“A String of Beads,” by Somerset Maugham

Plunge Opening:

“What a bit of luck I’m placed next to you,” said Laura as we sat down to dinner.
“For me,” I replied politely.

“That remains to be seen.  I particularly wanted to have the chance of talking to you.  I’ve got a story to tell you.”

At this my heart sank a little.  “I’d sooner you talked about yourself,” I answered.  “Or even about me.”

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) We learn from this that we are probably beginning a first-person, observer’s story about someone we have not yet met.  And we also get the impression that if Laura is to tell the story, her interpretation will be different from the observer’s, the “I” person, Mr. Maugham himself.  Except for setting—a dinner party—we get nothing else.
Maugham’s first goal in writing was clarity, and indeed this plunge opening is instantly understood by a reader.

“A Cold Potato,” by Peter De Vries

Dialog:

Sitting in a lawn chair tinkering with a broken bed lamp, Tom Bristol listened with half an ear to an account his wife, Alice, was giving of some neighbors with whom they’d recently become acquainted.  “Guess what the Twinings do,” she said.  She was sitting across a parasol table from him.  “When Bob is in the house, say, and Julia’s back in that studio barn where she does her clay modeling, they write each other notes.  And guess how they get them to one another.”  She paused, waiting for his response, but he was engrossed in his puttering.  He chewed his tongue and pulled faces as he worked.  “Do you know what they do?” Alice asked.  Tom grunted enquiringly, poking an electric cord through the back of the lamp base.  “They give them to Clementine—that cocker they have, you know—and Clementine delivers them.  And waits for answers!”  Alice laughed aloud.  “Isn’t that darling?”

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Now, there is nothing wrong with this paragraphing—or, rather, lack of paragraphing—if you are quick at getting the idea that it is Alice who is doing all the talking.  However, let’s see what happens when we use the Henry James method.

Sitting in a lawn chair tinkering with a broken bed lamp, Tom Bristol listened with half an ear to an account his wife, Alice, was giving of some neighbors with whom they’d recently become acquainted.

“Guess what the Twinings do,” she said.  She was sitting across a parasol table from him.  “When Bob is in the house, say, and Julia’s back in that studio barn where she does her clay modeling, they write each other notes.  And guess how they get them to one another.”  She paused, waiting for his response.

But he was engrossed in his puttering.  He chewed his tongue and pulled faces as he worked.

“Do you know what they do?” Alice asked.

Tom grunted enquiringly, poking an electric cord through the back of the lamp base.

“They give them to Clementine—that cocker they have, you know—and Clementine delivers them.  And waits for answers!” Alice laughed aloud.  “Isn’t that darling?”

In using this method of paragraphing dialogue and using it consistently, the reader soon learns to know when one character stops talking and/or acting, and when another character begins.  From the reader’s viewpoint, this is a distinct gain.

“The Labors of Hercules” by Agatha Christie

Dialog:

(My mentor Howard Pease introduces an exercise) For Example No. 1 we’ll examine dialogue paragraphs that do not contain any hurdles, yet show no consistency in method.  Here are ten consecutive paragraphs from Agatha Christie’s The Labors of Hercules:

Hercule’s voice interrupted him.

“Why will they be all right I when you are gone?”

Hugh Chandler smiled.  It was a gentle, lovable smile.

He said, “There’s my mother’s money.  She was an heiress, you know.  It came to me.  I’ve left it all to Diana.”

Hercule Poirot sat back in his chair.  He said, “Ah!”

Then he said, “But you may live to be quite an old man, Mr. Chandler.”

Hugh Chandler shook his head.

He said sharply, “No, M.  Poirot.  I am not going to live to be an old man.”

Then he drew back with a shudder.

“My God! Look!”  He stared over Poirot’s shoulder.  “There—standing by you. … ”

(Howard Pease continues) This paragraphing wastes space—and paper—by giving a separate paragraph to the speech of a character and a separate paragraph to the action of that same character.  I’ve often wondered if Agatha Christie wants to make her stories appear longer than they really are.  Let’s use the Henry James technique.

Hercule’s voice interrupted him.  “Why will they be ‘all right’ when you are gone?”

Hugh Chandler smiled.  It was a gentle, lovable smile.  He said, “There’s my mother’s money.  She was an heiress, you know.  It came to me.  I’ve left it all to Diana.”

Hercule Poirot sat back in his chair.  He said, “Ah!”  Then he said, “But you may live to be quite an old man, Mr. Chandler.”

Hugh Chandler shook his head.  He said sharply, “No, M. Poirot.  I am not going to live to be an old man.”  Then he drew back with a shudder.  “My God!  Look!”  He stared over Poirot’s shoulder.  “There—standing by you. …”

By using this method, what have we gained?  We’ve gained several lines of print.  We could revise, also, and delete he said several times and the prose would still be clear as well as less wordy.

Prose, like everything else, changes through the years.  Until the middle of the nineteen-twenties, writers used synonyms galore in an effort to get away from the monotony of using said too frequently.  The protagonists declared, asserted, offered, observed, responded, rejoined—the list is almost endless.  Then a rebellion set in.  Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway dropped all these synonyms.  Their characters simply said something, usually in short declarative sentences.

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