1. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Openings that worked...and some that didn't

    Discussion in 'Writing Prompts' started by EdFromNY, Apr 7, 2014.

    Over in the General Writing section, there is a thread in which a member posted an opening paragraph of a novel by a famous writer and invited comments. @jannert suggested that it might be useful to start a thread of opening paragraphs and how they either worked or didn't work and why. Since there are periodically posts made along the lines of "does this opening work?" I thought putting it over here might be helpful for anyone who just can't get their story kicked off.

    Some ground rules, first. All quoted work must be attributed, author and title. For clarity, please indicate whether you are quoting from a short story, novella or novel, and what you think the opening does or fails to do.
     
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  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This is actually part of an idea we are working on now that would be part of an expanded Book Discussion area. Without giving too much away, it resembles an idea we spoke of in the past in the Supporter's Forum, where I think you also participated, @EdFromNY :)

    This thread provides a very nice testbed.

    Please, everyone, adhere strictly to the rules Ed has already stipulated. ;)
     
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  3. Thomas Kitchen
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    Thomas Kitchen Proofreader in the Making Contributor

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    Yessir!

    Well one of the writers that affected me in a huge way was Robert Muchamore, and his CHERUB series is just awesome. :D So without further ado, here is the opening paragraph to the first book in said series (intended for pre and young teens):



    James Choke hated Combined Science. It should have been test tubes, jets of gad flying all over the place, like he'd imagined when he was still at primary school. What he got was an hour propped on stool watching Miss Voolt write on a blackboard. You had to write everything down even though the photocopier got invented forty years earlier.

    - Robert Muchamore, opening paragraph of the novel CHERUB: The Recruit


    I loved this opening as an 11 year-old boy, and nowadays I can see why it worked for me so well. The language is simple and the setting is overly familiar - in a good way. Every child knows the boredom of school, and Robert presents it in a way that's engaging, because he tells us things that we can definitely empathise to: boring science lessons, boring school, uncomfortable chairs, annoying teachers (the surname 'Voolt' tells us so much about the character), and so on. I was practically hooked when he mentioned the photocopier business; I mean, why write when you can photocopy? Now, of course, I (partly) understand why we write in schools, but back then I was completely on the side of the author, and therefore on the side of James Choke, the protagonist. And once a book says something you already think or believe, then that book will be praised. That's what happened for me, and I still have a few books from the series left to read (there are a load of them, and there are three series interconnected). It's what got me into long-running series and inter-connected books and universes, and for anyone whose child still lives within them and who loves proper spy stories i.e. not silly technology-only-based books, then I recommend this series.

    I'm sorry, @EdFromNY, that this book is not highly praised as great literature or anything, but it's great for writers to know that not all books have to be for artistic merit: some can be for entertainment, and it's good to know that 'down to earth' authors are still out there. :)
     
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  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    This is from Colleen McCullough's - Tim
    Personally, I love this book - it's a sweet, gentle romance. But the beginning always struck me as rather odd as it breaks most advice from the how-to books. Harry is not the main character. He's not a big character, I'm not even sure Jim is mentioned again. But it perfectly sets up the following scene in which these workers on the job - trick the title character, mentally challenged Tim, into eating a crap sandwich. The scene is all about setting up for the impact. It break 'rules' but it works. Plus it shows us how vulnerable Tim is before he meets the mc - Mary.
     
  5. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    I'll give a couple of examples :)

    This is the familiar opening of Kurt Vonnegut's famous novel Slaughterhouse Five...I really like it. It has Vonnegut's trademark snappy style. It gives the impression to the reader that there's a lot in store for them, with the added curiosity that it is all true "more or less". It also indicates that a lot went on to the war that was completely absurd, some guy losing his life over a teapot. It sets the scene really well with so little words.

    This is a fairly brutal opening from a short story called Eurotrash by Irvine Welsh. I'd be interested to hear what other members think of it. One of my favourite short stories

    This is from one of my favourite novels The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien, one of the weirdest and most original novels I've ever come across, although you wouldn't think so from reading the first paragraph. I think it's a nice opening; it piques your curiosity by the mention of a terrible murder from the very first line.

    Interested to hear opinions :)
     
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  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Thanks, @Wreybies. I'll kick things off with the opening of R. F. Delderfield's novel set in the years between WW-1 and WW-2, To Serve Them All My Days:

    The novel is the story of David Powlett-Jones, son of a Welsh coal miner, who served in the British army in WW-1, earned a battlefield commission and was subsequently badly shell-shocked. Upon being invalided out, he goes to an English public school (comparable to an American private prep school) to teach. We're not told any of that directly. But the school is mentioned in the very first sentence, the quiet rural setting is described, and we know that whatever mental condition he has been suffering is a) a result of the war and b) not yet fully resolved. Moreover, we know that whatever lies ahead will play a major role in his healing process. Delderfield also treats us to a marvelous phrase with "heavily timbered hills where spring lay in ambush".

    Delderfield wrote the novel in 1971. I suspect that 43 years later, younger readers might not so readily pick up on the references that came quickly to his original readership. Would a young person today even recognize the references to "dugout" and "trench" and realize that Powlett-Jones had been suffering from what we now call PTSD?
     
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  7. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    No apology necessary. I quite agree.
     
