We can get lessons about our prose writing from all genres, of course. In terms of creating a dramatic opening, you might look to poetry for some instructive examples. Take just two.
First, the beginning of Robert Frost’s “Home Burial,” a poem the contemporary poet Seamus Heaney, among others, admires so much:
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him.
This is so loaded with tension; it’s like a tightly strung bow—in fact, a too-tightly strung bow. The two people, a couple we must assume, are already facing off, and there is the strong whiff of conflict. Otherwise, why would it make a difference who saw whom first? And the poem goes on to great fierce emotions over their dead child.
The second is from William Butler Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl,
It’s hard to think of a better example of in media res, starting in the middle of the drama. Those first two lines are a blunt announcement; everything else is assumed. Poetry is a good place to inspire yourself to be bolder when it comes to openings, especially with fine narrative poets like Yeats and Frost. And when you come to think of it, either of those two beginnings would fit quite well at the start of a work of prose.
I’d like to make a point that is applicable to all kinds of openings with the first sentence of Joan Didion’s essay “In Bed.” It’s from her celebrated book, The White Album:
Three, four, sometimes five times a month, I spend the day in bed with migraine headaches, insensible to the world around me.
The point is: an opening sentence, or even paragraph, can not, and should not, try to do too much. It can only do so much effectively, and if you burden it with too much responsibility, it will go crazy after a fashion and not communicate anything at all. Didion’s line—“three, four sometimes five”—is a relatively simple statement whose information can be accessed easily. She tells us that three or four or five times a month she has a migraine headache that is so severe she has to stay in bed. That’s it.
Sometimes writers have the fear that if they don’t get it all in the first sentence—all the exciting, dramatic moments—then the reader will lose interest. Not true. In fact, in my experience, the simpler, the briefer, the more compact the opening sentence, the better. Of course, this is a generalization, but it’s not a bad generalization to consider, and even to try. Remembrance of Things Past, that enormous series of novels by Marcel Proust begins, “For a long time I used to go to bed early.” Apparently, the paucity of information hasn’t stopped people from reading on. Quite the opposite. Its very incompleteness is one of the reasons you read on.
Sometimes an opening gives you a kind of fair warning, a little bit like those road signs we are so familiar with: “Winding Road Ahead.” Here’s the beginning of Russell Baker’s delightful memoir Growing Up:
At the age of eighty my mother had her last bad fall, and after that her mind wandered free through time. Some days she went to weddings and funerals that had taken place half a century earlier. On others she presided over family dinners cooked on Sunday afternoon for children who were now gray with age. Through all this she lay in bed but moved across time, traveling among the dead decades with a speed and ease beyond the gift of physical science.
This book centers on Baker’s mother—with strong appearances from his aunts and uncles and, in the end, from his future wife. So the promise he’s making here, with the spotlight entirely on his mother, is more than fulfilled later. The book is at its core about women much more than it is about men. It is his mother, his aunts, his future wife, and, to a certain degree, his sister who are at the artistic core of this book. Baker is also doing something else, though. He is addressing the issue of time directly. He is saying to us, through his mother’s dementia, that I, the writer, will travel freely through time, too. For one thing, I have to follow my mother. For another, it’s the best way for me to tell my story. By facing this issue directly, Baker prepares us for shifts and abrupt changes in time where they’re needed.
A beginning can indicate what we should be looking for, be prepared to think about, and to see in a story. How we should focus our attention. Hemingway’s justly-famous short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” begins this way:
It was late and every one had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.
Information is disseminated, to be sure. We learn that there is an old man, that he’s deaf, that he likes to sit late in the café. But, to my mind that’s not the most significant thing the first two lines convey—though, indeed, we need to know these matters to follow the story. What I believe this beginning does most significantly is to make us aware that the story will be about subtle, delicate things, about shadings of experiences and realities. Hemingway does this by, in the very first line, telling us about the “shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” Now, why do we need to know that, if not because Hemingway wants us to be aware of such subtleties, such nuances of experience. And that’s true, too, in the second line when Hemingway writes, “at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.” Hemingway is telling a story about a man who is capable of experiencing how the dew settled the dust and, in fact has a preference for that delicate change.
Why is it so important that Hemingway place this information at the beginning of his story? In fact, at the core of the short story is the idea of dignity, of how dignity is often based on nuance, on a kind of delicate compassion. One waiter in the café understands this, the other does not. And when the waiter who does understand goes to a bar seeking some comprehension of this idea, he doesn’t find it, and all, to his mind is nada y pues nada. We have been alerted to this theme from the very first sentence, perhaps without even realizing it.
A beginning can, in a form of literary shorthand—in a kind of code, perhaps—give you all the elements of the story to come. Here’s how Joseph Conrad shows us his protagonist for the first time in the novel Lord Jim:
He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it. It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else.
These three sentences bear scrutiny. The details are fascinating, starting with the height, “an inch, perhaps two,” which, in its indefiniteness, makes it absolutely precise and indelible. Moreover, there is, in the physical description, a foreshadowing of what we will come to know. The “deep, loud voice” has “nothing aggressive in it” and “was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else.” This is the man who left hundreds of pilgrims to die on the open water and must live with that decision inside himself for the rest of his life. The aggression is turned inward. His deep, loud voice is meant for him. This is a prophetic description, and all the elements of the essential conflict of the book are coiled within these somewhat innocent-looking lines. What this does is to set you on a psychological or emotional course artfully, subtly. Those words will resonate later in the book.
I’d like to conclude with one of the most charming, engaging, irresistible beginnings I know. It’s from the novella A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean:
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
If you can resist that, then you have enormous willpower or a pathological hatred of fishing. Even then, I would venture that your curiosity is piqued enough to make you read on. You probably have to know just why and how there was no distinction between religion and fly fishing. Maclean shows you in this affecting story of two brothers, sons of a Presbyterian minister, who taught the brothers how to fish, but who couldn’t prevent one from his tragic end.
Once you start looking at beginnings carefully—good beginnings—studying them from a writer’s point of view, you can see how writers have taken full advantage of the power and the influence uniquely imbued in them. Then you’ll be more likely to take full advantage of them yourself. They only come once.