Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Makes a Great Beginning?

For the past ten weeks since I started my “Beginning” of the Week series, I’ve been asking this question in one form or another. So this week, I thought I’d discuss in a little more detail what makes a good beginning to a novel. Author Nancy Kress in her book Beginnings, Middles & Ends argues that a good beginning has at least four essential qualities. The first is the presence of an interesting character, though not necessarily the main character. The second is conflict – or at least the hint of conflict. The third is the use of specific details. And the fourth is a writing style that proves the author is credible.

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, one of my favorite books on writing (albeit one focused on screenplays, but equally applicable to novels), comes at it a little differently. Snyder wrote that the opening provides the first impression of what the story is about. It sets the tone and mood, and signals to the reader the type of story he or she is about to experience. He also noted that the opening image should be the opposite of the story’s ending, setting up the dramatic change to come. 
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ..."
To me, tone and the hint of conflict are the most important elements. We need to get a sense of what type of book we're about to experience, and we need to feel like something important is about to happen. Otherwise it’s too easy to stop reading and pick up something else. An interesting character is a plus, but I’ve read many good beginnings (usually prologues) that involve less significant – and often expendable – characters. (By the way, the prologue could be the topic of its own post; some folks hate them, some folks love them.) But given Kress’ and Snyder’s criteria, how would you evaluate the ten beginnings I’ve featured on this blog? To recap, my "beginnings" have focused on the opening passages from the following novels:
  1. The Gunslinger by Stephen King
  2. The Book of Splendor by Frances Sherwood
  3. The Briar King by Greg Keyes
  4. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  5. Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish by Morgan Llywellyn
  6. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  7. A Games of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
  8. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
  9. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
  10. The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
To be fair to the authors of these fine works, a “beginning” is more than just the first one or two paragraphs I’ve highlighted on this blog. But given consumers’ busy schedules, short attention spans, and virtually unlimited options in purchasing fiction, that may be all some folks read of a sample chapter on Amazon or Barnes & Noble before deciding whether to buy the book. I’ve often been guilty of this myself when perusing novels before determining whether to download one to my Kindle. So, if you’re interested in entertaining this little challenge, take a look at each of these beginnings and tell me what you think.  Which one is the best, and why?

(I promise to deliver my verdict next week ...:)


Robin said...

I love great beginnings, and miracles too!

Robin said...

And Pillars of the Earth is my favorite!

Anne said...

To the monk in the cellar...i invite you to venture to the "white side". Ahhh Qupe also makes a deliriously yummy Rusanne/Marsanne that harkens from Rhone but is delivered in a decidedly West Coast style.

jmthom4 said...

I'd love to know what you think of Faulkner, Kerouac and / or Steinbeck in this regard (even 19th century French + British authors). Although their style is particular and their genre removed from your project, their conception (or realization?) of the "incipit" is interesting in a larger perspective. Do you think historical / fantasy fiction levels with "traditional" fiction on a theoretical level?

Very interested in your "monster" section, especially considering the origin of the word.

Looking forward to future posts.

Joseph Finley said...

All, thanks for the comments so far!

Robin - thanks for picking one of the 10 beginnings. Hopefully we'll get some other votes and generate a lively debate!

Ann - I suspect the Drunken Monk is already searching for a bottle of that wine!

jmthom4 - Interesting question about how the styles of Faulkner, Kerouac or Steinbeck would compare to the beginnings I've described here. I don't know how to answer that right now, though I suspect readers of literary fiction may have more patience with a novel's opening, but I could be wrong. Let me think on that, and on your second question as well. Also, I'm glad you like the blog!

lori novack said...

The Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite!

lori novack said...

The Fellowship of the Ring is my favorite!

We said...

I go with Dark Tower, though all I'm really referring to is the first sentence. King practically could have stopped after that, and still had a great story unravel in the reader's imagination...

Joseph Finley said...

We - thanks for the comment. That was among my top two as well.