  8. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    Peach, yours is a curious one. It reads fine and flows well. It's a pretty pedestrian opening; it doesn't blow you away exactly, and it's the kind of opening where if you are a reader you would simply read on and see what develops.
     
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  9. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Sometimes, I think the hook beginning is overrated. A lot of fireworks that fizzle out. With Tim it's all consistent, something I find more important than the dazzle. However, I like that you quoted Vonnegut - Breakfast of Champions is my favorite of his. Here's his opening line -
    His tone too, is consistent - the writing lives up to the hook.
     
  10. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    The goal is to draw the reader in, but you're right, it doesn't have to be done in spectacular fashion. There are lots of different ways to do it. What I like about the Delderfield piece is that it places you in David's shoes, gives a sense of his disorientation and gives hints at both what lies ahead and what has passed. It isn't a gimmick, just a solid opening.

    @Mackers - the opening to the Welsh story is interesting in that it risks being very off-putting. There is more than a whiff of self-pity to it, and if I were standing in a bookstore browsing, my inner clock would already be running on when I would put it down. By that I mean that I'd want something very shortly thereafter to signal it was a story I'd want to read.
     
  11. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    Love Breakfast of Champions, especially the whole introduction to the book where he signs off by calling himself "Philboyd Studge" :D

    Vonnegut has a beguilingly simple style which always has a nice rhythm to it. This comes from his great word choice, I think. He has a great voice.
     
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  12. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    Yeah I thought some people might have that reaction, but the story develops quite quickly on from that. It doesn't wallow in self-pity at all

    The character portrayed here in first person POV is extremely cynical, which is always a risky move, but I was struck by his refreshing honesty. I think it's safe to say he doesn't pull any punches
     
  13. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    @EdFromNY - Ed, out of sheer curiosity, I'll post the next part of the story to see what you think:

    By now you have a pretty clear picture of this protagonist. He isn't exactly a stand-up guy, but the plot really takes off in this story after another page or so...Would you read on?


    On topic, I mentioned to @peachalulu earlier about how good the opening sequence of Cormac Mccarthy's The Road is:

    The best thing about this opening is the vivid imagery. I find these descriptions of the beast:

    Both these phrases are very striking
     
  14. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    This isn't a story opening, it's a character introduction, but it's stayed in my mind for years, with it's poetic simplicity.
    ~Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish
     
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  15. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I probably wouldn't - not because of anything wrong with the writing, just not a story that would resonate with me.
     
  16. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    It's a bit of a chore typing these introductions out, but I like this thread so I'll keep it going :)

    This is, of course, the introduction to George Orwell's 1984. I think this is an understated but very effective opening to the novel, and is indicative of Orwell's mastery of simple prose style. His essays have this quiet effectiveness about them also, always enough to make you interested to read on, and that's always the mark of a good writer...

    This is the fantastically unusual opening from Flann O'Brien's meta-fictional Irish comedy classic At Swim Two Birds. As a reader you know from reading the blurb that the narrator is a student, and this opening perfectly captures his comic pretentiousness with his academic style of speech and his "spare-time literary activities". The narrator then goes on to describe three completely whimsical and ridiculous openings to his idea of how a book might start.

    Can anyone think of a more weirder opening?
     
  17. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    The O'Brien piece reminds me of James Thurber's story, "A Final Note on Chanda Bell."
     
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  18. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian has an unusual opening, mostly because of the language and word order he chooses to use.
    His style more than anything else is what drew me in; it seems archaic yet fresh at the same time. I'm curious to see what others think because I'm guessing some people won't like the way he writes.
     
  19. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    Never heard of James Thurber before...I can't find the story you mentioned, but it's interesting he was a cartoonist and worked for The New Yorker...O'Brien wrote a satirical daily column for The Irish Times which was widely read and popular in Ireland. You can see some of the parallels between the two, in that sense...
     
  20. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    I love this book. I think it's McCarthy's best. I like the first line imperative "see the child", conjured from the imagination from thin air. It's very effective...

    If that first line was posted in the workshop, what do you think people would say about it?
     
  21. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    They would probably say the writer is trying to show off and that he should use simple and clear sentences instead.

    I honestly do believe that reputation matters; if I posted that opening in the workshop, people would tear it apart, whereas if Cormac McCarthy posted it in the workshop, people would be less critical because, well, it's Cormac McCarthy.
     
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  22. Mackers
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    Mackers Contributing Member

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    Haha, I can picture someone say something like, "There's no context with this first line!" and "Why should I care about seeing this child, or any child for that matter?"

    I think the character of the Judge in Blood Meridian is worth the read alone. There's a good discussion on this book in this video if you're interested at all -

     
  23. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I've watched that before. Yale has some really good videos on literature, including some on Nabokov and Pynchon.
     
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  24. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Thurber actually wasn't much of a cartoonist, but he wrote some wonderful short stories, many of which were first published in The New Yorker and later published in collections. My favorite collection is My Life and Hard Times, a collection of stories of his younger years, from around 1905 to 1918. He also wrote "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", the short story upon which the recent Ben Stiller film is very loosely based. While most of his stories were humorous, there were a few that were reflective. I've enjoyed his writing since my teen years.
     
  25. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    As much as I liked reading Robinson Crusoe when I was about thirteen - this beginning for me was dreadful. Dry, boring and giving me details I wasn't sure I needed or wanted ( forgetting of course the book was written in 1719 and could be one of the more easier to read books of it's time. )
     

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