? Small Slices -- Reviews of the openings of popular novels to explore principles of story structure, by Bill Johnson
A Story is a Promise

A Story 
is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling Book Cover

A fifth edition of my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, is now available on Kindle for $2.99, and from Barnes and Noble for their Nook reader.
This new edition explores what happens when story characters are an extension of authors and suggests techniques for authors to create characters with fully realized inner lives. The book includes a section titled Deep Characterization, and a revision of A Story is a Promise, with an outline of The Lovely Bones and updated reviews of films like Inception. It also includes the new essay, Storytelling and the Superconscious Mind.

Essays on the Craft of Writing
About the Author

Small Slices

by Bill Johnson

A photo of Bill Johnson, author of A Story is a Promise and the Spirit of Storytelling.

These reviews offer an overview of how the openings of these novels were written to engage an audience. They are not meant to convey a review of a full book, just a taste of one small slice of each book.

All reviews by Bill Johnson, copyright 2001-2014.

Creating an Alien if Familar World

Notes on The Hunger Games

Cover of the novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins offers an example of how to tell a story around a familiar if alien world, here the United States that has divided into mini-states. This kind of story requires raising questions and introducing information about this new world that draws an audience forward to want to know more.

In the beginning...

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

The novel starts rooted in the POV of Katniss, a young girl. The opening conveys subtle information about the world, waking up cold, a mattress with a canvas cover, the question, what is the reaping? It also raises character questions, who is Prim? Why is she having bad dreams? What do her dreams have to do with the reaping?


     I prop myself up on one elbow. There's enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother's body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim's face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

This conveys a stronger sense of place, but more questions. Why does the mother appear 'beaten-down'? What happened to the once beautiful mother? Who is this 'they' who commented on the mother's former beauty?


     Sitting at Prim's knees, guarding her, is the ugliest cat in the world. Mashed in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash.

This conveys a description of a cat, but also a subtext about this world, that pets fend for themselves in a harsh world. There's also the subtext here that the narrator does not like this cat.


Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least he distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home.

Again, another question: why did the narrator feel compelled to kill the cat? With the title, Hunger Games, the reason is implied; one more mouth to feed.

Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed.

That confirms the why the narrator wanted the kitten dead, but raises another question: why is she responsible for feeding her mother and sister?

But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he's a born mouser. Even catches an occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

This conveys the narrator's desire to make her little sister happy. That a pet is fed entrails and not cat food again suggests something about this familiar yet alien world.

     Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.

There's a subtext here that in this harsh world, accomodations are made, but only grudgingly.

This is the first page of the book. It continues with the narrator getting up and ready to go out hunting, and relates that she lives in District 12 that is crawling with coal miners. Again, questions are raised that will soon be answered, and the answers will raise new questions.

The author next relates that District 12 is surrounded by an electrified fence to protect the inhabitants from wild dogs and other wild animals. District 12 is sounding more like a gulag, which it comes out that it is for most of its inhabitants, but the narrator is willing to go beyond that fence.

Suzanne Collins demonstrates a deft touch in introducing this narrator in a harsh world, but also showing her inititive to not be fenced in. Novels that lack this clearly defined, carefully crafted character and plot and scene development from their opening lines risk being static and dramatically inert.

Cover of the novel Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.


by Jonathan Franzen

This novel demonstrates how an opening paragraph can draw readers deeper into a story's world.

First sentence:

The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally--he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now--but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times.

This raises several questions. What is the news? Why the move? This also suggests a community that is self-conscious about its place.

According to a long and very unflattering story in the Times, Walter had made quite a mess of his professional life out there in the nation's capital.

More questions: Why was the article unflattering? What is, or was, Walter's 'professional' life?

His old neighbors had some difficulty reconciling the quotes about him the Times ("arrogant," high-handed," "ethically compromised") with the generous, smiling, red-faced 3M employee they remembered pedaling his commuter bicycle up Summit Avenue in February snow; it seemed strange that Walter, who was greener than Greenpeace and whose own roots were rural, should be in trouble now for conniving with the coat industry and mistreating country people.

So much here. What happened to change Walter? Or did Walter change, or simply reveal his true self in a new environment? Or did something happen to change Walter? We also get something of an answer to the question, what was the article about? So the process of question/answer/question has begun in this first paragraph.

Then again, there had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds.

Now the question enlarges from being just about Walter, to being about his family. What was 'not quite right' about them? To get to an answer means to keep reading.

Excellent story mechanics.

Good Grief

by Lolly Winston

This powerful novel about grief is divided into sections. The chapters in Part One are about denial, oreoes, anger, depression, escrow, and ashes. Each chapter, then, is about the main character's journey in dealing with her grief over her husband's death. The title, Good Grief, speaks to the narrator learning that there can be good grief (which revolves around passing through the stages of grief) and bad grief (getting stuck on the journey).

The opening line:

How can I be a Widow?

The answer to this question comes in the opening paragraphs as the narrator sits in a grief support group. In a few paragraphs, the narrator explains why she's in the group.

My name is Sophie and I've joined the grief group because...well, because I sort of did a crazy thing. I drove my Honda through our garage door.

What's important about these lines is they show the narrator is not only in grief, she's being overwhelmed by her grief. What set up the garage accident was an irrational thought that she needed to get into the house quickly to tell her husband something. Except he's deceased. She's in denial.

Continuing in a few paragraphs:

Maybe later I'll tell the group how I dream about Ethan every night. That he's still alive in the eastern standard time zone and if I fly to New York, I can see him for another three hours.

The narrator tries to deal with her grief by going back to work, but she quickly finds herself overwhelmed. In the past, when she felt overwhelmed, she called her husband. The chapter ends with these lines.

The cursor on my computer screen pulses impatiently, and the red voice mail light on my phone flashes. My stomach growls and my head throbs. But I can't call my husband. Because, here's the thing: I am a widow.

She has started to come out of her denial about her husband's death. The first chapter is a clearly defined journey on her journey through grief.

Magic Spells

by Christy Yorke

Book cover for the novel Magic Spells

This powerful novel opens with these sentences.

At one time, when Alex was two and she was just beginning to panic about his lack of speech, she had thought she could love words into him.

This sentence speaks to a mother's dramatic truth, that she has a son with a disability and she wanted to believe she could somehow heal him with the power of her love. The sentence raises the question, why did the son fail to develop the power of speech? Would her love be enough to heal him?

But she, more than anyone, knew what a risk it was to pour all your love into one body. Tragedy, when it came, had only one place to strike.

These two sentences suggest the mother's loss and raises the questions, what tragedy stuck her life, and who was it that she gave all her love?

All that love had done nothing. In almost seven years, Alex had not said one word. Jane had taken him to every doctor on the East Coast, but she knew they would not find anything. She knew what had happened. Alex had gotten her life by mistake.

These sentences begin to develop an answer about the son's inability to speak, and raises the question of what the mother might have done that her son would suffer this problem. It also speaks to the great tension she feels around finding a cure for his problem. She is a dramatically driven character.

He had nightmares while her dreams were black as space. He felt guilty over something he didn't even know about.

The author continues to develop the idea of some past tragedy, and the impact it still has on the mother.

Alex was riding off down Sycamore Lane. "Don't go too far," Jane yelled. "Don't go on the highway."

These sentences foreshadow what tragedy befell the mother, and her concern about keeping her son close. The author also give the mother a name. First, she expresses a truth about the character, then she begins to offer some details. Struggling writers generally start with the details and fail to establish a context.

He had already turned the corner. Jane looked down at her clenched fists. She wondered when the day would come when she wouldn't imagine all the horrific things that could happen to him when he was out of her sight. She wondered when he would stop squeezing her heart, or when she would cure him the way a mother should, with a snap of her fingers, just like that.

This passage sets up the plot question of the novel, when and how the son will find his voice, and how the journey to that place will squeeze the heart of his mother with greater and greater force. The story question for the novel, about finding healing, is also clearly presented.

Christy is an author who knows how to get to the real heart of her characters. Her next novel, The Secret Lives of the Sushi Club, is great demonstration of how to write the truth in a novel. Highly recommended to anyone who would like to study the craft of storytelling by reading the work of a published author.

The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.

This opening is intriguing. It suggests a narrator pre-occupied with death, confused about life, while also giving a time and place for the story. It would be hard not to read the second sentence, which is what a good opening sentence to a novel accomplishes.

I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers -- goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.

This suggests an answer to why the narrator is pre-occupied with the deaths, she can't escape the headlines, even though she finds them oppressive. There's also the evocation of the smell of the entrances to subways in New York. This helps draw the reader into experiencing this moment directly.

