There are wonderful beginnings to so many stories and novels and plays. I have three of many favorites I’m including here, and for similar reasons. Each of them leads the reader toward what is to come and sets both tone and theme. They are also the work of masters.
I’m adding some comments, but you might want to read just the lines themselves.
Macbeth, Scene One
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place?
Upon the heath.
There to meet with Macbeth.
I come, Graymalkin!
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
It’s fun just to read that. It’s a mere sixty-one words of dialogue, but it’s a remarkable launch for a play. Three hags meet in a storm, and if the sight of them and the clamorous stage world they inhabit are not enough to attract our attention, there’s their opening joke—“When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” Such a choice, to pick among sorry things, and things that occur together in any event.
The noise, and bizarre characters, and the warm-up joke are attention-getters, but Shakespeare isn’t finished. His witches prepare us for the broader action of the play like three well-schooled journalists. In an instant, they tell us they have a rendezvous with Macbeth upon the heath when his battle is done, and so we know the who, what, where, and when of things and realize that these creatures with their gray cats and toads mean some evil for Macbeth, that that is the why of their meeting. They surprise us with their certainty they will meet him, as if it is a matter a human has no choice about; we feel the vileness of the “fog and filthy air” they inhabit and understand the world is to be turned on its head: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
Shakespeare has clearly begun his story but, since he is Shakespeare, there is more than just stage-setting. We meet his language, too, hear the alluring, urgent meter within his couplets (“hover through the fog”), and the sound of the words he gives us—“hurly-burly” and “Graymalkin” for a cat. Graymalkin. And we also encounter his clump of trios—thunder, lightning, and rain, three witches, three successive speeches by each, three couplets. We are in a world where the third time may turn out to be a charm, where bad things happen in threes. And we are ready, in this gray, infected place, to know the three murderous acts of Macbeth. (Anon . . .)
While those sixty-one words from Macbeth give it a perfect start, and I’m maybe more ready for the play itself now than for more beginnings, I’ll stick to my purpose. Here’s a beginning in translation that I both love and admire. It’s from the unparalleled Gabriel García Márquez, who’s spoken on the subject of beginnings in a quote I’ve been trying to find and can’t, though I just got to spend some time with notes from an intriguing Paris Review interview and a couple of pieces in the New York Times from 1988.
from “Death Constant Beyond Love” by Gabriel García Márquez
—Senator Onésimo Sánchez had six months and eleven days to go before his death when he found the woman of his life. He met her in Rosal del Virrey, an illusory village which by night was the furtive wharf for smugglers’ ships, and on the other hand, in broad daylight looked like the most useless inlet on the desert, facing a sea that was arid and without direction and so far from everything no one would have suspected that someone capable of changing the destiny of anyone lived there. Even its name was a kind of joke, because the only rose in that village was being worn by Senator Onésimo Sánchez himself on the same afternoon when he met Laura Farina.—
García Márquez has said that he always begins with an image for a story. He also says—and this is the quote I can’t find—that he spends a long time on first paragraphs, that when he has them right, the story is—to paraphrase from my memory—ready to unfold as he writes it. He also talks about the time he spends on structuring a story or book and says that he needs to decide on that before he starts. (He has a thousand years of literature to draw on to help with ideas for structure and gives Oedipus Rex as one example.) Once that’s set, he’s ready to begin, but only if he has the characters’ names because he can’t see them otherwise; they don’t really exist for him without names
I don’t know the exact image García Márquez was working from in this story, but what my eye sees in reading (though it differs from what the story actually says later) is a mustached man in a Panama hat and a light-colored three-piece suit standing by himself on a sun-washed sandy beach so pale that it somehow gives credence to the amazing idea of an arid sea. The only real color in the scene is the startling red of that rose. I do have a picture of Laura Farina somewhere in the wings and ready to make the six months and eleven days left to Senator Onésimo Sánchez the most memorable of his life. Everything is ready for the story to proceed, and I love this paragraph because it encapsulates the whole story from the beginning, while creating a whole world in a few deft strokes, and using the perfect names García Márquez has found to establish the essential romance of the scene, though that’s ironic for the story is finally quite sober in its picture of both people and their politics.
The last of the three beginnings I’ve chosen is my favorite of these favorites. It’s from Toni Morrison and, in my opinion, if she’d written nothing else but this paragraph, she would still have deserved the Nobel Prize:
from Jazz by Toni Morrison
—Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.” —
In most ways, I don’t want to even comment on that paragraph but to just let it be. But I’ll say this much. It’s packed with story, place, and community but, mostly, it’s packed with jazz. It’s got that jittery, jumpy, swingy, and smooth sound that’s the heart of jazz and everything it suggests. With that paragraph, Toni Morrison is totally in your blood right from the start.
I have a summary thought on these three beginnings: all of them play on the way comedy and tragedy are the inside out of each other, which may be one of the largest insights of great literature. In the end, they’ve reminded me of what may be my favorite poem:
from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man”
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Skeptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall:
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.