Riveting Beginnings

September 29, 2009
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RIVETING BEGINNINGS

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

October 2009

"So that first paragraph is all-important."
—Shapiro

Go into the bookstore and watch the shoppers. Sometimes they come in for a book recommended to them by a friend or a review. But so often they will take a book out of the new fiction or nonfiction shelves and begin to read the jacket flap. If it’s interesting, the person will read the first paragraph, then either put it down or buy it. So that first paragraph is all-important. If you’re going to flub one as a writer, let it not be the first one!

Let’s take a look at a few to try to find their lure.

This one is from Ellie Wiesel’s A Mad Desire to Dance. (Random House, 2009):

She has dark eyes and the smile of a frightened child. I searched for her all my life. Was it she who saved me from the silent death that characterizes resignation to solitude? And from madness in its terminal phase, terminal as we refer to cancer when it is incurable? Yes, the kind of madness in which one can find refuge, if not salvation.

Right in the first sentence, with the description of the woman, Wiesel has the reader wondering who she is.

". . .you know the urgency the protagonist feels to find her. . ."
—Shapiro

In the second sentence, you know the urgency the protagonist feels to find her. “I searched for her all my life,” which really revs up the reader’s curiosity, building suspense. The rhetorical questions, so much part of the protagonist’s interior that it’s as if he’s only speaking to himself, gives an even greater sense of the importance of this woman to him.

Daphne Du Maurier’s classic novel, Rebecca (Perennial, 1938), was so beloved by my daughter when she was twelve, that she cried when at the end, not because of the sad ending, but she was upset that it was over, that there would be no more pages to read. It begins:

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderlay again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw the lodge was uninhabited.

". . .Du Maurier sets up a scene
that feels crucial
to the heroine’s life. . .
"

—Shapiro

As in Wiesel’s first paragraph, Du Maurier sets up a scene that feels crucial to the heroine’s life, but here it is a dream. We can tell how Manderlay is preying upon the character’s psyche by the effort she is making to see inside it. The dream is a metaphor for her confusion about whatever happened there and her desire to find out the truth that is closed to her, making the reader, too, want to peer more closely through the rusted spokes of the gate.

The Shadow Thieves, Book One of the Chronus Chronicles (Aladdin, 2006,) a children’s book by Anne Ursu, begins with a series of directives to the reader:

Pay attention. Watch carefully, now. Look at the sidewalk, there. See that girl—the one with the bright red hair, overstuffed backpack, and the aura of grumpiness? That’s Charlotte Mielswetzski. (Say it with me: Meals-wet-ski. Got it? If not, say it again. Meals. Wet. Ski. There. You thought your name was bad?) And something extraordinary is about to happen to her.

"Directions grab the reader, put him under your spell."
—Shapiro

Directions grab the reader, put him under your spell. Of course, a reader couldn’t take too much direction without a direct revolt, but because there’s humor, we’re willing to go along for the ride.  

This first paragraph is from David Sedaris’s essay, “Monie Changes Everything,” from his essay collection, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Little, Brown, & Co., 2004)

My mother had a great-aunt who lived outside of Cleveland, and visited us once in Binghamton, New York. I was six years old but can clearly remember her car moving up the newly paved driveway. It was a silver Cadillac driven by a man with a flattened cap, the kind worn by policemen. He opened the back door with great ceremony, as if this were a coach, and we caught sight of the great-aunt’s shoes, which were orthopedic, yet fancy, elaborately tooled leather with heels the size of spools. The shoes were followed by the hem of a mink coat, the tip of a cane, and then, finally, the great aunt herself, who was great because she was rich and childless.

Sedaris peaks the reader’s interest with description spooled out, just in the order that the children might have seen it all. First the silver Caddie, then the driver with the flattened hat, the driver opening the door with great ceremony, and the aunt, emerging cinematically, her shoes, the hem of her mink, then her cane. And the tone is set for humor: she’s great because she’s rich and childless. The reader is along for the ride.

Woody Allen, in his collection of short writing, The Insanity of Defense (Random House, 2007) begins his short story, “Remembering Needleman,” like this:

It has been four weeks and it’s still hard for me to believe that Sandor Needleman is dead. I was present at the cremation, and at his son’s request, brought the marshmallows, but few of us could think of anything but our pain.

Woody Allen sets up a hilarious situation, a son’s request to toast marshmallows at his father’s cremation, and then makes it even more hilarious by saying “few of us could think of anything but our pain.” It works because he begins with a tragedy, makes you burst out laughing with the surprise of the marshmallows, and then ends with an absurd attempt at tragedy again. He’s going against what we expect of tragedy, sure fodder for comedy.

  In To Tame a Land (Bantam Books, 1984), Louis L’Amour begins his heroic tale with these simple lines:

It was Indian country, and when our wheel busted, none of them would stop. They just rolled on by and left us setting there, Pap and me.

Who can pass this by? L’Amour has set up a dangerous circumstance and we know our hero is a boy, which makes us root for him no matter what.

"I might have to write hundreds of words, scores of pages, until I find my beginning. "
—Shapiro

 Oh, if only there was a formula for the perfect beginning, I wouldn’t be above following it. But one thing I always tell myself for comfort is that I might have to write hundreds of words, scores of pages, until I find my beginning. And even then, the beginning might turn out to be the ending. To find your beginning, keep writing

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

 

 

 

 

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.

 

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