It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

This foreshadows something that will happen to the nervous system of the narrator. The narrator continues to develop death in a fourth paragraph when she writes...

It was like the first time I saw a cadaver. For weeks afterward, the cadaver's head--or what there was left of it--floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast behind the face of Buddy Willard, who was responsible for my seeing it in the first place, and pretty soon I felt as thought I were carrying that cadaver's head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar.

The narrator then contrasts this experience with her expectations of what she should be experiencing in New York after her successes in college, but now...

I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.

This suggests the truth of this character, that she's slipping down a path toward a mental breakdown.

Very impressive opening.

Lady Chatterley's Love

by D.H. Lawrence

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.

One thing I love about Lawrence is the way he states his truths clearly. He wants his readers to know the terrain he'll be exploring in a story.

The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habits, to have new little hopes.

The cataclysm referred to here is World War I, and Lawrence's take on how a certain class of people responded.

It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

The war changed everything.

This was more or less Constance Chatterley's position. The war had brought the roof down over her head. And she had realized that one must live and learn.

Lawrence goes from the general to the specific here, from speaking about a time and place to a person in that time and place.

She married Clifford Chatterley in 1917, when he was home for a month on leave. They had a month's honeymoon. Then he went back to Flanders: to be shipped over to England again six months later, more or less in bits.

His hold on life was marvellous. He didn't die, and the bits seemed to grow together again. For two years he remained in the doctor's hands. Then he was pronounced a cure, and could return to life again, with the lower half of his body, from the hips down, paralyzed for ever.

This sets in motion a story about the choices Lady Chatterley will make in this new world where she belongs to one class, her lover to another.

The Outsider

by Albert Camus

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know. I had a telegram from the home: 'Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.' That doesn't mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

Great introduction to a story about alienation, with a main character who is an outsider both to his own feelings and the outside world.

The old people's home is at Marengo, fifty miles from Algiers. I'll catch the two o'clock bus and get there in the afternoon. Then I can keep the vigil and I'll come back tomorrow night. I asked me boss for two days off and he couldn't refuse under the circumstances. But he didn't seem pleased. I even said, 'It's not my fault.' He didn't answer. Then I thought maybe I shouldn't have said that. After all, it wasn't for me to apologize. It was more up to him to offer me his condolences. But he probably will do that after tomorrow, when he sees me in mourning. For the moment it's almost as if mother were still alive. After the funeral though, the death will be a classified fact and the whole thing will have assumed a more official aura.

We learn a great deal about this character's alienation just hearing him recite his story. Camus took an alienated character and mated that with an event, the death of the character's mother, to show the depth of his alienation.

The Tin Drum

by Gunter Grass

I had a powerful reaction to this book. I couldn't conceive how Grass wrote this story. Now, I can talk about some of the elements of his opening, but I know I'm only touching on what Grass created with this amazing novel. I read a translation, but from the reaction to the book in Germany, I assume the translation captured the spirit of what Grass created.

First sentence, Book One, 'The Wide Skirt.'

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.

This open raises immediate questions: why is the narrator in a mental institution? Why is he so closely watched? That the narrator is a 'blue-eyed' type becomes significant later.

Next sentence, next paragraph...

So you see, my keeper can't be an enemy. I've come to be very fond of him; when he stops looking at me from behind the door and comes into the room, I tell him incidents from my life, so he can get to know me in spite of the peephole between us.

This promises the audience to learn more about the narrator during these talks. It also suggests the narrator has interesting stories to tell, and an engaging personality. There's also a suggestion here of the American occupation of Germany after the war.


He seems to treasure my stories, because every time I tell him some fairy tale, he shows his gratitude by bringing out his latest knot construction.

That the narrator is a teller of 'tales' puts the audience in the situation of having to decide how much of what he says is true. This kind of technique can compel an audience to pay attention (as long as the story commands attention). There's also a sub text here (although it won't be apparent for some time) of some of the 'knotty' issues Grass explores in this story.

Next sentences...

I wouldn't swear that he's an artist. But I am certain that an exhibition of his creations would be well received by the press and attract a few purchasers. He picks up common pieces of string in the patient's rooms after visiting hours, disentangles them, and works them up into elaborate contorted spooks; then he dips them in plaster, lets them harden, and mounts them on knitting needles that he fastens to little wooden pedestals.

