Monday, April 14, 2014

Well Begun is Half Done

Like most avid readers, I usually pick up the latest from my favorite author with hardly a glance at the blurb on the back, much less cracking it open and checking the opening lines. But I've picked up a few new authors this year, and part of the process of picking new books and authors involves reading the first few paragraphs. So I thought I'd analyze a couple of beginnings and try to figure out what made me decide to buy each book.

First is the opening paragraph from Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet: Dauntless. I picked this one up initially because I liked the cover, and I was sort of in the mood for military sf. Without further ado, the opening: "The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. But he didn't move, knowing that if the enemy had resumed the attack there'd be alarms sounding and many more than just one blow struck to the ship. And, attack or not, he had no assignment to run to, no job to fulfill."

I think several things work for this opening. First, several sensory details are given to firmly place the reader in the story: cold air, the faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment, voices raised in fright, etc. Second, there's a sense that things are happening, that the story is starting en media res, or in the middle of the action; people are running around doing things immediately following some sort of attack. Third, it aroused my curiosity about this one person who is sitting (presumably alone) in a room while all heck breaks out. And finally, there's something ominous about the line "…if the enemy had resumed the attack there'd be alarms sound and many more than just one blow struck to the ship." This opening conveys a ton of information in just a few lines.

Next is a completely different sort of book. Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star is part ghost story, part police procedural, and a new twist on Jack the Ripper. That, and the fact that the main character grew up in Louisiana but is now going to boarding school in London, drew me initially to read the first few paragraphs. It opens with: "The eyes of London were watching Claire Jenkins. She didn't notice them, of course. It was an accepted fact that London has one of the most extensive CCTV systems in the world." There's more about the cameras, but I'll leave the rest out.

I like the first line. It's creepy, and it fits with both the ghost story aspect and the Jack the Ripper aspect of the novel. The bit about the cameras is not only a nice juxtaposition to the idea of Jack the Ripper, but the cameras are important throughout the story. It's a completely different sort of beginning when compared to Dauntless, but it works. It sets us in a time and place, and it gives us someone to focus on immediately. Unfortunately for poor Claire Jenkins, she doesn't last more than a couple of pages. It's a story about Jack the Ripper, after all.

What are some of your favorite beginnings?

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