“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)

“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)