I found a suggestion here of the storytelling process. That the storyteller collects pieces of ideas, dialogue, characters from life, disentangles the various strings and collects them into fixed structures.

It's also possible I'm reading too much into this, but I suspect that Grass means more than appears on the surface here.

Next paragraph...

He often plays with the idea of colouring his works. I advise him against it, taking my white enamel bed as an example and bidding him to try and imagine how this most perfect of all beds would look if painted in many colours. He raises his hands in horror, tries to give his rather expressionless face an expression of extreme disgust, and abandons his poly chrome projects.

For me the sub text here is a discussion about the nature of art. Does the artist accept the beauty of reality, or try to create a new reality with his or her own colours? That the narrator suggests his captor not use artificial colours is deceptive, since the narrator has already mentioned he's not against 'colouring' his stories with the details of his choice.

Next paragraph, sentences...

So you see, my white-enamelled, metal hospital bed has become a norm and standard. To me it is more still: my bed is a goal attained at last, it is my consolation and might become my faith if the management allowed me to make a few changes: I should like, for instance, to have the bars built up higher, to prevent anyone from coming too close to me.

Much to ponder here. How does a white enamel hospital bed in a mental institution become a 'norm.' This foreshadows the exploration in this story of how other strange ideas can become 'norms.' There's also the compelling question here of why the narrator doesn't want people allowed close to him.

Next paragraph, next sentences.

Once a week a visiting day breaks in on the stillness that I plait between the white metal bars. This is the time for the people who want to save me, whom it amuses to love me, who try to esteem and respect themselves, to get to know themselves, through me. How blind, how nervous and ill-bred they are! They scratch the white enamel of my bedstead with their fingernail scissors, they scribble obscene little men on it with their ballpoint pens and blue pencils. No sooner has my lawyer blasted into the room with his hello that he slaps his nylon hat down over the lower left-hand bedpost - an act of violence that shatters my peace of mind for the duration of his visit, and lawyers find a good deal to talk about.

Grass blasts into his plot here, with the question, why does the narrator need a lawyer? The mental institution suggested mental problems, the lawyer, legal problems. There's a great presentation of the impact of the lawyer's arrival on the narrator. The suggestion that all is not what it seems in this story was just driven home in great force. Grass continues to provide these powerful, jolting revelations as the novel continues. Powerful story, powerful storytelling. Grass is an artist at the height of his powers here.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket, Book the First, The Bad Beginning.

The title of the series and the title of the first book get right to the point about what to expect in this series of books.

First sentence, Chapter Oneā€¦

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.

The author sets right out what kind of story this is, but with a light tone. He goes from the general type of story to the specific characters. Once he makes that general to specific transition, he stays with the children, and makes another general to specific transition with them. Some writers have problems because they go from a general intro to a story, to being specific about characters, then start wandering back and forth between being specific and general about the story and characters. Lemony opens the door to this story world and steps through it.

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair.

This sets out the dramatic truth for these children. This truth drew me forward to find out what was going to happen next.

I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.

The storyteller has found a way to tell his audience that he'll tell the truth. This is a task every storyteller confronts. By speaking so plainly about the children's dramatic truth, the author suggests an understanding of how to tell a story. Salinger in Catcher in the Rye also made a point of telling his audience that Holden would tell the truth.

Their misfortune began one day at Briny beach.

The author goes from a general introduction of the children to a specific time and place with them.

The Baudelaire children lived with their parents in an enormous mansion at the heart of a dirty and busy city, and occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley - the word "rickety," you probably know, here means "unsteady" or "likely to collapse"-alone to the seashore, where they would spend the day as a sort of vacation as long as they were home for dinner.

Lemony Snicket injecting explanations for simple words becomes a running joke in this story and the series.

The next three paragraphs of the story set out each child's dramatic truth, that sense of how they approach and view life, and what's important to them.

The storyteller then gets to the first major misfortune for the children: their parents have died in a fire that burned down their house.

When Lemony Snicket says the children will face great misfortune, he's not just whistling cricket. The first chapter of the book is a complete step forward through a misfortune that ends on immediate and painful questions for the children and the audience, what now? What next?

The answers to those compelling questions are found beginning in chapter two.

Lemony Snicket means what he says and says what he means. The promise of chapter two is more misfortune for these plucky, intelligent children, and I'm hooked. I have to know more.

