A Theory of Beginnings

Update: Added a few more openings as I ruminated after waking up again.

So I was thinking about beginnings, because I’m reading something for a critique, and the question of good beginnings always come up. Especially so in a critique; when I’m just reading, I can simply let go if something doesn’t interest me. Not so in a critique; still, I don’t necessarily have to think through why a beginning may not work, but I can’t help it. I also write fiction, and a good beginning is vital. Personally speaking, as a personal writing quirk, I need a good start to unroll the rest. The rest can temporarily suck; the beginning can’t.

Think, think, think. (And the meds, they keep me up right now.)

I looked back at the short stories I read recently, which is nice because short stories really depend on good openings from the get-go. I read a bunch of openings on my Kindle, from a variety of authors: Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, Charles Stross, Nancy Kress, Terry Pratchett, George R.R. Martin, David Anthony Durham, David Moles, Ted Chiang, John Scalzi, P.G. Wodehouse… I could go on. Why do they work so well?

I worked through the classifications. The common wisdom is to start with a bang, but… that’s not always the case.

  • Not all of the good openings start with exciting action. I’ll call this “blockbuster movie excitement.”
  • Not all of them even cascade into exciting blockbuster movie excitement in the first scene.
  • Not all of them feature conversation from the first line (indeed, some don’t have conversation at all).
  • Not all of them feature outwards motion; it can be inwards contemplation.
  • Not all of them feature overt physical motion.
  • Not all of them feature overt plot movement.

So what do they all have in common? I ended up with “intrigue,” which may just be a fancy way of saying “it depends”—or not.

The question becomes: what counts as intriguing? The answer appears to be: it must be significantly different. But different from what?

I suppose the “what” would be our humdrum reality. Something different from our day to day conversations of nothing much in particular, our day to day schedules of predictability. In our execution of our daily routines, we don’t notice details, we may not notice our environment in any other way than “it’s the same, so there’s nothing to pay attention to.” In the moments when we are not engaged, there’s nothing much happening. We may feel a sense of well-being, or we may feel depressed; rarely do we feel endangered or excited. Not so much a drab existence as much as one well-lived, where detachment is normal and arguably necessary; we’d get tired if we were engaged every moment. Think of it as meditation in motion.

So let’s take a look at how these openings are different from what we know from the everyday.

Albert E. Cowdrey’s “Inside Story”
Mentions the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the main character’s uncertainty in dealing with it, despite being hardened outlook-wise. Well. It’s Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. Really unusual.
Albert E. Cowdrey’s “Queen for a Day”
Main character is in a really surly mood, and starts with growling, “Look at that goddamn king.” Kings are unusual, and we may be curious about his surly attitude towards this out-of-the-ordinary event.
Steven Utley’s “Sleepless Years”
Main character has been awake for a really long period of time, cannot sleep, and sleep has become his sole desire to the point of an obsession—and it’s been prevented by a menacing-sounding “them.” Not normal and the intimate use of first-person really embraces you into this weirdness.
Geoff Ryman’s “Days of Wonder”
It starts with description of a person; description is the hardest opening to pull off as interesting. Geoff does this by highlighting unusual details, and indeed, starts out with “Leveza was the wrong name for her.”
Stephen King’s “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates”
Stephen King is famous for starting with the normal and slowly accelerating into disturbing weirdness. Here we just have someone fresh from a shower picking up a phone, but already in the first paragraph there’s a mention of many relatives staying over—unusual in the Western world.
Scott Bradfield’s “Dazzle Joins the Screenwriter’s Guild”
Starts off with a mention of a script conference, less painful than the main character expected. There’s a promise of humor here, and that is usually enough to draw people in, at least temporarily.
Robert Reed’s “The Visionaries”
Not sure how to classify

Everyone is an unmitigated failure.

And then success comes, or it doesn’t.

except that it’s immediately intimate, and touches upon something we (in the West) hate to think about, or we (in the East) find interesting to think about.

