The beginning of yet another year makes me think about other beginnings – those first pages, paragraphs, sentences, words that pull readers into our tales. How do we make them sing?
Most obviously, banality is the enemy of good writing. Yet in many openings of published and unpublished works I read clichés creep in, often because of the current fashion to begin stories mid-scene, where characters are ‘doing’ something. Such an opening can be effective of course, yet scene-writing – with its focus on the action – lends itself to clichés. How many books begin with someone staring out of the window at a meadow, or running for their lives, or tracing something cool with their finger? We can get away more easily with such descriptions in the middle, but to entice intelligent strangers to stick with our stories we need to work harder.
Think of this beginning:
‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”’
This is the opening of ‘The Great Gatsby’, hailed by some critics as ‘the perfect novel’. Here we are at once plunged not into the action, but into the mind of the narrator who confides something urgent to us, thereby immediately creating intimacy with the readers. Moreover, this start hints at a dramatic narrative to do with moral dilemmas around our tendency to both judge and empathise, and the problem of social inequality. In short, these first sentences suggest that this novel is going to be one of substance, and do so without pomposity. This suggestion is conveyed by the measured voice of a sympathetic narrator.