In this week’s Story Works Round Table, Alida, Kathryn, and Robert each bring in a novel and read the opening. We didn’t tell each other what was coming, so you get our honest first reactions to each story’s opening passage, then we discuss how effective it is and what about it we liked. You can read along in the show notes. At the end, Kathryn reveals the 3 key elements of any strong opening.
We take a deep dive into three sample openings from literary novels. Want to know what your readers latch on to? How do you deliver a strong character in just a few paragraphs? And can you telegraph what your story is about in such a small space? What are the most important elements of an opening? And do we want to keep reading?
What we talked about:
Why we picked literary novels for our samples. (1:52)
Alida’s opening – The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri (2:57)
NOT WANTING TO arouse Vishnu in case he hadn’t died yet, Mrs. Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, teakettle in hand. Vishnu lay sprawled on thestone, his figure aligned with the curve of the stairs. The laces of a pair of sneakers twined around the fingers of one hand; the other lay outstretched, as if trying to pull his body up the next step. During the night, Mrs. Asrani noted with distress, Vishnu had not only thrown up, but also soiled himself. She had warned her neighbor, Mrs. Pathak, not to feed Vishnu when he was so sick, but did that woman ever listen? She tried not to look at the large stain spreading through the worn material of Vishnu’skhaki pants, the ones that her husband had given him last Divali. What a mess— the jamadarni would have to be brought in to clean up such a mess, and it would not be free, either, someone would have to pay. Her large frame heaving against the sari in which it was swaddled, Mrs. Asrani peered at Vishnu from the safety of the third step and vowed it would not be her.
A more immediate problem had to be dealt with first— what to do about the cup of tea she brought Vishnu every morning? On the one hand, it was obvious that Vishnu did not have much need for tea right now. Even yesterday, he had barely stirred when she had filled his plastic cup, and she had felt a flutter of resentment at not having received her usual salaam in return. On the other hand, giving tea to a dying man was surely a very propitious thing to do. Since she had taken this daily task upon herself, it would be foolish to stop now, when at most a few more cups could possibly be required. Besides, who knew what sort of repercussions would rain down upon her if she failed to fulfill this daily ritual?
Pressing the edge of her sari against her nose to keep out the smell, Mrs. Asrani descended gingerly to the landing. Using the scrap of brown paper she had brought along for the purpose, she fished out the cup from the small pile of belongings near Vishnu’s head, taking care to always keep the paper between her fingers and the cup, so as not to infect herself with whatever he had. She placed the cup on the step above the landing and poured tea from the kettle. Hating the idea of good tea being wasted, she hesitated when the cup was half full, but only for a second, filling it to its usual level to fulfill her pledge. Then she ascended the steps and surveyed her handiwork. The cup lay steaming where she had left it— but now Vishnu looked like he was stretching out across the landing to try and reach it, like a man dead in the desert, grasping for the drink that could have saved him. She thought about moving the cup to correct this, but the scrap of paper she had used now lay on the landing, and she couldn’t be sure which surface had touched the cup. There was nothing she could do anymore, so she turned and climbed up the remaining steps. At the door of her flat, it occurred to her that she still didn’t know if Vishnu was alive or dead. But it didn’t really matter, she had done her duty in either case. Satisfied, Mrs. Asrani entered her flat and closed the door behind her.
Our immediate character reactions – what did the opening do to hook us with the characters? (6:40)
What is the immediate conflict? How does it serve to hook the readers? (8:48)
How much character work can be done in just the first few paragraphs? (11:18)
How does the opening work within the whole? (12:55)
So did the opening make us want to read more? (15:28)
How the opening gives us a good idea of what kind of story this is. (17:41)
Roberts opening – I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson (23:00)
THE INVISIBLE MUSEUM
This is how it all begins.
With Zephyr and Fry—reigning neighborhood sociopaths—torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, trees, this white-hot panic.
“You’re going over, you pussy!” Fry shouts.
Then Zephyr’s on me, has one, both of my arms behind my back, and Fry’s grabbed my sketchpad. I lunge for it but I’m armless, helpless. I try to wriggle out of Zephyr’s grasp. Can’t. Try to blink them into moths. No. They’re still themselves: fifteen-foot-tall, tenth-grade asshats who toss living, breathing thirteen-year-old people like me over cliffs for kicks.
Zephyr’s got me in a headlock from behind and his chest’s heaving into my back, my back into his chest. We’re swimming in sweat. Fry starts leafing through the pad. “Whatcha been drawing, Bubble?” I imagine him getting run over by a truck. He holds up a page of sketches. “Zeph, look at all these naked dudes.”
The blood in my body stops moving.
“They’re not dudes. They’re David,” I get out, praying I won’t sound like a gerbil, praying he won’t turn to later drawings in the pad, drawings done today, when I was spying, drawings of them, rising out of the water, with their surfboards under arm, no wetsuits, no nothing, totally glistening, and, uh: holding hands. I might have taken some artistic license. So they’re going to think . . . They’re going to kill me even before they kill me is what they’re going to do. The world starts somersaulting. I fling words at Fry: “You know? Michelangelo? Ever heard of him?” I’m not going to act like me. Act tough and you are tough, as Dad has said and said and said—like I’m some kind of broken umbrella.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of him,” Fry says out of the big bulgy mouth that clumps with the rest of his big bulgy features under the world’s most massive forehead, making it very easy to mistake him for a hippopotamus. He rips the page out of the sketchpad. “Heard he was gay.”
He was—my mom wrote a whole book about it—not that Fry knows. He calls everyone gay when he’s not calling them homo and pussy. And me: homo and pussy and Bubble.
Zephyr laughs a dark demon laugh. It vibrates through me.
Fry holds up the next sketch. More David. The bottom half of him. A study in detail. I go cold.
They’re both laughing now. It’s echoing through the forest. It’s coming out of birds.
Again, I try to break free of the lock Zephyr has me in so I can snatch the pad out of Fry’s hands, but it only tightens Zephyr’s hold. Zephyr, who’s freaking Thor. One of his arms is choked around my neck, the other braced across my torso like a seat belt. He’s bare-chested, straight off the beach, and the heat of him is seeping through my T-shirt. His coconut suntan lotion’s filling my nose, my whole head—the strong smell of the ocean too, like he’s carrying it on his back . . . Zephyr dragging the tide along like a blanket behind him . . . That would be good, that would be it (PORTRAIT: The Boy Who Walked Off with the Sea)—but not now, Noah, so not the time to mind-paint this cretin. I snap back, taste the salt on my lips, remind myself I’m about to die—
Zephyr’s long seaweedy hair is wet and dripping down my neck and shoulders. I notice we’re breathing in synch, heavy, bulky breaths. I try to unsynch with him. I try to unsynch with the law of gravity and float up. Can’t do either. Can’t do anything. The wind’s whipping pieces of my drawings—mostly family portraits now—out of Fry’s hands as he tears up one, then another. He rips one of Jude and me down the middle, cuts me right out of it.
I watch myself blow away.
I watch him getting closer and closer to the drawings that are going to get me murdered.
My pulse is thundering in my ears.
Then Zephyr says, “Don’t rip ’em up, Fry. His sister says he’s good.” Because he likes Jude? They mostly all do now because she can surf harder than any of them, likes to jump off cliffs, and isn’t afraid of anything, not even great white sharks or Dad. And because of her hair—I use up all my yellows drawing it. It’s hundreds of miles long and everyone in Northern California has to worry about getting tangled up in it, especially little kids and poodles and now asshat surfers.
There’s also the boobs, which arrived overnight delivery, I swear.
Unbelievably, Fry listens to Zephyr and drops the pad.
Jude peers up at me from it, sunny, knowing. Thank you, I tell her in my mind. She’s always rescuing me, which usually is embarrassing, but not now. That was righteous.
(PORTRAIT, SELF-PORTRAIT: Twins: Noah Looking in a Mirror, Jude out of It)
“You know what we’re going to do to you, don’t you?” Zephyr rasps in my ear, back to the regularly scheduled homicidal programming. There’s too much of him on his breath. There’s too much of him on me.
“Please, you guys,” I beg.
“Please, you guys,” Fry mimics in a squeaky girly voice.
My stomach rolls. Devil’s Drop, the second-highest jump on the hill, which they aim to throw me over, has the name for a reason. Beneath it is a jagged gang of rocks and a wicked whirlpool that pulls your dead bones down to the underworld.
I try to break Zephyr’s hold again. And again.
“Get his legs, Fry!”
All six-thousand hippopotamus pounds of Fry dive for my ankles. Sorry, this is not happening. It just isn’t. I hate the water, prone as I am to drowning and drifting to Asia. I need my skull in one piece. Crushing it would be like taking a wrecking ball to some secret museum before anyone ever got to see what’s inside it.
So I grow. And grow, and grow, until I head-butt the sky. Then I count to three and go freaking berserk, thanking Dad in my mind for all the wrestling he’s forced me to do on the deck, to-the-death matches where he could only use one arm and I could use everything and he’d still pin me because he’s thirty feet tall and made of truck parts.
But I’m his son, his gargantuan son. I’m a whirling, ass-kicking Goliath, a typhoon wrapped in skin, and then I’m writhing and thrashing and trying to break free and they’re wrestling me back down, laughing and saying things like “what a crazy mother.” And I think I hear respect even in Zephyr’s voice as he says, “I can’t pin him, he’s like a frickin’ eel,” and that makes me fight harder—I love eels, they’re electric—imagining myself a live wire now, fully loaded with my own private voltage, as I whip this way and that, feeling their bodies twisting around mine, warm and slick, both of them pinning me again and again, and me breaking their holds, all our limbs entwined and now Zephyr’s head’s pressed into my chest and Fry’s behind me with a hundred hands it feels like and it’s just motion and confusion and I am lost in it, lost, lost, lost, when I begin to suspect . . . when I realize—I have a hard-on, a supernaturally hard hard-on, and it’s jammed into Zephyr’s stomach. High-octane dread courses through me. I call up the bloodiest most hella gross machete massacre—my most effective boner-buster—but it’s too late. Zephyr goes momentarily still, then jumps off me. “What the—?”
Fry rolls up onto his knees. “What happened?” he wheezes out in Zephyr’s direction.
I’ve reeled away, landed in a sitting position, my knees to my chest. I can’t stand up yet for fear of a tent, so I put all my effort in trying not to cry. A sickly ferret feeling is burrowing itself into every corner of my body as I pant my last breaths. And even if they don’t kill me here and now, by tonight everyone on the hill will know what just happened. I might as well swallow a lit stick of dynamite and hurl my own self off Devil’s Drop. This is worse, so much worse, than them seeing some stupid drawings.
How the first sentence works to create anticipation and sets up the pacing. (27:00)
How the opening uses action and internal moments to intrigue the reader. (29:18)
The visual nature of the language as relates to character development. (30:25)
How the action and pacing interact to create interest. (31:29)
How is the conflict established right away? (33:08)
What is it that you remember about the books you loved? (33:57)
Do we know right away what kind of book this is? (34:48)
Kathryn’s opening – A Sudden Light by Garth Stein. (36:45)
Growing up in rural Connecticut, I had been told the name Riddell meant something to people in the Northwest. My paternal great-great-grandfather was someone of significance, my mother explained to me. Elijah Riddell had accumulated a tremendous fortune in the timber industry, a fortune that was later lost by those who succeeded him. My forefathers had literally changed the face of America – with axes and two-man saws and diesel donkeys to buck the fallen, with mills to pulp the corpses and scatter the ashes, they carved out a place in history for us all. And that place, I was told, was cursed.
My mother, who was born of English peasant stock on the peninsula of Cornwall, made something of herself by following her passion for the written word, eventually writing the dissertation that would earn her a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University and becoming the first in her family to receive an advanced degree. Though she never did anything of note with her brilliance, she did carry it around with her like a seed bag, sprinkling handfuls of it on what she deemed fertile soil. She spent much time quoting literature to me when I was young, thus sparking my own avid reading habits. So the theme of the Ancient Mariner and his story, as told by the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge – and how the Mariner’s story was emblematic of my family’s history – was something I had heard often before my fourteenth birthday.
The curse. When one destroys something of beauty and nature – as did the Mariner, who shot the kindly albatross that led his ship out of the perilous Antarctic seas – one will be punished. Cursed. My mother told me this; my father nodded when she did. Punishment will rain down upon the offender and the family of the offender, I was told, until the debt is settled.
The debt owed by my family has been paid, and then some. My mother believes our family’s story was settled with that debt – she has always maintained an unyielding faith in the cathartic power of denouement – which is why she has chosen to go for a walk this morning, rather than stay with us to hear me tell our story again. But I disagree with my mother: there is no tidy end to any story, as much as we might hope. Stories continue in all directions to include even the retelling of the stories themselves, as legend is informed by interpretation, and interpretation is informed by time. And so I tell my story to you, as the Mariner told his: he, standing outside the wedding party, snatching at a passing wrist, paralyzing his victim with his gaze; I, standing with my family at the edge of this immortal forest.
I tell this story because telling this story is what I must do.
How the meta quality of the prologue creates interest. (39:48)
How you can craft a prologue that establishes back story but still hooks the reader. (42:27)
How repetition of the curse works as the hook even without action or dialogue. (44:07)
Is the prologue essential to the story? (45:15)
What are the most important things we’ve seen about these openings? (47:04)
The books our openings came from:
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