The Power of Gentle Beginnings
We’re always supposed to start the tale in media res, right? Drop the reader into middle of the action like a commando abseiling from an attack helicopter.
Me, I love books that don’t go commando, as it were. I love books that entice. They open the door, crook a finger and beckon you in.
Take The Star of Kazan, Eva Ibbotson’s classic tale set in seventeenth century Vienna. Here are the opening lines:
‘Ellie had gone into the church because of her feet. This is not the best reason for entering a church, but Ellie was plump and middle aged and her feet were hurting her. They were hurting her badly.’
This is the central drama of the first two pages. Ellie, who is a domestic servant, was foolish enough to wear new boots on her monthly outing to the country. That’s it. Conventional wisdom tells us we must get our protagonist front and centre right from the beginning. Instead we get two aging domestics tramping up a hill, one trying to hide the embarrassment of being footsore as a result of new boots.
She enters the church on the pretext of praying for her dead mother, but really, she just needs to sit down and take off the boots. What happens next? She falls asleep. She actually drops off, right in the middle of page two. As if to prove that under certain conditions, you don’t actually need any drama at all, the writer allows the central introductory character to fall asleep.
Ellie awakes to an indeterminate sound, which will turn out to be a baby, parceled up on the steps of the altar.
‘Warmth came from it; it steamed like a fresh baked loaf, it’s legs worked under the shawl – and when Sigfrid stretched out a bony forefinger to touch its cheek, it opened its eyes, and there, gazing up at them, was a person.’
Why does all of this work so well?
I think the answer is simply because it’s beautiful. The writing is spare and rhythmic, and deploys its cargo of information with subtlety and well, beauty.
On the last Sunday of every month, Ellie and Sigfrid pack a picnic and take the train to the hills. ‘It was how they refreshed their souls after the hard work they did all week, cleaning and cooking and shopping and scrubbing for the professors that employed them…’
Their lives are beautifully sketched and made real, and these two women do a wonderful job of drawing us into the world of the story.
As things progress, we have many episodes were the stakes are high and we get real drama, but the scene that stays with me – as well as that opening scene – is the one in which Annika, the baby now adopted into the household, is given the honour, and the challenge, of preparing the Christmas carp for the professors. This is a Herculean task, heavy with tradition and ceremony. You’re on tenterhooks throughout, desperate to know how the fish turns out.
There you go: if you can make a drama from the roasting of a fish, who needs abseiling commandos?
The other fabulous, drama free opening that I love – and I’m not alone in this – is that of The Hobbit.
‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a bare, dry, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.’
This is a through-the-keyhole opening, where the author deftly, and with a warm, familiar narrative voice – almost like a voiceover – builds intrigue. Tolkien withholds Bilbo until we have moved, in a very cinematic way through his home, turning into larders and wardrobes and cellars. By the time we meet him, we have quite a thorough knowledge of the kind of creature he is, and when Gandalf arrives to winkle him out of his complacent existence and thrust adventure upon him, we’re ready to go anywhere with him just to see how he fares.
We also get a gentle start in Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, though we do arrive in media res, and within a few lines, we are deep in the intrigue generated by this wonderful series.
Reynie Muldoon, the reluctant hero arrives at the Monk Building in Stonetown to take the second of a series of mysterious tests he must complete that day. The only information he has been given is the venue, the time and an instruction to bring ‘a single pencil and a single rubber.’
‘He was not told how to get to the Monk Building, for example, and had found it necessary to ask directions to the nearest bus-stop, acquire a bus timetable from a dishonest bus driver who tried to trick him into paying for it, and walk several streets to catch the 3rd street bus. Not that any of this was difficult for Reynie Muldoon. Although he was only eleven years old, he was quite used to working things out for himself.’
Though this is an adventure story, the opening is anything but fast and furious. Instead, we receive a carefully layered portrait of Reynie. His gentleness, his kindness, his lightly-worn intelligence, his clear-eyed view of the world.
I love the way, in these opening pages, we share in Reynie’s discomfort at his failure to fit in.
We learn that one of the curious questions in the earlier test was this: ‘Do you like to watch television?’
‘The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he didn’t, in fact, like to watch television at all. I really am an oddball, he thought, with a feeling of disappointment. Nonetheless, he answered the question truthfully: ‘NO’.’
Reynie becomes a complete human being in so short a time that, as with Bilbo, we’re ready to follow him wherever he goes. It’s a masterful opening, and like all masterful openings, it delivers a promise. You’re about to read a wonderful story.