Beginnings

I think it’s very important to catch the reader’s interest at the very outset of a novel, so, in my opinion, the first page of the first chapter should not be an ‘introduction’ to the novel.  I believe it should plunge the reader right into the action, so that by the end of the first page, s/he is emotionally and intellectually involved.

For example, here are the first three sentences of chapter one which appear on the screen of a Kindle reader on the Amazon website.  (I have no idea what the book is.):

“The churchyard was peaceful in the summer afternoon.  Twigs and branches lay strewn across the gravel path, torn from the trees by the gales which had swept the country in that stormy June of 1545.  In London, we had escaped lightly, only a few chimney-pots gone, but the winds had wreaked havoc in the north.”

There is a similar beginning on the screens of Kindles on advertising posters in the London underground.  The first sentences are about a river and how the river is the beginning.

Do these beginnings engage your interest?  Mildly, perhaps.  By way of contrast, here is the beginning of the first chapter of Fishing in Foreign Seas:

“The phone on Mary Beth’s desk rang.  She picked it up, and cocking her head to one side, put the instrument between her blonde hair and her ear.  “Sales and marketing, Mary Beth speaking. . . .  Oh, hi, Eddie what are you up to?” with a sassy smile.  “I’m sure it must be more exciting than that in St Louis! . . .  Who, me?  I’m just a good little girl!” feigning a priggish face for Jamie’s benefit.  Jamie started to grin.

There’s a lot of information in this brief paragraph.  There are three characters: Mary Beth, Eddie and Jamie.  We know that Mary Beth is blonde, she alternates between being sassy and priggish, and claims to be a ‘good little girl’.  We know that Eddie is in St. Louis, and that he has apparently told Mary Beth it’s not particularly exciting there.  Then there’s Jamie, who grins when Mary Beth pretends to be priggish.  Hmm.  Wouldn’t the reader like to know more about these characters?

Then there’s this opening paragraph of Sin & Contrition:

“‘It’s hard to tell’,LaMarr thought, ‘what angle I should fire the shot.  Can’t see the road.  Not really sure how far it is.  Maybe about like this.’  He drew back the small leather patch which was attached to the arms of the slingshot by strong rubber bands, and extending his left arm upwards at an angle, he released the shot.  He could not see it, but he heard the marble pass through the leaves of the trees overhead.  He waited, listening for the marble to strike.”

Something strange is going on here.  LaMarr is using a slingshot to shoot marbles up through the trees, apparently trying to hit a road which he can’t see.  Why is he doing that?  Wouldn’t the reader like to know?

But, I think that a new chapter should similarly engage the reader’s interest.  If the reader sets the book aside at the end of a chapter, and picks it up at the beginning of a new chapter, s/he will want to be drawn into the situation right away.  Consider this opening paragraph of chapter two of Fishing in Foreign Seas:

He saw her across the bar-lounge of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo.  She was the most incredibly beautiful woman he had ever seen.  She was tall – about 5 feet 9, he guessed, with jet black hair down to her waist, but gathered by a blue ribbon at the nape of her neck.  She was wearing a white pleated linen dress, belted at the waist to emphasize her slim figure.  She was sipping champagne and surveying the crowd around her.  He had to meet her, even if he made an idiot of himself because he didn’t speak a word of Italian.”

This passage prompts the questions in the reader’s mind: will he meet her?  will he make an idiot of himself?

Or this from the beginning of chapter two of Sin & Contrition:

Ellen Weybridge was lounging against the headboard of her queen-sized bed, a pillow behind her.  Her friend, Josie, was sprawled, carelessly, on the bed to her left, while Bettina, the third girl in this close-knit trio, sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed.  All three thirteen-year-olds, classmates at Dorseyville Middle School, were similarly dressed in jeans and sports T-shirts.”

Why are they there?  What are they up to?

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