Monday, August 21, 2006

Beginnings - Part 2

Thank you all for your fabulous comments on the first lines/paragraphs!

We all know the importance of a great beginning to a book and it looks from your comments as though you think that JA is pretty good at this!

In the opening scene of a book you make a pact with the reader that says: “ This is what you can expect from this book. These are the people, the issues and the mood.” You create the readers’ expectations – which you then have to fulfil in the book. You have to capture the reader and convince him or her to spend their time with your characters. Who, reading the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, wouldn’t be captivated and want to find out what happens next?

I’m sure that you recognised all the extracts but here are the books and my own thoughts on the way JA begins each story.

The first extract I quoted is my personal favourite and comes from Persuasion. It introduces us to Sir Walter Elliot and shows us his character in an understated way (vain, self-important, shallow, ruled by rank and consequence…) Jane Austen doesn’t do anything as clunky as tell us what Sir Walter is like – she allows his actions to speak for themselves. Not only is this a masterful way in which to introduce a character, it also introduces a situation because Sir Walter’s vanity and self-importance is central to the plot. It is as a result of his inability to economise (it simply isn’t appropriate for someone of his rank to be expected to cut back) that his family are obliged to leave Kellynch Hall and a whole series of events is set in motion.

In the second extract, from Sanditon, Jane Austen dispenses with setting the scene and moves straight into the action. It is quite unusual for her to do this at the start of a book. Most of her books begin with some information on character or background before the action starts. This is much more “modern” in flavour in the sense that these days a lot of writing advice suggests you should start a book at a point where something is about to happen. We’re told to cut the description and to get straight into the action. That’s exactly what JA does here, showing that she is equally at home with either mode.

The third extract is from Emma. It describes a young woman who has led what appears to be a charmed life. The effect that this beginning has on me is to make me think “uh-oh, something is going to happen to change all that.” This is a great bit of foreshadowing. At the start of the book everything is fine but in the mind of the reader the questions are immediately raised. What is going to happen? How will it all go wrong?

The fourth extract is one of the most famous quotations in literature, from Pride and Prejudice. It has a humorous feel to it that sets the tone of the book and it introduces one of the major themes in the story – that of matchmaking. And yet although Mrs Bennet does appear very funny in her attempts to marry off her daughters, there is an undertone of desperation in the whole venture. Mrs Bennet knows better than anyone that there are very few alternatives to marriage for the girls. The estate is entailed and there is no obligation on Mr Collins to give a home to the dispossessed daughters. If they don’t marry, what will become of them? And what will become of their mother if she ends up as the widowed mother of five unmarried girls? So the humour at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice covers a deeper poignancy.

In contrast to the comedy of the first line of Pride and Prejudice, there is an ironic humour to the comment about Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. This is a more self-conscious, mocking humour that sets the tone for a book that makes fun of the conventions of the Gothic novel. But it’

The final extract, from Mansfield Park, is superb and sly social comment. Again, Jane Austen shows us so much about society, it’s gradations and preoccupation with rank simply by giving us one example. It also sets the scene for the unfolding of the story thirty years later. Miss Maria Ward married well – three thousand pounds above the position in society that her dowry might justifiably have bought her – and the fact that her two sisters were unable to match her success leads to the situation in which the next generation of the family find themselves at the beginning of the book. I love this opening for the way that the line about the three thousand pounds sums up so much about society’s preoccupation with money and status.

So - action, scene setting or character description at the start of a book? I think Jane Austen does all three equally well and I also think it throws down a challenge to us. Not every book has to start with something dramatic happening in the style of the Da Vinci Code, for example. Such an approach can be extremely effective but an intriguing character description or incisive social comment can work equally well. One of my favourite starts to a book is Frenchman's Creek by Daphne Du Maurier, which has 22 pages of description before the heroine appear. 22 pages! I don't think any of us would be able to get away with that now without the editors wielding their red ink, but it's a pity because when it's done well the descriptive passage can really build up the tension.


Blogger Vibeesh Bose said...

...You are right on, about DuMaurier's 'painting with words' style... especially evinced in Frenchmans Creek...writing is so hard!!

8:25 AM  
Blogger Nightwriter said...

I do agree with you that it is a pity that nowadays editors want an action-packed start to the beginning of a book - due,I suppose, to the fact that the majority of us live life at a frenzied pace and are time-poor when it comes to leisure pursuits -so our reading material has to follow suit. If the first sentence isn't at 'full pace' it is assumed that we will lose interest and not buy/borrow the book in question - the great and the good not having time to sit and enjoy a delicious descriptive scene setter just for the sake of it. Oh for a life in the slow lane ..... And it just goes to show how indoctrination and writing has moved on because I chose the Northanger Abbey piece - it was the one that hooked me because it was short, intriguing and to the point!

12:03 PM  

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