In honor of my Beginnings Workshop, I thought I’d look at some of my favorite story beginnings and see if I can analyze why I love them so much.
Let’s start with the ones I can do by memory.
In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.
(Wait, what comes after that? *looks it up*)
Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
One of my favorites. Why? Those are the first words I ever read by Tolkien. They are also very curious. It takes everything we assume about holes and chucks it out the window. Who keeps chairs and food in a hole? So many questions.
How about another? (I can also do this one by memory.)
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
Not quite as much going on, but still a lot. Why would they brag about being normal? Unless (as you soon find out) they have something abnormal they are trying to hide. (Wizard relatives!) Plus, the voice established in just the first sentence is brilliant: “thank you very much” is a touch I would never have thought to add. And I love the descriptions in the next few sentences – I aspire to write character descriptions this beautifully one day.
They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blond and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.
How about another? The next that comes to mind Divergent. The book itself doesn’t make the shelf of favorites, but the beginning totally enthralled me. I was standing in Barnes and Nobels one day and read the first two pages. I didn’t buy the book, but soon wished I had – those two pages rattled around in my head for the next two weeks, until I finally had to go buy the book.
There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.
I sit on the stool and my mother stands behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall on the floor in a dull, blond ring.
When she finishes, she pulls my hair away from my face and twists it into a knot. I note how calm she looks and how focused she is. She is well-practiced in the art of losing herself. I can’t say the same of myself.
I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention—not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection, I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose—I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen. The other factions celebrate birthdays, but we don’t. It would be self-indulgent.
So. Many. Questions. Why weren’t they allowed to look in mirrors? What is it about the art of loosing oneself that was so important? Like Tolkien, Veronica Roth had taken something so familiar to daily life – a mirror – and given it a new and deceptive quality.
But is the beginning everything?
One of my all time favorite books, Sundancer by Shelley Peterson, doesn’t play with our perception of reality. It doesn’t put hidden meaning into an object, or ask a bunch of questions.
Alone in the paddock, the sleek chestnut gelding grazed. He methodically trimmed the blades of grass close to the ground, left to right, right to left, as far as his neck could reach. He took a step and began again. Row after row. Step after step.
Yet this book goes on to be a delightful tale about a girl who only talks to animals, a horse with a troubled past, and a broken family that comes together again.
I’m sure there was a point to all this.
Maybe it’s this: a great beginning doesn’t always equal a great story, and a mediocre beginning doesn’t always mean a mediocre story. While your beginning should be the best you can make it, it doesn’t have to define you.