Opening Is The Hardest Thing


J.R.R. Tolkein

J.R.R. Tolkein

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Barnado: “Who’s there?”

First Witch: When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Today’s Daily Prompt asks “Take the first sentence from your favourite book and make it the first sentence of your post.”

Well I’m sorry. Just one “favourite book”? Not possible, that’s like asking a mother to choose her favourite child, not only is it an almost impossible question it would constantly change and be unfair to the unchosen children.

I picked five opening sentences from three of my favourite novels and two of my favourite plays. You probably recognise most of them, in case you don’t they are from, in order from top to bottom, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (TLotR), ‘Emma’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth’. All of these five pieces of literature have been my “favourite” for a time. TLotR was the first great love of my adult reading life back in my early teens, before that only juvenile literature had been loved though I had read much meant for older readers. The two Austen novels became my favourites later when I was a mature age student studying English Literature and the two Shakespeare plays somewhere in between, probably after I saw a great production.

I’d have to class four of our sentences as superb openings while Tolkein was writing an epic so he starts with a soft opening.

Many critics consider the opening sentence of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ among the finest written. It certainly distills the central concerns and plot of the novel swiftly. Notice however that is it hyperbole, while most of the women in the Bennet family might feel “a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” both Mr Bennet and Elizabeth might disagree and certainly Darcy would. Bingley, the “single man” being referred to, would probably never consider the question.

Compare that to the first sentence of ‘Emma’. It doesn’t seem to tell us much about the concerns of the novel but it does provide a perfect overture. the starting point of the novel that covers around a year of Emma’s life where she will be distressed and vexed before returning to her “comfortable home and happy disposition” not just married but with those around her happy too.

By contrast the opening to TLotR is less than an overture, it’s like the orchestra tuning up or the baritone clearing his throat; it’s the start of a long tale that opens with a minor character and tells us nothing of what is to come. But consider this is an epic, we should expect an opening that unfolds with a slower pace.

But openings are hard. When you study essay writing for University they tell you to write the opening paragraph last since you don’t know what you want to say until then. In journalism they talk about “don’t bury the lede”, make sure that you have a strong opening, the strong part of the story that will grip the reader and keep them reading should be the “lede” and open the story.

For a novel or a play it is harder still but there are some things that can make it easier. Notice that in all five openings there is almost no description, the only descriptive touch is Austen’s brief description to open ‘Emma’ and even there it is subordinate to the conclusion of the sentence.

An interesting exercise for you, take the opening few pages of ‘Emma’ or ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and highlight every piece of description, now do the same thing to any Dan Brown novel. When you notice the huge difference you’ll understand why I consider Mr Brown’s work overwritten and tiresome. Austen describes little, she leaves that to the artist inside your head, which gives her room to pack in more plot, motivation and character development.

Now look at those two openings to Shakespeare’s plays. I’ll give you the opening to another of my favourite plays, ’The Importance of Being Earnest’:

Algernon. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
Lane. I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.

The playwright has an easier job in opening, he already has you in the seat and your probably not going anywhere so he can open a little more slowly. Our two different playwrights also have a different purpose; Shakespeare is opening two tragedies while Wilde is starting a comedy.

Shakespeare opens with forbidding and foreboding lines, with ‘Hamlet’ we have a guard on a dark and lonely castle battlement rattled with a “Who’s there?” instead of the traditional and regular “Who goes there?”, in ‘Macbeth’ we have the fearsome witches. In ‘Hamlet’ we are immediately shown the disquiet that haunts Denmark throughout the play. In ‘Macbeth’ we are introduced to the magical and mystical that powers the action of the play. Two great openings for two great tragic plays.

By contrast Wilde opens with a joke. However it is not just a joke, it is a joke that cuts across class with a manservant too “polite to listen”. This is play in which class and social position will be key. It also tells us that this will be a comedy, one of the finest written.

So we have seen six openings from six great pieces of literature. Consider these things when writing your own openings. Make it count, make it matter and don’t bury your lead.

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5 thoughts on “Opening Is The Hardest Thing

  1. It’s funny, but yours is the second consecutive post I have read that used the opening line from TLotR for this writing exercise. I find your likening the opening to “less than an overture” interesting as I believe the style it is written in suits Bilbo perfectly. The line speaks of an ordinary event (a birthday party) which has special significance – after all, it’s not every day that one celebrates an eleventy-first! Bilbo is also an ordinary individual who experiences extraordinary things (both in “The Hobbit” and TLofR). But Tolkien’s use of the word “magnificence” suggests something of grand beauty – which is what the story turns out to be; and so therefore in a quiet voice, he invites us into a story that unfolds and hypnotises.

    • I agree with you that the style and word choice are good. I just contrast it to Austen who introduces the concerns of her novels. Tolkein has the time to use a “quiet voice” as he is writing a tale that unfolds much slower.

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