The Iliad, by Homer, Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Anchor Books

The title of Book One of this epic gets right to the story point:
Quarrel, Oath, and Promise

Lines 1-10
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus' anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men--carrion
for dogs and wild birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
Begin it when the two men first contending
broke with one another--
the Lord Marshal
Agamemnon, Atreus' son, and Prince Akhilleus.

This opening powerfully sets the stage for this story, the moment when Akhilleus and Agamemnon clash over a decision that has cost great loss of life among their men. The story doesn't begin the day before this clash, or begin with an introduction to the history of these men, or begin with an explanation of the history of Greece to this moment. By setting this story into motion in a powerful way, the story's audience is drawn in to want to know more about these characters and the situation they find themselves in.

The language here is powerful and poetic. This story is wonderful to read out loud.

Among the gods, who brought this quarrel on?
The son of Zeus by Leto. Agamemnon
angered him, so he made a burning wind
of plague rise in the army; rank and file
sickened and died for the ill their chief had done
in despising a man of prayer.
This priest, Khryses, had come down to the ships with gifts, no end of ransom for his daughter;
on a golden staff he carried the god's white bands
and sued for grace from the men of all Akhaia,
the two Atreidai most of all:

Once the story is set in motion in a powerful way, the event that set the story in motion is introduced. The story's audience has been led to want this information. The question in this passage, what happened with Khryses that angered the Zeus? The answer will come as the story continues.

Stinker's Return by Pamela Service

This novel is a sequel to a young adult novel about some children who get involved with an alien that inhabits the body of a skunk after its crash landing on Earth. I picked this up at the Redwoods Writing Conference in Crescent City just because I liked the title.

First paragraph:

The creaking of the porch swing mixed with the chirping of insects. Sitting side by side, Jonathan and Karen watched evening creep into the yard. A firefly flickered in the lilacs, another in the shade of the apple tree. A third wavered upward into the deepening blue sky to join the first faint stars.

A simple, clear introduction to the world of this story and its main characters.

It's beautiful, Karen thought.
It's peaceful.
It's incredibly boring!

This suggests that this characters want something exciting to happen.

Suddenly the yard exploded with barking: happy, frantic barking. Sancho, Karen's cocker spaniel, burst from the lilac bush chasing an animal. A black-and-white animal. A skunk!

This skunk turns out NOT to be Stinker, the skunk hero of the first novel. The appearance of a skunk naturally leads the two characters to talk about the excitement of their lives when Stinker needed their help, and the aftermath when the government denied his visit to Earth by discrediting the children. This leads Jonathan to lament,

"Which just goes to show," Jonathan said, "that life can stink even when you don't have a skunk in it."

This line sets up the first chapter and the reintroduction to Stinker back home. It turns out his unexpected sojourn to Earth has led to interstellar complications, and Stinker (Tsynq Yr) must return to Earth on a complicated secret mission to avoid an interstellar war.

The lives of Karen and Jonathan have the promise of excitement once again.

From the Corner of His Eye
by Dean Koontz

I'm always curious about what popular storytellers are doing that attracts and maintains their audience. The opening to this novel demonstrates how Koontz grabs the attention of his audience. First sentence:

Bartholomew Lampion was blinded at the age of three, when surgeons reluctantly removed his eyes to save him from a fast-spreading cancer, but although eyeless, Barty regained his sight when he was thirteen.

This sentence immediately raises a compelling question: how does a boy without eyes regain his sight?

Second and third sentences, and second paragraph:

This sudden ascent from a decade of darkness into the glory of light was not brought about by the hands of a holy healer. No celestial trumpets announced the restoration of his vision, just as none had announced his birth.

By setting out what didn't happen, Koontz continues to draw his audience in to want to know more. Although it wouldn't be clear at this point in the story, Koontz has a definite reason in mind for eliminating a celestial or spiritual cause for Barty regaining his sight.

Fourth and fifth sentences, and third paragraph:

A roller coaster had something to do with his recovery, as did a seagull. And you can't discount the importance of Barty's profound desire to make his mother proud of him before her second death.

Again, Koontz is being suggestive here to draw his audience into the world of his story, and to draw his audience forward deeper into that world. We're getting the truth about Barty, not the literal details.

The line about Barty's mother's second death is powerful. It again suggests the terrain of this story.

Sixth and seventh sentence:

The first time she died was the day Barty was born. January 6, 1965.

