Warning: I will be talking about the prologue/first chapter of five different books (Willow, The Scorpio Races, Divergent, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, and Bitterblue). I don't consider this discussion a spoiler since these are beginnings, and they are all less than eight pages long in 300+ page books. However, if that bothers you, you might want to exit from this page.
Although these books have openings that work for me, that doesn't necessarily mean that I think they're the best thing since sliced pie. I don't think that any book is perfect; even the books that define me as a reader have their flaws, yet undoubtedly all of the books in this post have been added to my sometimes-favorites shelf at one point or another. They have such great openings that I'm hard pressed not to like the rest of the book.
Willow by Julia Hoban
I'm not usually a fan of third person present narratives, but this book has convinced me that when done well, they are so effective. Willow is trying to deal with the death of her parents and the guilt she feels for having caused it (see first line of summary). How does she cope? By cutting. The first line of this book is "Maybe it's just a scratch." Willow sees a cut on her classmate's arm; she wonders if the girl is cutting too. The girl turns to whisper to her friends, and Willow starts to think it's about her. Suddenly, she needs to leave the room, and BAM! Here is one of the most powerful scenes of the entire book:
"The bathroom smells like smoke. There's no one around. Good. The door to one of the stalls swings free. Willow kicks it shut behind her and lowers the toilet seat before sitting down.
She rummages through her bag. Getting frantic because she can't find what she so desperately needs. Did she forget to get more supplies? Finally, just when she's given up hope, when she's about to start howling like a dog, her hand closes on smooth metal. Her fingers test the sharpness of the edge. Perfect. It's a fresh blade.
The girls' voices rustle in her head. Their clamoring pushes out all rational thought. She rolls up her sleeve.
The bite of the blade kills the noise. It wipes out the memory of those staring faces. Willow looks at her arm, at the life springing from her. Tiny pinpricks of red that blossom into giant peonies.
Peonies like the ones my mother used to plant.
Willow shuts her eyes, drinking in the quiet. Her breath deepens with each dip of the razor. Silence reigns, not like when she tripped, but perfect and pure."
- I love the way this opening depicts:
- the drugged, trippy feeling of an addict.
- the echoes of her dead mother and the almost thoughtless way that observation on her mother's plant comes. (Plus symbolism and all).
- the feelings of judgment from her classmates and the unerring self-hatred
- the need to cut in the middle of the day, while at school, and especially how it's portrayed: the howling like a dog - the pain and grief so intense that they almost turn her into an animal
- the clear vision of this chapter - it doesn't matter that the school itself isn't described. I filled in that detail myself and what it would've been like had I rushed out of the room. A girl sitting on a toilet in a smoke-filled bathroom, potentially leaning against the wall as blood oozes from her skin -- you can't tell me that's not a haunting image.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Let me first say that I was having trouble choosing between the openings for The Scorpio Races, The Raven Boys, and The Dreams Thieves (prologue here). Maggie Stiefvater has some of the best openings that I've ever read. They're dreamy and twisty in a way that I think few others have ever achieved. And here's the mastery of The Scorpio Races:
"It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.
Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it's pummeled by countless hooves.
They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it's never so dangerous as today, race day.
This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night's sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand.
I am so, so alive."
- After that line, you learn that Sean's father is one of the participants in this dangerous race. This opening already hints at what happens to his dad (it's never so dangerous as today). And Sean, at the end, pg. 5: "I don't think often on my father's body strung out through the reddening surf. Instead, I remember him as he was before the race: afraid. / I won't make the same mistake."
- Why I love this opening:
- As I said before, it's dreamy and twisting. In a sense, it's misleading. You know up front that someone will die, and yet there's Sean talking about how he feels alive on the beach.
- Great character development? Definitely the promise of it. Sean feels most alive in a place where his father dies, and thinks his father died because he was afraid. That is a seriously messed up but original start to a novel.
- The sense of the beach, the race, and horse-riding. Cold wind, saddles, the colors of the sea, the pounding of hooves, the weight of a horse, the stress of planning this giant match. So many details are recreated in such a fresh way - a way that allows me, someone who's not a huge fan of cliffs or beaches and has never ridden a horse, to picture what's happening.
- The actual manifestation of his father's death. You think those images are fresh and real and gritty? Wait till you read what happens to his dad.
- It takes only five pages for me to envision one of the most defining moments of the protagonist's life, and the danger of the race (the plot) to come. What eerie foreshadowing and mixing of beauty and danger, just like the horses themselves.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
I've already talked about my love for the beginning of this book here and here, but I'll repeat myself. This book starts off so quietly. A scene with a mirror done in a fresh way, and a scene at school filled with quiet longing for the life that Beatrice (thinks she) wants.
"There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding window in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair."
- Tris has a quiet, peaceful, lovely moment with her family, and yet she wants to leave them. The promise of character growth and depth (this contradiction screams: why?).
- The differences between the various factions at Tris's school and the differences between Tris and her brother and her mother and even her father. The details in the writing, the slightest bits that you might miss if you're not paying attention (the clothes, the faction tension, etc.).
- The desire to be noticed at school, to be the one watched (the Dauntless jumping off the train) rather than the one who is bullied or ignored (the start of something quiet, but soon to be empowering)
- There's also the Hunger Games/Lottery-esque Choosing Ceremony and Aptitute Tests looming in the near future, but truthfully that's not what really keeps me reading. The above works well enough. Even if you're not a fan of the various factions--that society would separate into these different virtues--the opening has a certain power that you can't ignore.
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
This post is now getting a bit long, so I'll direct you elsewhere for the Mara Dyer prologue page and first chapter. This opening is a little more conventional than the others. The voice of a typical YA protagonist is more evident - i.e. those lines about Claire and Rachel's relationship and how Mara isn't Claire's greatest fan - and yet this opening twists everything that you think you know in a way that's definitely not standard YA lit. From the first page, you're told that Mara's an unreliable narrator: Mara is not her real name, and she's got a lawyer. There are multiple layers to what she's writing - "a seventeen-year-old who likes Death Cab for Cutie" may be responsible for the murders, but that hint may not be synonymous with the "B student with a body count." You've got to untangle whether those two facts go together, and if they don't, well, who represents which person? Those are a bunch of questions, but the questions are nothing in comparison to the absolutely thrilling atmosphere created by that handwritten, blocked-out note. And you know, I've read a lot of stories with Ouija boards, but the first chapter for this book sets creepy to another level. It's really the promise of creepiness in this paranormal tale, and the unusual ways it delves into those hints of horror that grab your attention from the start.
Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
Don't read anything about Bitterblue if you haven't read Graceling yet. That might be a spoiler, and I'm not going to include the text here for that very reason. But if you are interested in Bitterblue, read this prologue. It is probably the most haunting pieces of writing that I have ever read from Kristin Cashore. Suffice it to say, I don't think that I've ever read such haunting words on the power of words, the abuse of power, sexual and domestic abuse, and a mother's love. And the wonderful way in which we are shown Leck's power - the manifestation of his evil acts and the effect of his words, how others have learned to cope with them and how time gets confused because of him. The hint of what Bitterblue will have to overcome as queen - the legacy that Leck has left even in her own mind. Every bit of that opening is haunting, quiet, disturbing. Textured. Already drawing me into the story.
For me, it's not always about the action, or even about raising questions. It's not that I immediately care what happens to these characters, though the feelings in these scenes are quite poignant. Rather it's that the mood, the tone, the atmosphere of each of these openings convinces me that I'm in for a good ride. It's about the quiet, the subtle manipulation that worms its way into my mind. This is especially why I love Maggie Stiefvater's openings. She has blogged many times about how she writes - how she wants readers to feel the story she's telling. These books are all from different genres - magical realism, contemporary, high fantasy, dystopian, paranormal romance - and yet they share this haunting quality that I innately feel. A funny, upbeat, original voice doesn't even come close to the sense of wonder that these openings give me. (Of course, there's the wonderfully wry humor in the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that also conveys a sense of wonder, but hey, Harry Potter gets enough attention. And makes nearly every good list of mine--I just won't always tell you that.)
What makes a book opening work for you? What are some of your favorites? Do they match with your favorite books?