The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called the thing he felt inside him the silence of snow.
Orhan Pamuk, Snow (2002)
Openers are tough. I skip dialogue (sorry, Elmore Leonard) and long chunks of description, but I always read the first and last paragraphs of a novel. I love looking at the strategies authors use to open things up. Do you use a thematic opening statement (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”)? Do you drop right into the action (“Selden paused in surprise”)? Do you plug into the oral tradition (“I sing of arms and a man”)?
Snow is a read-in-progress – as in, I’ve progressed two pages – and I’m going to keep plugging, but I was put off immediately. There’s really no reason for that first sentence to exist. The second sentence allows the title drop without draping it in gaudy pennants, and the following paragraph establishes that the man is on a bus. The repetition of “The silence of snow” is a cheap trick for reinforcing importance. Edit! Efficiency!
Thinking about this made me turn my attention to other openers, famous or otherwise. Which see:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Probably one of the three most famous openings in English literature (the others being A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick). Also a marvel of efficiency. This is the thematic-statement strategy: a single-sentence satirical bomb laying out the theme of the book. Austen elaborates in an equally brief second paragraph, and then gets right into the matrimonial operations of the Bennets. The pinnacle.
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s/Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Rowling is on record that this first chapter was tough to write, and hoo boy does it show. There’s nothing wrong with this paragraph, exactly, but it reads as the opener for a Roald Dahl knockoff and gives no hint of what the series is going to become. The themes are there – normalcy, prejudice, soon-to-be-upended expectations – but the scope isn’t.
The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.
Stephen King, It (1986)
Validates the Book-a-Minute version of Stephen King. He invokes the oral tradition with a present narrator, which is appropriate given that King works in the medium of campfire tales. It’s that juxtaposition between characters doing the same random crap that readers would, and malevolent cosmic forces looking to destroy the world, that makes King’s work so effective.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe, nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1947)
Probably the finest piece of fiction American letters has ever produced. Also has one of my favorite closing lines in the world. I love this opening because Ellison just insists on his central conceit right off the bat: here’s what we’re going to talk about; I know it’s weird; get on board. Ellison takes longer to lay out his theme than Austen did, but after all, this isn’t a truth that’s universally acknowledged.
He judged men and he grew apples and it was a perilous autumn for both.
W. D. Wetherell, A Century of November (2004)
Wetherell is one of my favorite contemporary authors, but not someone I see talked about a lot. It’s a shame. I cheated here by quoting just the first sentence of a longish paragraph, in which Wetherell elaborates about the apples (the second paragraph is about the men), but it seems effective. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the entire mood of a novel (it’s about the period immediately after Armistice Day in 1918) evoked so effectively in fifteen words.
Every morning on his way to work, Gortvai – a dark-haired young man living in Budapest in the early Fifties of the twentieth century – walked down the Danube Promenade. At the Concert Hall he would accelerate his pace so as to arrive at his office in five precisely calculated minutes. Nor was he ever late, not once in three years; Gortvai was appreciated for his punctuality.
Tamás Aczél, The Ice Age (1965)
My favorite novel of the Second World (yes, I do have one) for the way it likens life in a Communist bureaucracy to a neverending nervous breakdown. Aczél kicks it off with a brief character sketch, another common opening strategy that I tend to associate with the nineteenth century. Between the concrete location in 1950s Hungary and the nod to Gortvai’s absurd punctuality, you can kind of see where it’s going.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (1939)
Well, it’s an accurate portrait of the artist as an old crank.