It’s time for a sneak preview of my new World War II novel, (Bestselling Title To Be Announced Later). Here is the opening sentence:
Harold Henry Mahler was known as Hal by all freshmen and by almost all townspeople.
Pretty overwhelming, right?
No? A little plain?
JUST A MINUTE!! Try this instead:
Hal smashed his shovel into the mound of bituminous coal that overflowed the back end of the loading dock.
Lights! Camera! Action! Doesn’t it sing?
But, which one should I use?
The Primacy of What Comes First
I’m only starting to write this novel. Unlike some authors, I tend to write the first chapter first and then go on from there.
Trouble is, you don’t always know what’s going to wind up being the first chapter. Maybe when you complete the first draft you suddenly realize your first chapter was a waste of time. The SECOND CHAPTER is where you should start. So you cut Chapter One, re-number Chapter Two, and work in essential bits from the original first chapter along the way.
But you do have to begin somewhere. Any other course is madness.
If we assume that Chapter One shall remain Chapter One up to the time it reaches the publisher, we need to start with a brilliant first line.
People often pick up a nice-looking book, read the first sentence of the first chapter, and decide whether to buy. If your opening line doesn’t grab them, YOU’RE DOOMED.
That’s hardly an exaggeration, Faithful Reader. Literary agents and acquisition editors usually want to see the first ten pages only. If those pages don’t grab them, YOU’RE DOOMED. And if the very first line starts you off in a shaky way . . . well, don’t quit your day job.
So: How do you know what first line to write? How do you even know what kind of a first line to write?
“Call me Ishmael.”
There is a lot of precedent for writing a first line that simply introduces the main character, but that’s currently out of vogue.
This might be called the Gilbert-and-Sullivan mode of character development. Some guy steps out on stage and sings, “I am the very model of a modern major general”; or “I am the monarch of the sea, the ruler of the Queen’s Navee”; or “A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist; to nobody second, I’m certainly reckoned a true philanthropist.”
Herman Melville starts his Great American Novel Contest entry with “Call me Ishmael.” He follows this up with paragraphs of philosophical disquisition upon just why Ishmael chooses to go to sea. Slow going, but that was a typical pace of novels not so long ago.
J.R.R. Tolkien announces, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He then describes the hobbit-hole at length before even beginning to describe the hobbit himself. And he tells an awful lot about this hobbit before even giving him a name, and goes on to detail the history of his family and the history of hobbits in general before setting anything in motion at all. The pace is almost glacial.
Or how about the way J.D. Salinger begins The Catcher in the Rye? “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
What these openings have in common, besides a leisurely approach to the introduction of the main character, is a sublime confidence by the authors that they can accomplish that introduction in such an enticing way that the reader will not simply become bored and put down the book.
Few authors writing today have that kind of confidence. Perhaps that’s why we rely so heavily on opening in medias res—in the midst of things.
“Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”
When a book starts right in the middle of something, the effect on the reader is momentary disorientation. You don’t know what is going on, so you have to pay close attention to whatever clues may come your way.
“When he finished packing, he walked out on to the third-floor porch of the barracks brushing the dust from his hands, a very neat and deceptively slim young man in the summer khakis that were still early morning fresh.” Thus James Jones introduces his protagonist, Private Prewitt, in From Here to Eternity. But we don’t know it’s Private Prewitt. We just know it’s some deceptively slim young guy in khakis. Why was he packing? We don’t know. Barracks? He must be in the army. But which barracks? Where?
The author’s advantage in a cold opening like this is that the reader must scramble to catch up. This allows the writer to hold the reader’s interest by doling out clues one at a time.
My debut historical novel, Price of Passage, opens like this: “Anders Gunstensen jumped up from his straw pallet, struck a match, and re-lit the oil lamp.” You’re immediately in the midst of something, but you don’t quite know what. You can guess, however, that it’s in old times, because Anders is sleeping on a straw pallet and using an oil lamp. In the next two sentences you will learn that he is focused on emigrating to America. The story goes on from there.
The reason in medias res is such a common technique for starting a book—besides the effect of giving the reader a lot of questions to answer—is that it puts the reader inside the story. The narration, even if written in the third person, presents the viewpoint and experiences of the protagonist, who becomes “the viewpoint character.”
It’s hard to say for sure, though, that in all cases this kind of deep-viewpoint narration, and the starting of the story in midstream, are definitely superior to other ways of telling a story. If that were so, then we would have to say Dickens wasted his ink when he penned:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
“There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.”–Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
So, amid these considerations, what can we say about the two proposed opening lines of my World War II novel, (Bestselling Title To Be Announced Later)?
Did I leave something out?
My first opener (Harold Henry Mahler was known as Hal . . .) tells us something definite about the main character right away. But to continue down the path of explaining who Hal is, and why the reader should care, is fraught with danger. Unless it’s written very fetchingly—or maybe even if it is written very fetchingly—it will soon become tedious.
The second one (Hal smashed his shovel into the pile . . .) is all action. It plunges into the story without wasting space on static depictions of the character. But mere narration of Hal’s vigorous deeds in the coal yard will not engage the audience in his life enough to make them care what happens to him.
The thing I neglected to mention above, Kind Reader, is that Sentence One must not only arouse interest on its own. It must also serve as keynote to a First Chapter that starts the whole story moving. Very soon, readers must know something about who Hal is, where he comes from, what kind of people he is related to, what kinds of things he does, and why he does them. That’s not too much to ask of an initial chapter. But it’s not easy to cram all that stuff in. At least, not in a smooth, easy read that draws readers into the story.
So, here’s another possible opener:
Hal Mahler, 14, delighted in his casual mastery of balance as he jogged down the state highway in the dark, feet slipping on the rimy macadam, to keep up with Pop.
We’re no longer in the coal yard. We had to change the setting in order to come up with a scene that would carry all that freight we just mentioned.
I’m not saying this new sentence is perfect. But look at all the things it does:
1. It tells us something of the essence of Hal’s personality—his athleticism and grace, his energy, and his capacity for delight.
2. It relates him to another character, Pop—whom we may rightly infer is his father—and tells us something about Pop: His own energy, urgency, and even his demanding nature—for the context implies that Hal is eager to please Pop by keeping up.
3. It still gives the reader some worry to chew on—what are they doing out on a state highway in the dark?
4. As an added bonus, it includes the phrase “rimy macadam.” The second word, macadam, places the scene in a bygone time, for nobody talks about macadamized roads anymore. And the first word, “rimy,” stakes a claim to this being a literary novel. To solidify such a claim, we must of course come up with a title that is not only bestselling but also literary.
Anyway, you get the idea. This opening sentence pulls a lot more weight than either of the other two, in my not-so-humble opinion.
Not bad for three or four days’ work.
Tune in next time for another exciting adventure.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer