Tuesday, January 15, 2008

As Long as We're Discussing Great Openings...

Theresa, what a great start! I notice it's in omniscient viewpoint, which gives a nice old-fashioned feel that works well with a historical novel, and also sets up for the irony of the definition of the perfect marriage.

Another omniscient opening is one of my favorites, Lemony Snicket's first page of his first book, The Bad Beginning. As a POV student, I love the very intrusive omniscient narrator, who constantly imposes his own agenda on the story-- notice how he patronizingly instructs his young readers about the definition of "rickety"-- and who uses reverse psychology to draw readers in. "You really, really, really don't want to read this book" is, any parent will tell you, just the right way to get a 9-year-old to read this book.

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

Their misfortune began one day at Briny Beach. The three 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. This particular morning it was gray and cloudy, which didn't bother the Baudelaire youngsters one bit. When it was hot and sunny, Briny Beach was crowded with tourists and it was impossible to find a good place to lay one's blanket. On gray and cloudy days, the Baudelaires had the beach to themselves to do what they liked.

The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket

Notice how Snicket defines two Ordinary Worlds-- the world of the reader (a world full of books with boring happy endings) and the world of the Baudelaire youngsters, which seems comfortable enough to them, maybe, but to us seems a bit threatening-- they must take a rickety bus from the dirty city to the gray, overcast beach... all alone. Why? Well, in both cases, Snicket is foreshadowing, quite obviously in one case ("This is not going to have a happy ending... you have been warned!") and subtly in the other (children alone in an overcast world... only for a day, it seems, but just you wait).

Remember the audience, which is not primarily gleeful POV teachers like me, but middle-grade students who are still learning to read fiction-- learning how to experience a story, how to notice gathering suspense, how to interpret cues in the setting and the action. In the first paragraph, Snicket guides young readers into anticipation of Dreadful Things by pretty explicitly predicting them, but in a backhandedly complimentary way ("If you still want to read this book after I've warned you, well, you're pretty brave!"). He's also teaching them to anticipate the worst, so that when they get into the second paragraph, they'll feel a frisson of worry when they hear about that rickety bus and that deserted beach and those neglected children. Then they're primed for the "Unfortunate Events," as he calls them, that are shortly to befall the Baudelaire children.

Alfred Hitchcock pointed out that suspense is more than surprise. See how that works here. Let's say you wanted the unfortunate events to be a surprise. Well, you'd probably ditch that first paragraph-- there's no surprise if the readers have been warned! And the second paragraph, where you're setting up the children's ordinary world? Maybe you'd have the same event, but brighten it up. The bus is rickety, perhaps, but with a jovial driver and pleasant passengers. The beach is sunlit and filled with happy people who share their lunches with the children. Then the bad event about to befall them will be a surprise, because there will have been no hint that in this Ordinary World, bad things happen to nice children.

But Snicket is going for suspense, not surprise, and suspense is "disaster postponed." But we have to sense the disaster coming to feel suspense. So Snicket keeps warning, openly and subtly, that it's coming. Look out! Don't be fooled! Yes, it's a beach, but it's a DESERTED beach! The reader is sensing that disaster. What form the disaster will take is still a surprise, but the longer the disaster is postponed, the more the readers will feel unease and dread.

That first couple paragraphs is a promise to the readers-- Something Bad Is Going to Happen.

More thoughts later---


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