Koontz answers a question here, when did Barty's mother die the first time. This is important because it shows he knows how to answer as well as raise questions. That the answer just raises a larger question is how he continues to draw his audience forward. That he then gives an actual date for Barty's birth gives the audience something more concrete, a time when the story will take place.

Many stories start by being suggestive, then begin offering more concrete details of time and place. It's more difficult to begin a story in a compelling way with a mundane detail, i.e., 'Barty was born on January 6, 1965.' People who respond, "Well, what about 'My name is Ishmael,' ignore what follows that first sentence about Ishmael's 'November of his soul' and his rising obsession. If that first paragraph of Moby Dick wasn't suggestive about a story about obsession, no one would remember or care about that first sentence.

Koontz continues:

In Bright Beach, California, most residents spoke of Barty's mother, Agnes Lampion -- also known as the Pie Lady -- with affection. She lived for others, her heart tuned to their anguish and their needs. In this materialistic world, her selflessness was cause for suspicion among those whose blood was as rich with cynicism as with iron. Even such hard souls, however, admitted the Pie Lady had countless admirers and no enemies.

Here Kootnz both continues to offer more concrete details, he also sets out the dramatic truth of Agnes Lampion's life in a way that asks his audience to care about her.

Next sentence:

The man who tore the Lampion family's world apart, on the night of Barty's birth, had not been her enemy. He was a stranger, but the chain of his destiny shared a link with hers.

This is the end of chapter one. The chapter ends on a compelling question -- how does this stranger take Agnes's life -- designed to get the reading to turn the next page to Chapter Two.

A writer who can't give his or her audience a reason to turn a first page generally won't have a large audience after that first page.

Koontz clearly understands how to set a story into motion in a powerful way.

Funerals for Horses
by Catherine Ryan Hyde

The first sentence of this novel appears to be straightforward. The second sentence springs the surprise.

My brother Simon was forty-two years old. I pray he still is.

This raises some powerful questions. What happened to Simon? What happened that the narrator doesn't know where he is?

Next sentence,

I shame and cajole his family into believing with me, but their wicks have burned down, their flames left to flicker, like the light they pretend to leave on in the window for Simon, like their own dwindling lives.

These sentences suggest a powerful story about family, loss and guilt. These sentences also express what I call a dramatic truth about these characters, issues that can be explored and resolved in this story.

He has been gone two months and four days.

This suggests the narrator misses her brother, counts the days he's been gone. Continuing,

I pray that somehow, somewhere, in presence or absence of pain and fear, he will turn forty-three tomorrow. But it's hard to reconcile myself to prayer. Continuing,

As a young girl I decided, in light of prevailing evidence, that a child does not fall under god's jurisdiction until age eighteen. No one taught me this theory. It was my own carefully researched conclusion. After all, you can't vote, or fight a war, until that age, and to assume god washes his hands of our affairs until then settled a number of otherwise troubling questions.

This offers more detail about the narrator, while also suggesting her personality, that she thinks about the nature of her world and comes to her own conclusions.

This is a powerful beginning to this story. The language is simple, direct, and powerfully suggestive.

Tell No One
by Harlan Coben

This novel has a powerful opening. The title raises the question, tell no one what?

First sentence,

There should have been a dark whisper in the wind.

This sentence forcefully raises the question of what's going to happen in the opening of this story. Continuing

Or maybe a deep chill in the bone. Something. An ethereal song only Elizabeth or I could hear.

This introduces two characters and continues to build on the sense of impending disaster. Continuing

A tightness in the air. Some textbook premonition. There are misfortunes we almost expect in life -- what happened to my parents, for example -- and then there are other dark moments, moments of sudden violence, that alter everything.

This suggests what will happen, while also raising the question, what happened to the narrator's parents? Continuing

There was my life before the tragedy. There is my life now. The two have painfully little in common.

This tells us the narrator survives, but at great cost. Continuing

Elizabeth was quiet for our anniversary drive, but that was hardly unusual.

This offers more specific details about the characters and their lives. Continuing

Even as a young girl, she'd possessed this unpredictable melancholy streak. She'd go quiet and drift into either deep contemplation or a deep funk, I never knew which. Part of the mystery, I guess, but for the first time, I could feel the chasm between us.

This raises the question, what is causing this chasm? We're always being drawn forward, even while we learn more about this couple. Continuing

Our relationship had survived so much. I wondered if it could survive the truth. Or for that matter, the unspoken lies.

The story has just been 'named.' It's about the lies that threaten to tear apart this relationship. The answer to this question, whether this relationship could survive the 'unspoken lies,' will take the audience through to the end of this powerful story.

Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger

This story is rightly celebrated as a great novel. One of the things that makes this story such a pleasure to read is the distinct, potent voice of its narrator, Holden Caulfield. Underneath the fine writing one can view the careful attention to story structure.

Opening sentence:

IF YOU REALLY want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

This story introduces its main character in a passionate, head-long rush that Holden (and Salinger as the storyteller) sustains to the end of the novel. In terms of story structure, by having Holden insist he's not going to tell us anything about his life, Salinger cues his audience that he fully intends to take us into the world of Holden's life. It's the equivalent of having a character introduce a story about identity, for example, by having that character insist they are absolutely sure about who they are, and no one and nothing can take that away from them.

In this novel, Salinger cues us to the story's deeper purpose with the final phrase of the sentence, ...if you want to know the truth. This story promises to tell us the truth about Holden's life; it's a promise this story fulfills in a wonderful, deeply realized way.

The story continues...

In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything personal about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all--I'm not saying that--but they're also touchy as hell.

Immediately after telling us he isn't going to tell us about his life, Holden tells us a great deal about his life. It's this constant juxtaposition, parents who are both nice and 'touchy as hell,' that acts out Holden trying to deal with his many and varied contradictory impulses. It's what makes him such a lively, larger than life personality. What's he going to say or do next? The only way you can know for sure is to keep reading.


Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just I got pretty run-down and had to come out here to take it easy.

The story's plot just came into view, giving the story a sense of focus and purpose. What happened to Holden during that time? Keep reading and we'll find out. But first we're given a reason to want to find out more about Holden. Another question, where is 'here' that he's come to recover? And, how serious was his breakdown? Again, this follows right on the heels of Holden insisting he wasn't going to tell us much about his life.


I mean that's all I told D.B. about, and he's my brother and all. He's in Hollywood. That isn't too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end. He's going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe.

Question, where is Holden? Answer, near Hollywood. Part of the process of engaging and holding the attention of an audience is to raise and answer these questions. We're also getting more details about Holden's life and situation. How long he'll be in this environment is also left open. It undercuts the drama of a given situation or question to provide an answer or solution on top of a question.

Holden also explicitly promises us here that we'll be told more about what's happened than he's told his brother. This is part of what I call offering a story's audience a privileged position, an inside seat to a story's journey. We're being invited into this world and its immediacy, not kept at a distance.


He just got a Jaguar. One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour. It cost him damn near four thousand bucks. He's got a lot of dough, now. He didn't use to.

Saying the car can go 'two hundred miles an hour' is an exuberant exaggeration, which tells us something more about Holden. The question about where he got the money to buy the car also continues to pull us forward. Drawing an audience forward is an on-going process.


He used to be just a regular writer, when he was at home. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Secret Goldfish. It was about this little kid that wouldn't let anybody look at his goldfish because he'd bought it with his own money. It killed me. Now he's out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me.

This paragraph ends by dramatically suggesting that Holden feels his brother has sold out in some way, changed who he is to get by in Hollywood. This speaks to a deeper purpose of this story, Holden's crusade against all phoniness and pretension. This core issue is introduced in a subtle way. It's not a matter of being obvious about introducing one's deeper story issue, but doing it in a dramatic, suggestive, engaging way.

At this point, then, we have a story about Holden's life and reaction to pretensions, and a plot, about how he became run-down and ended up at this place. This story promises to tell us the truth about these issues, and fulfills that promise in a magical way. One of the great pleasures of literature is reading this novel. A great example of writing with voice.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
by J. K. Rowling

I chose this book after hearing about its great popularity. I wanted to see what the storyteller had done to set this story into motion.

Opening sentence:

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.

This sentence immediately raises a question, what makes Harry Potter unusual? This operates to pull the story's audience forward to the next sentence. On a story level, by suggesting the story has an unusual main character, the storyteller begins by suggesting this character is somehow larger than life. Some writers struggle because they create characters who are life-like or smaller than life, or remain ordinary while the storyteller sets up a plot. It also suggests a dramatic issue around Harry, since unusual boys generally have trouble fitting in. This sentence, then, suggests the story's promise to be about Harry's struggle to fit in.

For one thing, he hated summer holidays more than any other time of year.

