July 20, 2010

First Paragraphs

Piggy-backing on yesterday’s post, I wanted to talk about beginnings, specifically first paragraphs. They’re on my mind. I’m working on revising my novel, and at the moment I’m cogitating how to begin the thing, because it’s definitely not working how it is. Flat as a skunk on the highway.

So, last night I read the first pages of about 40 books ~ in this case historic fiction or fiction set in the past because that’s what the book I’m revising is. I narrowed it down to the 12 books I liked the best, and then I read and reread them for how they did it, what approach they took.

It seems to me, among these twelve, there were three approaches that really worked: 1) First paragraph reflects the inciting incident and/or major conflict. 2) First paragraph describes an interesting situation that makes you immediately wonder about backstory and about what is going to happen but is not the inciting incident. 3) First paragraph is all about character but in such a skillful fascinating way and about such a compelling character.

I thought I’d give some long examples for you to judge for yourself. I could go way into it and tell you why I love these and why I think they work, but I’ll let you. (I’m actually cheating a bit. I read the first couple of paragraphs, and if there seemed to be a better first paragraph a couple of paragraphs down, I’m using it.)

1) First paragraph reflects the inciting incident and/or major conflict.

First example: Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief

The man arrived after morning prayers. Word spread quickly that someone had come, and the boys of Saint Anthony’s orphanage elbowed each other and strained to catch a glimpse as he unhitched his horse and led it to the trough for drinking. The man’s face was hard to make out, his hat pulled so far down that the brim nearly touched his nose. He tied the reins to a post and then stood there, patting the horse’s neck as it drank. The man waited, and the boys watched, and when the mare finally lifted her head, they saw the man lean forward, stroke the animal’s nose, and kiss her. Then he wiped his lips with the back of his hand, removed his hat, and made his way across the yard to the monastery.

Men often came for children. Sometimes it was for cheap labor, sometimes for a sense of doing good.

Second example: E.L. Doctorow’s The March

At five in the morning someone banging on the door and shouting, her husband, John, leaping out bed, grabbing his rifle, and Roscoe at the same time roused from the backhouse, his bare feet pounding: Mattie hurriedly pulled on her robe, her mind prepared for the alarm of war, but the heart stricken that it would finally have come, and down the stairs she flew to see through the open door in the lamplight, at the steps of the portico, the two horses, steam rising from their flanks, their heads lifting, their eyes wild, the driver a young darkie with rounded shoulders, showing stolid patience even in this, and the woman standing in her carriage no one but her Aunt Letitia Pettibone of McDonough, her elderly face drawn in anguish, her hair a straggled mess, this woman of such fine grooming, this dowager who practically ruled the season in Atlanta standing up in the equipage like some hag of doom, which indeed she would prove to be.

Third example: Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring

My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised, for I thought she knew me well. Strangers would think I was calm. I did not cry as a baby. Only my mother would note the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes.

I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard voices outside our front door.

Fourth example: James Clavell’s King Rat

“I’m going to get that bloody bastard if I die in the attempt.” Lieutenant Grey was glad that at last he has spoken aloud what had so long been twisting his guts into a knot. The venom in Grey’s voice snapped Sergeant Masters out of his reverie. He had been thinking about a bottle of ice-cold Australian beer and a steak with a fried egg on top and his home in Sidney and his wife and the breasts and the smell of her. He didn’t bother to follow the lieutenant’s gaze out of the window. He knew who it had to be among the half-naked men walking the dirt path which skirted the barbed fence. But he was surprised at Grey’s outburst. Usually the Provost Marshall of Changi was as tight-lipped and unapproachable as any Englishman.

2) First paragraph describes an interesting situation that makes you immediately wonder about backstory and about what is going to happen but is not the inciting incident.

First example: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of the their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward. He flapped the flies away with his hands and looked across the foot of his bead to an open triple-hung window. Ordinarily he could see the red road and the oak trees and flat piney woods that stretched to the western horizon. The view was a long one for the flatlands, the hospital having been built on the only swell within eyeshot. But it was too early for a vista. The window might as well have been painted grey.

Second example: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (not the actual first paragraph)

Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes water onto them, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.

She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint.

Third example: Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove

When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake ~ not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.

