A Novel Approach

Welcome to A Novel Approach, a weekly note about writing. Join us and follow us. I’ll post the tip on Twitter at JWLBooks and the full note on Facebook at Jack Woodville London, at the MWSA site, and right here at the blog. Here we go.

Number Eight: Beginnings

David Copperfield does not begin with the opening line ‘I am born.’ That line turns out to be the title of chapter 1. The opening line is “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own story, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.’

‘So what?’ you may ask. Because opening sentences of stories and novels should be crafted with several goals in mind. More than merely vying for attention, they can set up the basis for the inherent conflict of the story, establish the point of view, and tug at the reader to continue. A very good opening sentence will set the stage for the story arc, of which the traditional first element is to frame the problem that the novel or the journal story will present. Consider:

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.”

Thus has Tim O’Brien, in The Things They Carried, written one brief sentence to commence his timeless novel of the Viet Nam war. However, this is no simple sentence. O’Brien has framed the entire story by writing with an omniscient point of view, has invited the reader to know something that only those who where there would know, vis, that each soldier carried something personal as a connection to life before war, and has created a sense of forboding by writing in the past tense. That is well done indeed.

Analyze these beginnings:

“All this happened, more or less.” Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Areliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fog revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage.

These beginnings, each brilliant in direct simplicity, have painted a realist’s landscape, invoked curious pity, and even highlighted the ambiguity of war.
They also have in common that they were not flicked off the authors’ word processors in a momentary act of genius: this is work, and takes time.

So, reflect on your own beginnings as you write your thousand words for the day, and, by the way, Happy New Year.

See you next week.

Jack Woodville London is the Author of the Year for the MWSA for his novel French Letters: Engaged in War. He is a frequent columnist for Dispatches and On Patrol as well as newspapers and journals.

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