This answers, in a small way, what makes Harry unusual. It also suggests he's a student, since he has summer holidays. While the sentence answer the first question, it raises a second, why does he hate the summer holidays? Just as the first sentence operates to draw an audience forward into the second sentence, the second sentence operates to draw the audience forward into a third sentence. Engaging novels are written one interesting sentence at a time.

For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night.

This answers the question about why summer holidays, Harry is a student. But it raises a third question, why is he forced to do his homework in secret? Note, that because Harry is willing to do his homework in secret suggests he's a strong willed, determined character. It's hard to tell stories with weak-willed characters. It can be done, it's just harder to do.

Another question, student of what? Want the answer? You have to keep reading.

And he also happened to be a wizard.

The payoff to these questions. What is it about Harry that really makes him unusual? He's a wizard. Because he's a young wizard, the story promises to take its audience into Harry's interesting world; as Harry earns about being a wizard, so will his audience. It'll be a shared experience.

Note how this paragraph suggests the story's plot, the obstacles Harry must overcome to learn, while it also suggests the story, that something drives Harry to learn. This opening paragraph, then, clearly sets in motion a story with a main character enmeshed in a plot. The light, breezy tone of the story has been established as well. This opening suggests the ability of this storyteller to fulfill this story's promise.

The Sea Came in at Midnight
by Steve Erickson

First sentence:

I want you at the end of your rope, lashed to the mast of my dreams.

A sentence suggestive of someone dealing with obsessions and dreams. It raises a question, who is the speaker? It also suggests a literary quality of writing.

Now she laughs when she reads it.

This answers one question from the opening sentence, the narrator is a woman. It answers the question of why the sentence was in italics, because the main character is reading the sentence. It does this while raising another question, why does she laugh while she reads it? What has happened since she wrote it? Want to find out? Keep reading!

She's trying to remember if she thought it was as ridiculous four months ago, back in L.A.

This offers a time frame for how long ago she wrote the note, while raising another question, what could have happened in the last four months to change her perspective? What was she doing in L.A. Where is she now? These sentences operate to draw us forward, to want to know more; they aren't written around offering static information. This character is clearly on the move, which raises the question, where is she heading? And, where has she been?

Maybe not; she was a little more desperate then.

We learn more about her, but it raises the question, why was she more desperate then? That she was more desperate suggests there's something at stake in this story. When writers delay suggesting something is at stake in a story, they also delay offering a sense of purpose to their characters. They act, but to no clear end. This leaves a story's audience feeling shut out of a story's world.

But now she's almost eighteen, and it just seems very funny to her.

A nicely written revelation. It makes the character more interesting, while still drawing the audience forward to want to know more about her.

That's what a little age and wisdom and perspective will do for you.

This is the last sentence of the opening of this novel. It's another revelation with a twist. What could this narrator have experienced that she feels she's gained perspective and wisdom at 18? What happened in these last four months? This storyteller has done a great job of drawing an audience into the world of this interesting story. This has been accomplished by a careful process of questions and answers that naturally raise larger questions. Beautifully written and evocative.

A note, even though one story is aimed at adult audiences who prefer literary fiction, and the other is aimed at younger audiences, the process of storytelling is the same in both.

Galatea 2.2
by Richard Powers

posted 10/27/99

This is another example of a literary novel written with a light touch. The opening sentence:

It was like so, but wasn't.

A playful sentence that begs the question, what is 'it'?

Next sentence, I lost my thirty-fifth year.

Another dramatic, suggestive sentence. It offers a small slice of the question raised by the first sentence.

We got separated in the confusion of a foreign city where the language was strange and the authorities hostile.

This offers a more concrete sense of the setting of the story while continuing to draw the audience forward. As with any well-written opening, the purpose isn't to explain, but to draw an audience into a story's world, then deeper into that world.

Next set of sentences.

It was my own fault. I'd told it, "Wait here. I'm just going to change some money. Check on our papers. Don't move from this spot, no matter what." And chaos chose that moment to hit home.

This makes more pressing the question, what is it? It also suggests a dramatic purpose for the story being about chaos.


My other years persist, like those strangers I still embrace in sleep, intimate in five minutes.

Wonderfully suggestive about the emotional state of the narrator. It's both concrete and wonderfully elusive. By the end of the first page of the novel, the narrator has returned to the states and taken on a more pedestrian job. But the 'hook' of the story has been set. Fine, enjoyable writing.

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