Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Best Beginnings

Last week I wrote about What Makes a Great Beginning to a novel. Today I am focusing on two beginnings that in my opinion best reflect the elements of a great opening passage. To recap, these elements include conflict (or the hint of conflict) and writing that sets the tone or mood for the story. The presence of an interesting character (though not necessarily the main character) can also be important. With that said, here are my top two.

The first is the opening passage of Stephen King’s fantasy masterpiece The Gunslinger:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.  
The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death. An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its way through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway. Coaches and buckas had followed it. The world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.
– Stephen King, The Gunslinger

This opening is hard to beat. It begins with two interesting characters: a gunslinger and a man in black. On top of that, there is immediate conflict: a chase across the desert; pursuit by the gunslinger. The second paragraph does the rest, setting the tone and mood of the story, and describing the story world in less than a hundred words. We can already imagine this post-apocalyptic wasteland, and we want to read on about this gunslinger and the man in black racing across it.

The second top beginning – and my personal favorite – comes from Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth:

The small boys came early to the hanging. 
It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting. 
The boys despised everything their elders valued. They scorned beauty and mocked goodness. They would hoot with laughter at the sight of a cripple, and if they saw a wounded animal they would stone it to death. They boasted of injuries and wore their scars with pride, and they reserved their special admiration for mutilation: a boy with a finger missing could be their king. They loved violence; they would run miles to see bloodshed; and they never missed a hanging.
– Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth

Few beginnings set the tone for a novel as well as this one. The Pillars of the Earth, in part, is about the violence of the Middle Ages, and the small boys with all their love of violence encapsulates this notion perfectly. We also get a good sense of the medieval setting: hovels and huddled wooden huts, a silent marketplace, and waiting gallows. In addition, there is a strong hint of conflict – after all, someone is about to be hanged! The complete scene contains a number of characters critical to the novel, even if they take a few more paragraphs to appear in the opening. But the absence of an interesting character in the first three paragraphs is of little consequence. The point is the small boys and the violence they represent, reflecting the theme of the novel.

There were many other good beginnings on my list of ten, yet I thought these two were the best examples of a great beginning. But let me know what you think: are these the two best beginnings, and if not, why?

4 comments:

Pickle said...

Could not agree more with your selections. While I'm a huge Stephen King fan, I'm not a particular lover of the Gunslinger books... but still find this one of the most enthralling opening lines ever. Visceral, simple and precise. Nice analysis.

Joseph Finley said...

Pickle - thanks for the comment! It will be interesting to see what Stephen King does with his new Dark Tower novel, The Wind Through the Keyhole. It's only been out in the US for two days, but it's already #9 on Amazon's bestseller list. One thing's for sure, however: its beginning is not as good as The Gunslinger.

Bard Fan said...

Gotta love the opening one-sentence paragraph from Follett's "The Pillars of the Earth."
Short is good.

Joseph Finley said...

Bard Fan - Thanks for the comment; I could not agree more!