“My Family and Other Animals,” by Gerald Durrell

Descriptive Paragraph:

July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky.  A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it.  Along the Bournemouth sea-front the beach huts turned blank wooden faces towards a greeny-grey, froth-chained sea that leaped eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore.  The gulls had been tumbled inland over the town, and they now drifted above house-tops on taut wings, whining peevishly.  It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone’s endurance.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Thus begins one of my favorite nonfiction books.  It is a first-person story of several years in the life of the Durrell family, a widowed mother and her four children.  Caught in a Channel town in weather continually bad, they voted in desperation to escape for one year to the inexpensive Greek island of Corfu.  Mrs. Durrell, slightly vague in her suggestions, always charming and never shocked, allowed that year to stretch by vote to five years.

“Red Sky at Morning,” by Richard Bradford

Descriptive Paragraph:

It snowed for three days in early November, and the people of Sagrado put their cars in garages and walked everywhere.  Amadeo, who came in from Rio Conejo every morning in the pickup, put snow chains on the rear tires and loaded the truck with three hundred pounds of concrete blocks to get traction.  An entire family of Navajo Indians froze to death in a drafty hogan near Beclabito, where the temperature went to 46 below one night.  Forest rangers on snowshoes hiked up to Bernal Peak and announced that the 117 inches of snowpack promised a good spring runoff ….

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) This opening of a chapter in a novel is presented here for a purpose.  Instead of a static passage describing the New Mexican town of Sagrado under snow (Santa Fe?), the author shows action, what the local people did as a result of a sudden change of weather.

“The Snake,” by John Steinbeck

Descriptive Paragraph:

It was almost dark when young Dr. Phillips swung his sack to his shoulder and left the tide pool.  He climbed over the rocks and squashed along the street in his rubber boots.  The street lights were on by the time he arrived at his little commercial laboratory on the cannery street of Monterey.  It was a tight little building, standing partly on piers over the bay water and partly on land.  On both sides the big corrugated-iron sardine canneries crowded in on it.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Here the setting shows the protagonist as part of his environment.  A further step gives us his name, and we learn that he is young.  By implication we gather that Dr.  Phillips is not a medical man but a scientist who runs a commercial laboratory on cannery row; therefore, he is no doubt a marine biologist.

Notice that he is in action.  We glimpse the tide pool and the rocks on the beach.  We do not see the town itself until the protagonist arrives at his laboratory.  The time element is mentioned twice, but not by clock.  This gives the impression that Dr. Phillips is a man who works until it is too dark to see.  Notice, too, the active verbs climb and squash, both used without adverbs.

“Samson and Delilah,” by D. H. Lawrence

Descriptive Paragraph:

A man got down from the motor-omnibus that runs from Penzance to St. Just-in-Penwith, and turned northwards, up-hill towards the Polestar.  It was only half-past six, but already the stars were out, a cold little wind was blowing from the sea, and the crystalline, three-pulse flash of the lighthouse below the cliffs beat rhythmically in the first darkness.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) In this opening paragraph the author has added a new element, the protagonist, though the man is not named.  We see him walking in the early evening along the coast of Cornwall, and the description of the setting might have been seen through his eyes.  Since readers are more interested in people than in Setting, this paragraph is more apt to catch attention.

“The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson

Descriptive Paragraph:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.  The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Here again we have the same three elements closely tied together: the setting, a village square; the time, ten o’clock in the morning; and the subject, a lottery.

Not until you reach the last two words—noon dinner—do you realize that the story is set back in time to the indefinite past.  What kind of lottery you as a reader are about to witness is gradually built up in a matter-of-fact way by implication—hints and suggestions rather than explicit statements—until at last understanding sweeps over you with a rising sense of horror.

(from a collection of opening paragraphs at www.secondroot.com)

“The Garden Party,” by Katherine Mansfield

Descriptive Paragraph:

They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it.  Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud.  Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer.  The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine.  As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing.  Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.

(from a collection of opening paragraphs at www.secondroot.com)

“The Chrysanthemums,” by John Steinbeck

Descriptive Paragraph:

The high, grey-flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world.  On every side it sat like a lid on the mountains and made of the great valley a closed pot.  On the broad, level land floor the gang plows bit deep and left the black earth shining like metal where the shares bad cut.  On the foothill ranches across the Salinas River, the yellow stubble fields seemed to be bathed in pale cold sunshine, but there was no sunshine in the valley now in December.  The thick willow scrub along the river flamed with sharp and positive yellow leaves.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) This introductory paragraph takes you to the Salinas Valley—in California, if you know your Steinbeck, the time is winter, specifically December.  You may decide that this description is gray and dull.  Still, note the yellow stubble as well as the willow scrub with yellow leaves.  In spite of the gray environment, something flames up, perhaps within the protagonist, who enters the story in the fourth paragraph.