“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek of you want to eat that snake.” It was the porch he begrudged them, not the snake. Pigs on the porch just made things hotter, and things were already hot enough.

Fourth example: Alyson Hagy’s Snow, Ashes

On the last afternoon of docking and branding, Uncle Gene Laury told John Fremont Adams it was time for him to cut a lamb. The man laughed and nodded. They paused to wipe their bloody, shitty fingers on the tails of their wet neckerchiefs. The men believed Adams was big enough now, tall enough to reach the barrabilak with his teeth. And he was ready. He felt like he’d been ready for a long time. He had a good Baker knife with a four-inch blade. He’d used the knife to notch the ears of some older ewes the year before. He pulled the Baker from his pocket, and Uncle Gene checked the blade but didn’t bother to slide it across his oiled whetstone. It was sharp.

3) First paragraph is all about character but in such a skillful fascinating way and about such a compelling character.

First example: Nella Larsen’s Passing

It was the last letter in Irene Redfield’s little pile of morning mail. After her other ordinary and clearly directed letters the long envelope of thin Italian paper with its almost illegible scrawl seemed out of place and alien. And there was, too, something mysterious and slightly furtive about it. A thing sly thing which bore no return address to betray the sender. Not that she hadn’t immediately known who its sender was. Some two years ago she had one very like it in outward appearance. Furtive, but yet in some peculiar, determined way a little flaunting. Purple ink. Foreign paper of extraordinary size.

Second example: Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (not the actual first paragraph)

He was born Jesse Woodson James on September 5th, 1847, and was named after his mother’s brother, a man who committed suicide. He stood five feet eight inches tall, weighed on hundred fifty-five pounds, and was vain about his physique. Each afternoon he exercised with weighted yellow pins in his barn, his back bare, his suspenders down, two holsters crossed and slug low. He bent horseshoes, he lifted a surrey twenty times from a squat, he chopped wood until it pulverized, he drank vegetable juices and potions. He scraped his sweat off with a butter knife, he dunked his head, at morning, in a horse water bucket, he waded barefoot through the lank backyard grass with his six-year-old son hunched on his shoulders and with his trousers rolled up to his knees, snagging garter snakes with his toes and gently letting them go.

Third example: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own. ...

The cottonhouse is of rough logs, from between which the chinking has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broken window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path. When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the opposite window and into the path again just as I come around the corner. In single file and five feet apart and Jewel now in front, we go on up the path toward the foot of the bluff.

Fourth example: Salvatore Scibona’s The End

He was five feet one inch tall in street shoes, bearlike in his round and jowly face, hulking in his chest and shoulders, nearly just as stout around the middle, but hollow in the hips, and lacking a proper can to sit on (though he was hardly ever known to sit), and wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb. He was faintly green-skinned, psoriatic about the elbows and the backs of his knees, his shaven cheeks untouched by scars of any sort, faithful to a fault to his daily labors, grudgeless against the wicked world, thankful for it, even; a baker of breads with and without seeds, modest cakes, seasonal frosted treats, supplier to all the neighborhood and occasional passers-through; a reader of p.m. papers, as all of his vocation are, born on the feast of Saint Lucy, 1895; a prideful Ohioan; a sucker of caramel candies when cigarettes he forbade himself from eight o’clock to two; possessor of a broad and seemless brow and a head of sleek black undulant hair, the eyes goonish, unnaturally pale and blue, set deep in the skull in swollen rain-cloud pouches, the eyes of one poisoned with lead, who had not in all his days addressed apiece of speech to more than two persons at once, a looker-right-through you if he please, as cats look ...

The end of the examples. It strikes me now, rereading them, that they are all the small true thing.

What do you think? Which ones are your favorites? Are there other first paragraphs that stick with you?


Brad Green said...

I like all of those, but The English Patient, Lonesome Dove, and the Faulkner are my favorites. I suppose I’m attracted to the strong physicality of those. Nice topic. If there’s any part of my novel that I remain frustrated with, it’s that first paragraph.

Nice digs here!

Tamara said...

Yes! Isn’t it simply the hardest paragraph of the whole dang thing?

I agree with your choices. Isn’t it amazing how they are doing nothing but describing simple actions, but ripples expand from it into your mind, and it immediately grips you?

Thanks Brad! I hope you’ve gotten past the auxillary writing to the fun stuff.