April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
—T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
The beginning of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a perfect example of how to start a book of poetry or shorter prose. It grabs you with the very first phrase: “April is the cruellest month…” But I thought April was the most beautiful month, you say to yourself, when spring gives us such hope? No way, this is a fallen world, where hope only leads to broken promises. Read the rest to find out why, Eliot seems to tell us. And is if to tempt us into the poem, Eliot ends each of the first three lines with a present participle—breeding, mixing, stirring—active words that move us right into the odd reality of this Waste Land, half-dead even while it’s blooming. You can’t help but read on.
The strategies that Eliot uses to begin The Waste Land aren’t necessary for your book, but they demonstrate that the opening needs to snatch our attention away from whatever else we’re thinking, so we focus only on what we’re reading, and we want to read more.
Here’s another good beginning, the opening sentence of Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird: “The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.” A provocative statement, one that makes you want to find out more. Why is good writing about telling the truth? What does she mean by telling the truth?
And then there’s the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, A Room of One’s Own: “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?” Woolf throws down the gauntlet right from the start. I’m going to break the rules now, she’s saying. Watch me. And she starts with a question, a terrific way to bring the reader into the argument. What does a room of one’s own have to do with women and fiction? Everything, we now know because of Woolf, but back then, she was starting her essay with a total surprise.
Let’s look at the first sentence of Sherman Alexie’s book of connected short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: “Although it was winter, the nearest ocean four hundred miles away, and the Tribal Weatherman asleep because of boredom, a hurricane dropped from the sky in 1976 and fell so hard on the Spokane Indian Reservation that it knocked Victor from bed and his latest nightmare.” Alexie gives us humor, action, and unpredictable events, all in the first sentence. You just have to read on to find out what it’s all about.
The first sentence or the first few lines of a book (in the case of poetry) have to make the reader want to read on. You’ve got to win the reader’s attention immediately. Readers may encounter your book in a library or a bookstore, where there are many other books competing for their interest.
So let’s say you’re putting together a collection of poetry or short stories or essays. Which piece do you choose to put first? Well, I’d say one with an engaging beginning. One that fulfills its promise, and gives the reader the sense that this book will delight and/or instruct, and not disappoint.
You wouldn’t start with the poem or story or essay that is the crux of the collection. You don’t want to give away the ending at the beginning. You want to work up to the climatic moment.
James Joyce holds back the story “The Dead,” the masterpiece of his book of short stories Dubliners, till the very end. He starts the collection with a relatively minor story, “The Sisters,” but one that opens with a crisp first sentence and a page of dialogue, an engaging beginning. “The Sisters” introduces some of the themes of Dubliners, with its narrative about a priest who goes mad after accidentally dropping a sacred chalice. The story’s exposé of the stultifying conventions of life in the Ireland of Joyce’s day echoes throughout the book. But the ultimate laying bare of that situation doesn’t come until the end of the very last story in the collection.
The beginning of a book should provide an active introduction to the book’s themes, it should start on an exciting note, and it should present the dilemma of the book without resolving it.
Other recent posts on writing topics:
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer