Monday, January 13, 2014

Beginning Well


The beginning of a book, ideally, grips the reader from the very first page, with an opening that sets the mood, begins the story, and enthralls at first sight. 

Once upon a time….
Once upon a time is a magic beginning. It instantly brings to mind princesses, horses, knights in shining armor, evil dragons, and enchanted forests. Once upon a time means pretend you are a little child and it’s bedtime-story-time. It means start dreaming of swords, crowns, and bows and arrows. It means get a cup of tea, wrap yourself in your grandmother’s quilt, and listen to the tale. It begins with Once upon a time and it will end with and they lived happily ever after.

“Call me Ishmael.”
The first line from Moby Dick. I’ve never been able to get very far into the book, but the first line intrigues me.
“Call me Ishmael.” It sounds like a secret agent or a outlawed prince. It smacks of intrigue and the untamed and a last desperate stand. This is an amazing, enchanting, dramatic first line. I wish Herman Melville hadn’t gotten it first.

“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 evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens’ famous first line from A Tale Of Two Cities. It’s famous for good reason.

Those books are kind of in the Hall of Fame of first lines. Not all great books have great beginnings. Ivanhoe, for example, starts like this:
“In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster.” And from there on it talks about the setting (and the language) for two or three pages before a single character is introduced. One must be determined to get to the good parts in Ivanhoe.

So while the first line or even the first chapter is not everything, it is still extremely important, especially in a culture where few are willing to read through a boring intro no matter how good the rest of the book is.