by Russell Dyer
published: july 12, 2007; revised: september 03, 2017; readers in past month: 103
Starting to write a story is not a problem for me—I don’t suffer from writer’s block, ever. I can always think of something to say and, thereby, to write. When I want to write a story, I usually start with a thought, a profound phrase that sums up a feeling. The phrase helps me to distinguish it. Then I consider how a person, a character might flow from that moment. I come up with just general ideas, bullet points in a vague timeline. When I feel I’m ready, I begin writing.
When I begin writing a story, I find I do best to begin with a quiet moment, usually a contemplative moment. If you look at some of my stories on this web site, you’ll see what I mean: “He sat in his chair at work, looking out of his window, not thinking of anything in particular: he was just day dreaming.” (from No one ever gave me flowers); or this one, “He carefully pressed the buttons on the phone.” (from My therapist won’t return my calls.)
This method of beginning seems to work well for me. However, I don’t know if it works well for the reader and in turn if it will work well for me, as I need the reader, particularly a literary agent and a publisher to appreciate the starting point. A reader will begin a story for many reasons. A literary agent will begin for similar reasons as well as commercial reasons. If I send a story to an agent or an editor of a literary publication, they might pick up my story to consider it for publication (to solve their need to publish material so as to be paid) and will read the opening sentence. If the opening sentence is daring and unexpected, they’ll be hooked.
In Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock (published in 1938), his opening line is, “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” This is a compelling first line. For me to write such a line might be useful in drawing attention to myself, but it can make me look cheesy and if the following lines don’t meet the sensation that the first line gives, disappointment will swoop in all the faster. I don’t think an opening line to hook the reader is necessary with a normal reader. When I look at other Greene novels and great novels written by other writers, I don’t usually see such a line to hook the reader. Instead, I see opening paragraphs which draw the reader in and make them comfortable and compell them to continue, not to let go. This is more reasonable of a goal and less gimicky.
Below are the first two paragraphs of Brighton Rock. Watch how the lines work after the first one.
Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong—belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian watercolour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.
It had seemed quite easy to Hale to be lost in Brighton. Fifty thousand people besides himself were down for the day, and for quite a while he gave himself up to the good day, drinking gins and tonics wherever his programme allowed. For he had to stick closely to a programme: from ten till eleven Queen’s Road and Castle Square, from eleven till twelve the Aquarium and Palace Pier, twelve till one the front between the Old Ship and West Pier, back for lunch between one and two in any restaurant he chose round the Castle Square, and after that he had to make his way all down the parade to the West Pier and then to the station by the Hove streets. These were the limits of his absurd and widely advertised sentry-go.
If a person knows that someone is planning to murder him, his body and actions should show nervousness. In the second line, Greene shows us this state with “With his inky fingers and his bitten nails…” Greene then demonstrates it with the character’s action: “his manner cynical and nervous…” And what about the people around him, could they see his nervousness: “anybody could tell he didn’t belong” He didn’t belong. He was like a man who was singled out for execution, a man alone in a crowd. All of this takes the striking thought of the first line and solidifies it. It confirms it. The lines that follow begin to answer questions the reader has such as Where is this character that is facing his own murder? We find that he is out in the open in a crowded public place and yet still vulnerable. The reader is given sensorial information about the wind, the air, the smells of the sea, noise of the crowd, and many more pieces of sensory data to place the reader in the room near the soon-to-be victim, to draw the reader into the scene and thereby the story. The second paragraph gives the reader more information and follows through with the natural query of Why not just run away? or How do they know where you are? In being given the answers that the reader is given to these natural questions, she is also given confusion—confusion to match the anxiety of the character and confusion to make the reader ask more questions that she cannot simply drop so that she won’t drop the story without being satisfied first. With satisfaction will come a joining of the story, a relationship with it. That’s what Greene attains without the reader being asked to enter into the story.
Perhaps my favorite Graham Greene novel is The End of the Affair, published in 1951. It’s a story about a writer (like Greene) who is named Bendrix—Greene chose to narrate his story from the perspective of a writer, seeing life and the world as a writer would. Look at the opening two paragraphs of this story:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who—when he has been seriously noted at all—has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, ‘Speak to him: he hasnt seen you yet.’
For why should I have spoken to him? If hate is not too large a term to use in relation to any human being, I hated Henry—I hated his wife Sarah too. And he, I suppose, came soon after the events of that evening to hate me: as he surely at times must have hated his wife and that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe. So this is a record of hate far more than of love, and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth, even to the expression of my near-hate.
The first sentence here is not a hook in the same way as the one in Brighton Rock, but it is a hook in a way. The reader doesn’t expect a story to begin with the narrator talking about how a story begins. That’s a bit unconventional and daring and catches the reader’s curiosity. The narrator is acknowledging that although he is a fictitious character, he is self-aware in his way. The story is aware of itself, it is seemingly sentient. That sounds ridiculous and bizarre. However, that’s the bizzare nature of the opening line of this story. Look at the second sentence: “…that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain…” Greene goes from an academic discussion of how this story and any story should begin or if the notion of a begining is valid, to a strong visual image. From where did this use of the gerund slanting suddenly come? I’ve never heard it used this way before, and yet I understood it when I first read it and its unique use conjures an immediate and all the stronger image of a dejected man walking through the rain. Black, wet, January, night. I’ve been in London at night in the rain. It’s bitter, bitter cold there in January when it rains. It will make you curse the joints of your bones. And what about the wide river of rain? Here’s a man fighting the onslaught of a bitter cold rain in London at night, but to add to the imagery, it’s river wide—a wide river is not easily escapable, but it’s easy to succumb to it, to be drowned by it. He is physically and metaphorically enduring the abuse of life, living and existing contrary to it.
So it is that this paragraph catches our attention with its unconventional narration and with its intriguing character, Henry. So, the next natural question is, Who is this Henry? Who is he to you, narrator? I say you because already at this point, the reader has fallen into a relationship with the narrator. By including the reader in the narrator’s observations about the beginning of a story, they have shared thoughts together and begun a relationship. The second paragraph starts to answer the questions about Henry, but with more intriguing comments that lead to more questions in the reader’s mind. Near the start of the second paragraph is the line, “I hated Henry—I hated his wife Sarah too.” Now we know of another character, Henry’s wife Sarah. How odd it is for a person to hate someone and their spouse. Normally, we might hate someone, but will be indifferent to their spouse, or feel sorry for the spouse for being married to such a terrible person. We might say, “He’s a jerk, but his wife is sweet.” And yet, Greene’s narrator hates Henry and his wife Sarah. How bizarre, how intriguing, how compelling. The reader now wants more. There are references to 1946—the year after the second world war; references to the Common, to which a well-read reader of English literature knows that’s probably a reference to London. This all adds charm to the story. It’s not a war story, but a post-war story. If the narrator has hatred for them, though, it probably was formed during the war. How is it that a man can come to hate another man and his wife and all during a war? This is more curiosity that Greene generates in the first two paragraphs. In just two paragraphs the reader is swirled into a mixture of unconventionality, of the unexpected, a mix of stark imagery, of curiosity.
Look at the opening two paragraphs of Greene’s novel, The Comedians, published in 1965.
When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals, the heroes of old colonial wars, and to frock-coated politicians who are even more deeply forgotten, I can find no reason to mock the modest stone that commemorates Jones on the far side of the international road which he failed to cross in a country far from home, though I am not to this day absolutely sure of where, geographically speaking, Jones’s home lay. At least he paid for the monument—however unwillingly—with his life, while the generals as a rule came home safe and paid, if at all, with the blood of their men, and as for the politicians who cares for dead politicians—sufficiently to remember with what issues they were identified? Free Trade is less interesting than an Ashanti war, though the London pigeons do not distinguish between the two. Exegi monumentum. Whenever my rather bizarre business takes me north to Monte Cristi and I pass the stone, I feel a certain pride that my action helped to raise it.
There is a point of no return unremarked at the time in most lives. Neither Jones nor I knew of it when it came, although, like the pilots of the old pre-jet air-liners, we should have been trained by the nature of our two careers to better observance. Certainly I was quite unaware of the moment when it receded one sullen August morning on the Atlantic in the wake of the Medea, a cargo-ship of the Royal Netherlands Steamship Company, bound for Haiti and Portau-Prince from Philadelphia and New York. At that period of my life I still regarded my future seriously—even the future of my empty hotel and of a love-affair which was almost as empty. I was not involved, so far as I could tell, with either a burnt-out case Jones or Smith, they were fellow passengers, that was all, and I had no idea of the pompes funèbres they were preparing for me in the parlours of Mr Fernandez. If I had been told I would have laughed, as I laugh now on my better days.
There’s nothing stunning and unconventional on the surface here. However, there are intriguing words all the same: Ashanti war, Royal Netherlands Steamship Company, Haiti, and a bit of Latin and French. There’s also the introduction of the mundanely named character Jones who the reader learns in the first paragraph is dead and has a statue commemorating his death and heroism. The reader also learns that the narrator had something to do with the statue—the building of it, and maybe the causing of Jones’ death? The first paragraph criticizes statues of heroes and politicians and in so doing the narrator sees it as only fair not to dispute the statue of Jones. So, there is some unconventionalism brewing afterall. More importantly, we learn in advance that Jones is a main character of the story which follows and that in the end he will die for debatable heroism and the narrator is somehow involved. The second paragraph is predictive in that the narrator is pointing out after the fact that they were preparing an undertaking against him in the parlor of someone named Fernandez. What were they undertaking? Of what dangers was the narrator retroactively laughing in the face? Again, in two paragraphs, the reader is curious. The smooth writing makes the reader comfortable and makes continuing on to the subsequent paragraph easy.
From all of this I think I must learn to tell the reader something different, something unconventional, but not necessarily outlandish. I must give the reader something she didn’t expect, that draws on human emotions in backdoor or unorthodox ways. In each of Greene’s novels, he deals with adult situations and emotions that many of us experience, but don’t always feel comfortable expressing. Greene’s novels express them for us. He makes the reader say to herself, “Yes, I hear you. Tell me more of how this hit you,” and she reads on as a result. The reader knows how to express the primary colors of emotions: love, happiness, sadness, and so forth. She doesn’t always know how to express the subtle deviations in the emotional color spectrum: the various shades of blue and not just navy and royal blue, but colors like cornflower blue and shades of it. This is what the reader wants, the shades of the emotions that she had not considered and did not know how to express in words. This is my task as a writer, to talk about that which the reader can’t talk about with just anyone, to put to words what the reader feels but could never say. And this all starts with the opening paragraphs and doesn’t stop until the story ends.