmetry instead of a purely mathematical kind of symmetry. Two items enclose a third. There is a completeness to things in threes that groupings in twos or fours can’t achieve. There is a beginning, middle, and an end. It’s no coincidence that the mysterious, magical numbers in cultures are uneven: 3, 7, 9, 11. These writers all know that, and they take advantage of that. Of course, grouping things in threes is not a technique confined to the first paragraph, but it’s fine, resonant way of pulling your reader into the story.

This article originally appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle.