The beginning of any novel is critically important, and it can be daunting to write one. In this series on beginnings, I’m going to dissect some of my favorite opening lines and passages, and hopefully find some strategies for starting a book.
One of the best beginnings I’ve ever read is from The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi, a science fiction novel. His first few pages did everything a beginning should do: set up key world building elements, give us a taste of what the book will be like, and paint a vivid picture. In addition, it did all these things in such a way that the structure of the beginning itself builds the setting.
Here’s a paragraph from the second page:
“Anderson nods absently. Around him, the market soi bustles with Bangkok’s morning shoppers. Mounds of durians fill the alley in reeking piles and water tubs splash with snakehead fish and red-fin plaa. Overhead, palm-oil polymer tarps sag under the blast furnace heat of the tropic sun, shading the market with hand-painted images of clipper ship trading companies and the face of the revered Child Queen. A man jostles past, holding vermilion-combed chickens high as they flap and squawk outrage on their way to slaughter, and women in brightly colored pha sin bargain and smile with the vendors, driving down the price of pirated U-Tex rice and new-variant tomatoes.”
In this paragraph, Bacigalupi gives us a taste of the three major worldbuilding elements in the book. “Clipper ship trading companies,” as we’ll find out later, play a major role in the turmoil to come. “The revered Child Queen,” is our first glimpse of the politics of the Thai Kingdom. And “pirated U-Tex rice and new-variant tomatoes” set the stage for us to learn about the significance of genetic engineering.
All of these world building glimpses are slipped in so casually and skillfully they don’t feel like exposition, rather, they’re just a part of this bustling, chaotic world.
Giving us a taste of the book
It’s a good idea to have the first few pages of a book give the reader an idea of what the book is going to be like. In this beginning, Bacigalupi doesn’t just say, “hey, we’re in Bangkok.” He takes us there. Foreign words like “pha sin” are reminders that we’re in a foreign place, and the market scene drives that point home. Mentioning something familiar like Bangkok and something completely new like the revered Child Queen tells us that this science fiction book is still set on earth, but that the world has drastically changed.
Setting a scene
Bacigalupi’s description is wonderful throughout the book. This passage is particularly important as it’s our first glimpse of Bangkok, where most of the book will take place, and it sets the tone and flavor for the entire city. The setting itself is almost another character, and so it’s really important to have it established as soon as possible.
All together, this is a lot to pack into a single paragraph, and it might not always be a good idea to write one so dense at the beginning of a book. But in this case it works brilliantly. By throwing worldbuilding ideas, sensory details, foreign words, etc. at us in a chaotic but carefully constructed way, we start to feel like we’re in a space not unlike a street market in Bangkok. Each vivid, foreign detail comes at us from a different direction, like the colors and sounds and smells of an unfamiliar street market. The structure of the paragraph itself gives that same immersive, overwhelming feeling.
The lesson I took from this is that what you show in your beginning, no matter how simple, should relate to the rest of your story, and that setting a vivid scene can be an effective way of drawing a reader in.
Featured image by “Klongs”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Bangkok by Peripitus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons