And That’s How It All Began

So as some of you know, I’m trying desperately and in vain to get a publisher, any publisher, to take a look at my novel.  This is a soul-destroying process through which many people have gone, so I won’t whine about it here.  I do, however, want to say a little something about the expectations of agents and publishers when it comes to openings:  particularly, the openings of Young Adult novels.

I do recognise that my book’s opening needs work, and I’ll get on that.  However, I’m also wondering if current expectations aren’t a teeny bit restrictive.  I understand why these expectations exist.  An opening, saith the Experts, needs to provide an instant “hook.”  The reader must be drawn immediately into the story.  In the first 250 words or so, the writer must introduce the protagonist and the protagonist’s situation.  The characters should be “in the moment”; there shouldn’t be much, if any, exposition.  Starting with pure dialogue is kind of cheating but is better than starting with a description of the setting, which is boring.  It must be instantly clear to the reader what every element in the opening means; if anything is vague or incomplete, the reader will undoubtedly lose interest and wander away to play video games.

Okay, yes, we live in a culture in which everything must happen NOW.  Our attention spans are fragmented; we consider a five-minute YouTube video too long to watch and complain vociferously when our profs assign us more than one short story to read per week.  I’m wondering, however, if we’re not getting a bit too dictatorial about the whole “If you don’t capture the reader in the first three words, ALL IS LOST” thing.  It wasn’t that long ago that openings were allowed to be gentler, more mysterious, with fewer explosions and less of an expectation that the protagonist’s personality would be laid bare in the first paragraph.

I am thus going to take a look at three openings of well-known children’s novels (from back before YA was a thing, mostly) to see if they pass the 250-word test:  that is, the expectation that after the first 250 words (more or less) of the novel, the reader will be invested in the protagonist and know exactly who all the people, places, and concepts mentioned in those 250 words are.  I’m not saying that the 250-word test is wrong or not at all useful.  Expectations do change over time.  I’m just saying…well, let’s see what happens.

Example 1:  J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937):  First 244 Words

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors.  The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another.  No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage.  The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins.

Mythical editor’s comment:  This is all exposition.  Moreover, it’s vague exposition.  What on earth is a hobbit?  I get no sense of what kind of creature this is.  Or is “hobbit” a job description?  You spend two whole paragraphs describing his “hole” (why is he living in a hole?), but you give me very little sense of the hobbit itself; all you really say is that he likes clothes and has a nice house.  You completely lose me with this description, which is without context.  I don’t even know what kind of story this is supposed to be.  It’s only in the very last line that you mention the hobbit’s name.  You’ve given me no reason to read on.

Yes, of course, but:  This may be one of the best-known openings in children’s literature.  It tells us little about Bilbo; it doesn’t even tell us that his name is Bilbo.  It does not plunge us into the story.  Frankly, Tolkien doesn’t begin to set up the initial conflict until three pages in.  However, there’s something to be said for a gentle approach.  The opening contains hints about Bilbo’s personality, and those hints will eventually come to define his approach to his adventure.  We don’t know his name, but we know that he’s a comfort-loving clothing fanatic with multiple pantries.  We know that his house matters to him.  The description of the setting is, in fact, a description of Bilbo; the author just doesn’t come out and say so.

Today, Tolkien would be expected to spice all this up.  An editor would probably suggest that he cut the first three pages altogether and begin with the encounter between Bilbo and Gandalf.  This would undoubtedly be more exciting.  It would also deprive us of that initial hidden description of Bilbo as indistinguishable from his comfortable surroundings.

Example 2:  E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952):  First 266 Words

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight. “Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”

Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”

Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern’s sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father.

“Please don’t kill it!” she sobbed. “It’s unfair.”

Mr. Arable stopped walking.

“Fern,” he said gently, “you will have to learn to control yourself.”

“Control myself?” yelled Fern. “This is a matter of life and death, and you talk about controlling myself.” Tears ran down her cheeks and she took hold of the ax and tried to pull it out of her father’s hand.

“Fern,” said Mr. Arable, “I know more about raising a litter of pigs than you do. A weakling makes trouble. Now run along!”

“But it’s unfair,” cried Fern. “The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?”

Mythical editor’s comment:  At first glance, I liked this opening.  You did a good job of putting the reader in the moment; the conflict between Fern and her father was nicely laid out, even if the setting could have been clearer.  However, I was impressed enough that I flipped ahead a few pages, and I was very surprised to see that Fern was not, in fact, the protagonist of this story!  Suddenly, without warning, you switched to the perspective of the pig I had initially thought was just a plot device.  The opening is highly misleading.  A reader expecting a realistic story about a girl growing up on a farm is, as of the second chapter, expected to accept a whole other reality in which animals can talk and a pig is befriended by a spider.  When I moved on past the opening, I felt cheated, and I lost all desire to read on.

Yes, of course, but:  Charlotte’s Web is another children’s classic, and it certainly does contain this abrupt shift in point of view.  Fern returns and is even an important character later on, but the bulk of the story concentrates on Wilbur, her pig, and his life on the farm.  Under present-day rules, this opening would be seen as a “prologue” (i.e., not a proper part of the story) and thus discouraged.  However, beginning with a realistic story about an eight-year-old girl and her compassion for a runty pig allows White to do some pretty essential things.  He sets up the novel as a coming-of-age tale; Fern learns here that life isn’t fair, though sometimes exceptions can be made.  Wilbur will learn both lessons himself later on.  Fern’s changing priorities as she grows are also a major thread of the story; as Wilbur comes of age through his relationship with Charlotte and his hard lesson about letting go of someone who cares for him, Fern is undergoing a parallel coming of age as she spends less time at the farm and more getting interested in boys (yes, okay, the novel was published in 1952).  Fern and Wilbur learn in different ways that things change, not always for the better.

Today, White would be encouraged to drop the first chapter entirely or perhaps to ditch the talking-animals angle and stick with Fern throughout.  Both approaches would take something from the story.  It is quite possible that despite the testimony of generations of readers who first experienced the mourning process vicariously through this book, Charlotte’s Web would be considered unpublishable by current standards.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997):  First 261 Words

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.  They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills.  He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache.  Mrs Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.  The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.  They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.  Mrs Potter was Mrs Dursley’s sister, but they hadn’t met for several years; in fact, Mrs Dursley pretended she didn’t have a sister, because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be.  The Dursleys shuddered to think what the neighbours would say if the Potters arrived in the street.  The Dursleys knew that the Potters had a small son, too, but they had never even seen him.  This boy was another good reason for keeping the Potters away; they didn’t want Dudley mixing with a child like that.

Mythical editor’s comment:  This opening is all exposition.  Show, don’t tell; if you want us to get to know the Dursleys, let us see them interacting with each other.  I’m bewildered by the point of view here.  Are the Dursleys your protagonists?  They don’t seem very likeable.  Is Dudley the main character?  Is the Potter boy?  If you hadn’t sent me the title of your novel, I wouldn’t be able to tell.  A glance through the rest of the chapter demonstrates that you jump from point of view to point of view, throwing a bewildering number of characters at a reader who has no idea who they are.  Then you skip ten years.  You should begin with your protagonist, not tease the reader with the introduction of characters who will soon be relegated to secondary roles.  I’m just too confused to want to read on.

Yes, of course, but:  If you thought I was just bringing up novels written before I was born, think again.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the book that arguably began the rise of YA fiction as we know it today, starts with a whackload of exposition and is–in its first chapter, at least–written in the slightly condescending tones of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, who produced children’s literature back when it had different conventions associated with it.  You might argue that Rowling was just starting out and needed to find her rhythm, and that would be true.  However, though the condescending tone didn’t stick around, the exposition did.  She often started her novels by explaining that Harry Potter was a wizard and outlining, point by point, what that meant.  She continued to like beginning with the point of view of a secondary character as well.  She didn’t call these initial chapters prologues, but that was what they were.

Do I have a problem with any of this?  Hell, no.  The Harry Potter novels work beautifully.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is essentially writen for eleven-year-olds, and it borrows its tone not just from Tolkien and Lewis but from Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbitson, both of whom have produced wonderful literature for that age group.  Starting with the Dursleys allows Rowling to introduce the Muggle world as the apparent norm, then subvert this norm with her colourful, eccentric wizards.  Harry is not the only one who starts surrounded by the mundane and must make his way into the world of magic; the reader joins him.  Chapter 1 allows us to gain knowledge Harry doesn’t have–knowledge of the existence of wizards–and then wait in delicious anticipation for him to figure out what is going on.

Today, ironically, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone might easily be asked to lose its first chapter, due largely to the increasingly rigid rules that have developed since its publication.  In fact, the film of the book leaves out the bit with the Dursleys and skips to Dumbledore’s first appearance late in Chapter 1.  Chapter 2 is more “in the moment,” it’s true, but the introduction of the Dursleys gives us the essential conflict between the Muggles and the wizards; it’s also quite funny.  A swifter beginning would lead to a less entertaining story.


So yes, these examples are more or less arbitrary.  They do, however, demonstrate that there’s more than one way to begin a novel without causing young readers to give up immediately.  All three of these books are still in print, after all.  Sure, the in-the-moment technique is probably the one it’s easiest to get right; that doesn’t mean other techniques are automatically not even worth trying.  For crying out loud, Watership Down begins with a two-page description of rabbits in a field.  And if you haven’t read Watership Down, you need to go do that now.

Publishers exist to sell books.  It’s probably easier, theoretically speaking, to sell books that are exciting from the first sentence onward.  However, by discounting stories that begin more quietly or subtly, we may be losing out.

3 thoughts on “And That’s How It All Began

  1. I totally agree with you. So many great books start out quietly and slowly, slowly reel you in. They’re actually my favorite kind.

    I think the reason that agents/publishers jump on novels with an upfront hook though, is likely 70-80% due not to market taste, but because they can’t afford to spend a lot of time reading each manuscript that slips into their slushpile. They have to make decisions fast, and when the hook isn’t front-loaded, they can’t afford to wade through more pages to find the buried hook/core plot.

    Which kind of really sucks, because like you said there are so many great quiet books out there.

  2. The ‘prologue’ to the Harry Potter book is what makes the book work. I liked the first book a lot more than the next few, and I liked the first third of it the best. That first part is all set up in the first chapter. It’s escapist fiction at it’s best, an ‘ugly duckling’ type-story, and every child unhappy with their current situation (my parents make me do my homework before I can play video games! and I have to set the table everyday!) can lose themselves in the fantasy of being transported to a magical place where they are somehow the most important person around. J.K.R. took this (not exactly original) set up and made it work yet again. I think this set up has had a lot to do with the success of the books. The beginning of the book is a very powerful hook, even if takes a lot more than 250 words to ‘hook’ the reader. On the other hand, this extented hook holds out for 9 books.

    And Tolkien’s beginning is a masterpiece. It sets up the whole hidden-depths and future character evolution of Bilbo perfectly. Tolkien could have told us that Bilbo was rich, spoiled and indulgent – but that would not in fact be true! instead he showed us this one aspect of Bilbo so the rest of his character could bloom througout the book. Plus, I can imagine children being entranced by this beginning when having the book read to them out loud. Yound children actually like descriptions, especially when accompanied by a nice picture.

    I should read Charlotte’s Web.

  3. THIS. THIS. Amen!
    The other day I was pondering on the fact that ‘classics’ seem so much more rare nowadays than in ancient times. Every novel in a flash journey, a marshmallow, as opposed to something that takes real commitment and even a smidgen of effort. But it is what makes ‘classics’ more difficult to read that makes them worth reading.

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