Laurel Winter’s “Going Back in Time
Demonstrating very clearly that the title of a story can strongly influence a good beginning, and starts off with a mention of the discovery of the possibility of going back into time.
Terry Bisson’s “Private Eye”
Starts with conversation that asks a question, seemingly normal, but requires an answer that also involves action: “Spare one of those?” An embrace of detail follows, along with a disturbing reference to the narrator’s self in the plural: “we notice these things.”
Carol Emshwiller’s “Whoever”
The narrator has forgotten who they are, but has decided on the first thing to do. Definitely engaging.
M. Rickert’s “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account”
Starts off with mention of commonplace executions. Not really a normal figment of life.
Tim Sullivan’s “Planetesimal Dawn”
The simple and effective technique of immediately introducing a life-and-death situation from the very first line.
Michael Swanwick’s “The Scarecrow’s Boy”
A boy running and crying, heading somewhere. Movement and unusual and engagement.
Gene Wolfe’s Pirate Freedom
Starts off with an unusual day for a confession to be made, which indicates some unusual situation, possibly bad—and confessions are engagements in and of themselves. Gene Wolfe also follows the “gradually accelerate into weirdness” rule, except he does it much more quickly. “I’m a murderer myself” from the narrator, a priest, six sentences in.
Gene Wolfe’s The Knight
A letter, and a command to someone to look at something first. This, while simple, engages. I haven’t decided whether it’s purely the command that does it, or whether there’s an intrinsic thread of voyeurism in most people.
Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids
Pratchett starts his books like movies: starting with something big and intimidating, usually impressive, always with a lightly teasing humor alongside, scoping inwards. He does the same thing here, and in a lot of his books.
Terry Pratchett’s Men At Arms
A more intimate beginning; he starts off with a letter from Corporal Carrot, which is full of amusement, since Carrot is innocently enthusiastic, resulting in intended unintended humor, if that makes sense, and does not use the comma correctly, which can be quite hilarious as it twists meaning. Again, humor draws you in—plus he’s talking about an important promotion.
George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones
He begins properly with a prologue. This is usually a bad sign, but not in his case. Starts off just after an engaging action (killing people) and enters another (escaping the dark of night), both in the same breath.
George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings
A comet bleeding into the sky. Okay, that’s very unusual, and also vivid.
David Anthony Durham’s Acacia: Book One: The War With the Mein
Starts with an assassin moving in secrecy. Well, there you go.
Will Shetterly’s Dogland
A slow opening, similar to “Days of Wonder” in its speed and coverage. It starts with a memory important to the narrator. Important is unusual; “Dogland” is unusual; and also perhaps voyeurism is involved.
Jeff VanderMeer’s “The Situation”
Surreal. “My Manager was extremely thin, made of plastic, with paper covering the plastic.” You’ll find it hard to beat beat that first line, or even the first paragraph, in terms of surreal. Delany could do it; most of us, not so much.
Avram Davidson’s “My Boy Friend’s Name is Jello”
A virus, sickness, and a very… interesting narrator who’s possibly a little ditzy from the medication.
Avram Davidon’s “Or All the Seas with Oysters”
A man coming into a store, and engagingly greeted with a mighty “Hi, there!” And then an examination of the customer, enough to show his oddity in age (old).
Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light
A myth of vengeance in good writing. That works.
Benjamin Rosenbaum’s “The Ant King: A California Fairy Tale”
Runner up for the surreality award: “Sheila split open and the air was filled with gumballs. Yellow gumballs. This was awful for Stan, just awful.”
P.G. Wodehouse’s Mike and Psmith
Promise of doom in the form of a father opening a school report that’s obviously disappointing.
Ted Chiang’s “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
Addressing a caliph; promising a story. Promising a good story almost always works.
Elizabeth Bear’s Blood and Iron
A magician (named; we have more engagement with characters with names, which makes sense) and a living breathing environment encapsulated in one sentence. Double strike bonus match!
Elizabeth Bear’s Ink and Steel
Begins with a death. Yup, that works.
Elizabeth Bear’s Hell and Earth
It kind of starts with cold and chill weather, but it’s really short and also serves as a contrast to a warm fire and warm environment, and then heads into Faeries stealing people. And there we go.
Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire”
The expectation in the title is strong, and we start with a flat on a highway.
Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield
Chapter 1: I Am Born. One of the most awesome chapter titles ever in literature. Speaks about whether the narrator is a hero, first person intimacy, promise of a story.
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother
A twist on expectations, but also a reminder in the climate of these days: high school and surveillance. A forceful narrator that might remind readers of a previous generation of Holden Caufield. Also, “sucking chest wound of a human being.”
Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks
Begins with the most difficult of beginnings: description. But this is observation in detail, of a mall, with interesting comparisons—and, most importantly, movement in the form of people streaming through a mall like water in a canal. Buses moving, banners flying in the wind.
Kage Baker’s In the Garden of Iden
A promise of an interesting story.
Kate Elliott’s Spirit Gate
Flying (not in a commercial airliner). Win.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s “For Solo Cello, op.12”
Keys that drop and rattle on the floor; like cats, we are drawn to flashy movement. Followed immediately upon the next sentence by inherent tension and an amputated limb. And off we go.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Death Comes But Twice”
A letter, and an askance for forgiveness. I think letters are interesting in that they promise a story, whether part of a longer narrative or forming the entire narrative itself. Of course, if you start with a boring business letter with nothing interesting going on, this is not going to work, but letters lend themselves to interesting things.
Jeff Somers’s The Electric Church
Begins with a chapter title of “The Circle of Life in the System of Federated Nations”, which is interesting (indeed, The Electric Church is chock full of intriguing chapter titles; my favorite is “You Are Not a Bad Man. I Am a Bad Man.”), and the first sentence is “You screwed up, Mr. Cates.” Engaging.
John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War
“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” Three punches. Scalzi’s openings are often punches (and sometimes alludes to punches literally).
John Scalzi’s The Last Colony
“Let me tell you of the worlds I’ve left behind.” This is how you pull off a chapter that covers previous ground in a series. I love the comparison of leaving behind Earth and being a small-town kid in the big scary city.
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire
I’m not sure whether to start with “Sometimes, I worry that I’m not the hero everyone thinks I am.” It starts before the prologue. The prologue itself begins with “Ash fell from the sky.” And everything follows smoothly.
Jo Walton’s Farthing
Promise of a story that starts with someone furious. There we go.
David Moles’ “Finisterra”
“Bianca Nazario stands at the end of the world.” And then proceeds to describe the sky and death from flying. Hook, line, sinker.
Nancy Kress’s “The Fountain of Age”
“I had her in a ring.” An unusual image, moving on to the curious rite of remembrance.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Recovering Apollo 8
A mention of a wrong memory, subtly implying a story promise; vivid imagery follows.
Lucius Shepard’s “Stars Seen Through Stone”
This is pure flowing imagery that captures your imagination, starting from the mundane and quickly and smoothly accelerating, in one sentence, to mythic imagery.
Connie Willis’ “All Seated On the Ground”
Humor is her specialty: “I’d always said that if and when the aliens actually landed, it would be a let-down.” Moves on to a funny, engaging beginning that would result in an interesting non-fiction piece, and still fits as introduction to the fiction.

Of course, I could keep going. But the basic principle is: “Engage.” In as many ways as possible; promise a story, engage with strong emotions, engage with interesting detail, engage with surreal description, engage with action and motion, engage with tension. A double-barrel approach with engagement is useful. Engage, engage, engage.

That’s the only rule here.