I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings lately. What makes a “good” beginning? What makes an effective beginning? As I start to think about where I might begin my own novel, I’m driven to remember some of my favorite literary beginnings. So, in this post, I will break down three of my favorite opening scenes from recent(ish), contemporary novels in the hopes that they might teach me something about beginnings.
The Vacationers by Emma Straub: This novel follows an eclectic and dysfunctional upper-class family as they navigate their mundane and largely fixable (yet artfully written) problems while on vacation in Mallorca.
Emma Straub is an exceptional writer, and the composition of her sentences is a great testament to this. In fact, the first sentence of “The Vacationers is one of my favorite things about it: “Leaving always came as a surprise, no matter how long the dates had been looming on the calendar.” This sentence feels like both a universal truth and a unique literary observation. It’s effective because it is immediately interesting and insightful.
This first scene follows Jim, the patriarch of the Post family, as he prepares to leave for the airport. Despite the third person voice, Straub manages to create proximity between Jim and the reader right away. Even more notable is Straub’s ability to create intrigue right away. The second paragraph of the novel consists mostly of one long sentence, part of which reads “there were things Jim would have taken out of his bags, if it had been possible: the last year of his life, and the five before that, when it came to its knees; the way Franny looked at him across the dinner table at night; the feeling of himself inside a new mouth for the first time in three decades(…).” Here, Straub once more shows us her mastery over the art of structuring sentences (it really is an art, isn’t it?). With lines like that one, Straub hints at intrapersonal conflicts, begins to set up interpersonal conflicts, and presents us with an initial idea of who this character is. She achieves a surprising amount of exposition that doesn’t feel expository at all, and she does it all within the first two paragraphs.
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: Blue, the only non-psychic in a family of clairvoyants, has always been told that she will kill her one true love. Despite this ominous warning, she can’t help but get involved with a group of boys from a local boarding school and their quest to find an ancient Welsh king.
Maggie Stiefvater’s one-of-a-kind Raven Cycle series is triumphant in more ways than one. The characterization and character development is impeccable. The infusion of Welsh mythology and paranormal elements lend the books an air of fantasy, yet they feel grounded in reality. And the lyrical, insightful prose sets the series apart from other paranormal romance books out there. All of this is either present or hinted at in the first chapter of The Raven Boys.
While the first chapter runs a bit long, it sets up a lot of information. This first chapter can be a bit expository, repeatedly taking us out of the scene to give background information, but I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. “It’s expository” comes up a lot in workshops, and writers are taught to trim exposition during revisions. But, ultimately, exposition is necessary. The focus, I think, should be on making those expository bits unique, cohesive (in relation to the primary scene being described), and enjoyable to the reader. Stiefvater accomplishes all of this in the first chapter of The Raven Boys.
Another important thing the opening scene of The Raven Boys has going for it is that it’s memorable. The unique scenario–a teenage girl and a psychic standing by the ruins of an old church, documenting the names of the people who will die in the coming year–immediately stands out to readers. Years after my initial read, I still remember this scene vividly.
By the end of the first chapter, we already have a protagonist, hints of what will become the main conflict for her, and an established tone. By the end of the first chapter, we already have all the fixings of a story.
Red, White, And Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston: When the ongoing feud between the First Son of the United States and the Prince of Wales comes to a public climax involving a royal wedding cake, the two are forced to feign friendship in an attempt to save face. This novel follows their journey from rivals to friends to secret lovers.
My favorite thing about the first chapter of RWARB is that it starts at the last possible moment. The first chapter follows Alex Claremont, the First Son of the United States, as he gets ready to confront his nemesis, The Prince of Wales, Henry. We’re quickly introduced to Helen Claremont’s White House and the people within it who surround Alex. We’re briefly introduced to Alex’s conflict with Henry, and we start to understand that it is more internal than external. And, finally, we are taken to Henry’s brother’s wedding: the moment Alex has been dreading. The first chapter ends when a drunk Alex trips and pulls Henry down with him into the massive wedding cake. Since the story takes off once Alex and Henry are forced to pretend they are friends as a way to do some damage control after the cake situation, the scene at the wedding is the inciting incident. The first plot point. McQuiston’s ability to get us there so promptly makes this a memorable beginning.
On a more microscopic level, the first scene in the first chapter is also very telling. It involves Alex finding a hidden carving on a wall of the White House that says “Rule #1: Don’t Get Caught.” This becomes a huge theme throughout the book as Alex and Henry carry out a relationship where secrecy is a must. This makes the first scene both intriguing (because who knows what kind of tiny secrets like this one are actually hidden in the White House?) and thematically important.
There are so many things that make a beginning memorable, effective, and vivid. While I don’t claim to have the recipe for a perfect opening (that’s what the guidebooks are for!), I think (and hope) that taking a closer look at successful first chapter is one way to learn by absorption. At the very least, it was fun in the nerdiest way!
I hope, Dear Reader, that you might find this post useful too.
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