“Monastery Road,” by Eric Mitchell

Descriptive Paragraph:

Anthony was too excited to sleep.  At midnight he heard the cook’s drunken voice raised in song behind the inn and later a rooster crowing; he saw the first grey light of dawn streak bits of sky through the narrow window.  He sprang up from his mattress before anyone else was awake and hurried, shivering in the early chill, to the wash basin outside the back door … He put on his clothes in the dark.  His loose surcoat had blue and tawny stripes.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues with an exercise) Now underline with your two colored pencils: blue for any of the senses used, red for the color words.

Next, let me say that here is an author who makes use of color words as well as the five senses, and usually he uses both with exactness.  This paragraph, however, happens to contain a flaw, a statement about color, that mars the flow of the narrative.  Can you spot it?  Pause for a moment until you find it.

Here’s the flaw: If our protagonist is putting on his surcoat in the dark, he cannot see its colors, and neither can we.  A small inaccuracy, yes.  Still, it is a tiny hurdle which an alert reader might stumble over.  Therefore, when you present any of the five senses in your writing, take care that your statement is physiologically possible.

“Youth,” by Joseph Conrad

Descriptive Paragraph:

And this is how I see the East.  I have seen its secret places and have looked into its very soul; but now I see it always from a small boat, a high outline of mountains, blue and afar in the morning; like faint mist at noon; a jagged wall of purple at sunset.  I have the feel of the oar in my hand, the vision of a scorching blue sea in my eyes.  And I see a bay, a wide bay, smooth as glass and polished like ice, shimmering in the dark.  A red light burns far off upon the gloom of the land, and the night is soft and warm.  We drag at the oars with aching arms, and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night—the first sigh of the East on my face.…

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Pay attention to the fact that the author places the protagonist in a certain place—in a small boat offshore—and through that young man’s consciousness we get an impressionistic picture of the landfall, in the morning, at noon, at sunset, at night.  It is a picture in words that appeals to three of our senses, sight, smell, touch.

H. L. Mencken said of Conrad: “There have been, perhaps, greater novelists, but I believe that he was incomparably the greatest artist who ever wrote a novel.”

“Madame Bovary,” by Gustave Flaubert

Opening paragraph:

Madame Bovary had opened her window that gave on to the garden, and was watching the clouds.

They were gathering in the west, in the direction of Rouen, twisting rapidly in black swirls; out from behind them shot great sun rays, like golden arrows of a hanging trophy; and the rest of the sky was empty, white as porcelain. Then came a gust of wind; the poplars swayed; and suddenly the rain was pattering on the green leaves. But soon the sun came out again; chickens cackled; sparrows fluttered their wings in the wet bushes; and rivulets flowing along the gravel carried away the pink flowers of an acacia.

Here we have the protagonist placed at an open window. Next we are given a picture with movement as perceived by two, or possibly three, of her senses. Whether or not the wind struck Madame Bovary’s face is not indicated, but it did strike the trees. Notice that in his mention of trees Flaubert gets down to specifics. He names poplars and one acacia.

Now take a blue pencil and underline words presenting sound: rain was pattering and chickens cackled. Next take a red pencil and underline color words. I find five: black, golden, white, green, pink.

When an artist or illustrator writes a book, it is always noticeable how many color words he uses. Some writers use hardly any.

Once I handed back to a student his manuscript with the notation that it was what I called a gray piece of work; he had not brightened it up with a single bit of color, not even reds, blues or greens. When, a week later, his manuscript came back to me, I found that he had walked his protagonist up a garden path bordered with flowers of a dozen different colors. It was like a list of bouquets you might order for a wedding reception—no, you’d never order so many colors. I thought my student was trying to get a laugh out of me, but he assured me in all seriousness that it had not been intended as a joke. At once I saw I had failed to say:

Sprinkle color words into your manuscript.

“The Gold of Troy,” by Robert Payne

Opening Paragraph:

During the seventies and eighties of the last century an old gray-haired scholar, wearing a high collar and a sun helmet, was to be seen wandering over the ruins of an obscure mound in Asia Minor.  He was short and wiry, with dark brown eyes, high cheekbones, a heavy nose, and a sensual mouth; there was something of the peasant about him, something too of the Lubeck merchants who were  his ancestors.  He spoke in a high-pitched voice, dressed shabbily, walked with a curious gliding motion, and always carried in his coat pocket a dog-eared paper-bound edition of the Iliad or the Odyssey.  To the friendly inquirer he would explain that he had uncovered the ancient city of Troy and found in its walls a secret treasure hoard of gold, which he kept securely locked in his house in Athens.  He believed that the ashes of Odysseus, the crown jewels of the Trojan Empire, and the golden death masks of Agamemnon and many  other Greek heroes were in his possession, and it is just possible that his claims were justified.  Until he was long past middle age he never touched a spade, but during the last seventeen years of his life he excavated continually.  The most unscientific of archeologists, he founded the modern science of archeology.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Let me note here that this biography won critical acclaim as well as a place on best-seller lists.  Best sellers, good, bad, or indifferent, usually have one thing in common: they have a mass appeal; that is, the average reader finds them interesting enough to recommend them to friends.

It is at once evident that this is not a jazzed-up biographical novel based on more imagination than facts.  The opening paragraph, long and detailed, gives the impression that here is a book based on good, solid material.  The author presents his protagonist in an interesting way.  The mention of Odysseus, the crown jewels of the Trojan Empire and the death masks of Agamemnon echo in our minds like the opening bars of a song remembered from our childhood.  The author captures our attention and succeeds in luring us on to read further.

“Lord Jim,” by Joseph Conrad

Opening Paragraph:

He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.  His voice was deep, loud, and his manner displayed a kind of dogged self-assertion which had nothing aggressive in it.  It seemed a necessity, and it was directed apparently as much at himself as at anybody else.  He was spotlessly neat, appareled in immaculate white from shoes to hat, and in the various Eastern ports where he got his living as ship-chandler’s water-clerk he was very popular.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Observe that, instead of the protagonist’s name being given in the opening paragraph, the author uses the pronoun he, just as Kipling does in “Kim.”  This can be very effective, especially so when the title contains the name of the protagonist.  Lord Jim is a translation of Tuan Jim, as he was called by the Malays in Singapore and other Eastern ports.

“Miriam,” by Truman Capote

Opening Paragraph:

For several years, Mrs. H. T. Miller had lived alone in a pleasant apartment (two rooms with kitchenette) in a remodeled brownstone near the East River.  She was a widow: Mr. H. T. Miller had left a reasonable amount of insurance.  Her interests were narrow, she had no friends to speak of, and she rarely journeyed farther than the corner grocery.  The other people in the house never seemed to notice her: her clothes were matter-of-fact, her hair iron-gray, clipped and casually waved; she did not use cosmetics, her features were plain and inconspicuous, and on her last birthday she was sixty-one.  Her activities were seldom spontaneous: she kept the two rooms immaculate, smoked an occasional cigarette, prepared her own meals and tended a canary.

Then she met Miriam.  It was snowing that night.  Mrs. Miller had finished drying the dishes.…

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Notice the matter-of-fact prose which introduces the protagonist.  Mrs. Miller is an ordinary person; she might be any aging widow living alone.  Notice, too, that the second paragraph starts the story, the action.  From beginning to end, the prose is keyed to the first paragraph.  But the story itself is far from ordinary.  The interest slowly rises to a smashing climax in the final paragraph, an ending you’ll not forget.

“The Man who Shot Snapping Turtles,” by Edmund Wilson

Opening Paragraph:

In the days when I lived in Hecate County, I had an uncomfortable neighbor, a man named Asa M.  Stryker.  He had at one time, he told me, taught chemistry in some sorry-sounding college in Pennsylvania, but he now lived on a little money which he had been “lucky enough to inherit.”  I had the feeling about him that somewhere in his background was defeat or frustration or disgrace.  He was a bachelor and kept two servants—a cook and a man around the place.  I never knew anyone to visit him, though he would occasionally go away for short periods—when, he would tell me, he was visiting relatives.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) The point of view in this story is the one so often used by Somerset Maugham.  It is the viewpoint of an observer, the “I” person, who tells us about the protagonist, an interesting friend or acquaintance.  We never enter the mind of the main character.  We merely see him in action and hear him talk, all of this interpreted for us by the observer, who is not even named.

“Power of Attorney” by Louis Auchincloss

Opening Paragraph:

No one of his law partners or clients, or even friends who considered themselves closest to him, knew the secret of Morris Madison. They saw a tall, thin, tax expert, at the height of his career in his early fifties … They suspected all kinds of lacks in his life, besides the obvious ones of a wife and children, and in the free fashion of a psychiatrically minded era they attributed his reserve and good manners to every kind of frustration and insecurity. But none of them suspected that he had a passion.

(My mentor Howard Pease continutes) Notice that the first sentence—again the author telling—catches our interest. Next comes a brief description of the protagonist, plus his place in life, and his age. Then we learn what his friends think of him. The final sentence, like the first, is a hook to hold our interest and lure us into reading the next paragraph. In this second paragraph, when the action begins, author’s statement shifts to the viewpoint located in the consciousness of the protagonist; and this Jamesian viewpoint continues throughout the story.

“The Late Love of Dorrie Hayes,” by Mary Jane Rolfs

Opening Paragraph:

Dorrie Hayes had never had so much happiness that she could take any for granted.  She was the kind of girl who had endured many of the small aggravations of life and some of the big ones.  As an adolescent, she had been fat with an unreliable complexion and crooked teeth.  When time and diligence had corrected these misfortunes, she started growing tall at an alarming rate and her hair was completely unmanageable.  There were a few years of relative calm and then it started all over again.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) This first paragraph is author’s statement.  Miss Rolfs tells us a few selected facts about her protagonist.  We are beginning to know a bit about the outer girl and the inner girl, her looks and her worries.  Our sympathy is roused.  Dorrie’s predicament makes us recall the years when we, too, were dissatisfied with our appearance, those years before we finally decided upon acceptance.  Most readers will want to know more about Dorrie and how she solved her problem.