writing notes … beginnings

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 27, 2012

* “beginning” in Old Man by William Faulkner

  • Faulkner takes 4-5 pages to introduce two convicts who are never named; only then does the story begin …
  • “It was this second convict who, toward the end of April, began to read aloud to the others from the daily newspapers”

* “beginning” in Executive Power by Vince Flynn

  • Here’s how Flynn did it, scene by scene:
  • SCENE 1. special op craft filled with Navy SEALS approaches an island in the Philippines, heavily armed, mission unstated; foreboding hook at end of scene: the mission has been fatally compromised by someone from their own country.
  • SCENE 2. Mitch Rapp is enjoying the last day of his honeymoon; he is high-up CIA, they were married in the White House; he leads teams of commandos on secret and dangerous missions; he has scars; no hook at end.
  • SCENE 3. back to the SEALS;  mission explained: recue hostage US family; many details as they leave the support boat, rubber launch to the island, deploy; then they are attacked with major force; call in backup and evacuate; lose two men.
  • SCENE 4. another boat in Monte Carlo; the assassin named David gos to meet his Arab sponsor, five hours early; insists that the man be awakened.
  • SCENE 5. CIA HQ; Dr. Irene Kennedy, Director of CIA and Rabb’s direct boss, is furious that leaks have compromised the mission and caused two deaths; she knows who leaked, and is planning to make this information public; hook: Rabb is the only man in DC who can do the job.
  • It works for a thriller; can it work for a historical novel?

* “beginning” in Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

  • the prologue is set in 1832, whereas Chapter One is set in 1752-53.
  • In the prologue an old plantation slave from Carolina (which is where we later learn slaves captured in the settlement were to be taken) talks of a Liverpool ship and his white father (later we know this is Paris) who was a doctor on the ship. I totally forgot about this prologue until I reached the epilogue. So … was it necessary? helpful? distracting?
  • there is, in effect, a second beginning: Book Two on page 397, begins in 1765, a gap of 12 years. This creates a need for extensive flashbacks, which are inserted at different places in the second story. This works very effectively to create suspense and a desire to know what happened in the intervening years.

“beginnings” in Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

  • Follett starts with a one page historical preface about the D-Day deception. He ends the preface … “That much is history. What follows is fiction. Still and all, one suspects something like this must have happened.”
  • the first chapter begins with Faber. The first clue to his identity as a spy is … “Faber watched such things – he was considerably more observant than the average railway clerk.”
  • in the first chapter, Faber kills his landlady, packs his transmitter, and moves on. We now know he is a German spy.

“beginnings” in Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • first lines … “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony. His very paternity was obscure …”
  • a great opening, characterizing Andre-Louis and raising a question not answered until the very end of the book.

“beginnings” in Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • first line … “Police station, sir!” takes you right into the story.
  • the first hook (p2) is the opening of a 3 year old burglary case. why? why now?
  • the old case involves “the delicate question of a woman’s reputation, a distinguished victim from a powerful family, and treason”
  • this case was first introduced as a burglary; soon we find out (p3) that it’s a murder as well … the reader’s interest is heightened.

“beginnings” in The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • Joan Didion … What’s so hard about the first sentence is that you’re stuck with it.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez … One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph. In the first paragraph, you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone.
  • Philip Roth … I often have to write a hundred pages or so before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. That then becomes the first paragraph of the book. Underline all the sentences, phrases, words that are alive. write them on one piece of paper. There’s your first page. the “aliveness” sets the tone.

“beginnings” in The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

  • opening sentence It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.” the precise time convinces the reader of the reality of what’s taking place. By not naming him, the reader wants to know who is being executed. And, since the reason is not given, why … from Stein on Writing

“beginnings” in The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • first sentence … “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below” … specificity provides verisimilitude.
  • the fact that the “finest bridge” collapsed suggests something out of the ordinary, some unseen hand. (Stein)

“beginnings” in The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • O’Hara’s first two chapters (50 pages) are a nice setup … Interesting characters are introduced, the primary event takes place (the production of Yank Lucas’ play), and a whole range of expectations of interesting story line are established.
  • There has been no mention of what the “instrument” is.
  • first paragraph … “Yank Lucas fell asleep late one night and left the gas burning on the kitchen range. … when the water boiled over … extinguished the flame … the odor of gas … Jiggs knocked on the door.”
  • NOTE: I read The Instrument because Sol Stein quoted this first line in his Stein on Writing. Would that Mr. Stein had commented on the rest of the book.

“beginnings” in The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

  • opening scene. man hanging … is it suicide or murder?
  • the connection to Dumas Three Musketeers is very well done.
  • opening line. “The flash projected the outline of the hanged man onto the wall.” … a powerful visual image

“beginnings” in Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • Open up the story by asking dramatic questions (but do not answer)
  • primary event – that which gets the ball roiling in the novel
  • you can begin at the beginning, before the beginning, or after the beginning (permits non-linear narrative … back stories)
  • In A Great Deliverance, the novel starts with a priest on a train, going to London, reacting to some important (but not revealed) event that we will later learn was the primary event of the story
  • Opening scene either possesses or promises excitement, intrigue, conflict, foreshadows problems; establishes atmosphere, place, some characters (not necessarily the main characters)
  • must hook the reader (first task is to keep the reader reading)
  • Follett – Key to Rebecca – opening scene introduces but does not identify character, shows aspects of the character’s behavior that are intriguing, mysterious
  • can use the opening to establish place by specific memorable details – atmosphere, mood, tone
  • the opening can be used to illuminate theme or plot or place
  • or to illustrate the agendas of characters

* “beginnings” in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

  • opening sentence … “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  • From which we know that this is going to be a story about unhappy families (more than one).
  • opening scene … Tolstoy starts (p.1) with the Oblonskys, Prince Stepan (Stiva) and Princess Darya (Dolly), who are not the main characters.
  • Q: Are there successful examples in more modern novels of this use of secondary characters to begin the story?

* “beginnings” in What Makes Sammy Run – Budd Schulberg (1941)

  • first paragraph. “The first time I saw him, he couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick.  Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran. Always looked thirsty.”
  • Brilliant. Tells a lot about Glick and also about Manheim.
  • first chapter. 28 pages. Sets the stage beautifully. Gets right into the story. Conflicts established. Sets reader’s desire to know more. Great beginning.

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