“The Labors of Hercules” by Agatha Christie


(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)

“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 Autobiography of Malcolm X,” with the assistance of Alex Haley

Opening Paragraph:
When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out. My mother went to the front door and opened it. Standing where they could see her pregnant condition, she told them that she was alone with her three small children, and that my father was away, preaching, in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town because “the good Christian white people” were not going to stand for my father’s “spreading trouble” among the “good” Negroes of Omaha with the “back to Africa” preachings of Marcus Garvey.
(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) If you study this opening paragraph you’ll find that the protagonist is the “I” person, Malcolm Little, born in 1925; later he took the name Malcolm X. The setting is the home of a black family in Omaha. The hook has the quality of shock, toned down by the mention of the teachings of Marcus Garvey.

“The Jet-Propelled Couch,” one of five psychoanalytic case-histories recorded by Robert Lindner, M.D., in his book, The Fifty-Minute Hour.

Opening Paragraph:
This case-history, the last in the book, has become a small classic in its field. The chair behind the couch is not the stationary object it seems. I have traveled all over the world on it, and back and forth in time. Without moving from my seat, I have met important personages and witnessed great events. But it remained for Kirk Allen to take me out of this world when he transformed the couch in my consulting room into a space ship that roved the galaxies.
(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) Our protagonist is Kirk Allen, and his case-history is being told from his doctor’s viewpoint. The “I” person is the observer who looks at and interprets the main character’s words and actions. This gives room for plenty of dialogue, always popular with readers. It is the method used in the interview type of article. Few writers, however—even professionals—give us so engaging a first paragraph as this one by Dr. Lindner.

“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 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 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.

“The Chase and Capture of Adolf Eichmann,” by Bela von Block.

Opening Paragraph:

The tall, gaunt man with protruding ears and a receding hairline got off the bus and started to walk along the murky Buenos Aires street. Outwardly he was relaxed, just another working man after a hard day. Inwardly he was tense, watchful—as he had been, day and night, for 15 years.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) With the use of the three fundamentals the author catches our attention by beginning this article at a moment in time just before the climax. First, a character is presented in action in a definite setting; then comes the hook. Though this reads like fiction, it is fact.

Notice that the protagonist’s name is not given. There are two reasons for this. His name is given in the title. He is also now living under an assumed name, perhaps one of many that he has used since Hitler’s Germany crashed under the onslaught of the Allied Forces. He is a man hiding from retribution.

“Cyclists’ Raid,” by Frank Rooney.

Opening Paragraph:

Joel Bleeker, owner and operator of the Pendleton Hotel, was adjusting the old redwood clock in the lobby when he heard the sound of the motors. At first he thought it might be one of those four-engine planes on the flights from Los Angeles to San Francisco which occasionally got far enough off course to be heard in the valley. And for a moment, braced against the steadily approaching vibrations of the sound, he had the fantastic notion that the plane was going to strike the hotel. He even glanced at his daughter, Cathy, standing a few feet to his right and staring curiously down the street.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) In this opening paragraph, there are two points to notice. First, the time element is not given, and this means that the reader may have to adjust his picture when the time is finally mentioned as night or day. Second, something is added at the end of the paragraph: Bleeker looks at his daughter, Cathy. By adding this statement, the author promises that Cathy will play a prominent part in the story. And indeed she does—a tragic part.

(My comment) This story was used for Marlon Brando’s hit “The Wild One.” Again, note that this opening paragraph contains the hallmarks of naming the protagonist, setting a scene, and offering a hook. It is not a false hook, because from the POV of Joel Bleeker, he cannot see what Cathy sees.

“Passengers for Panama,” by Paul Stockton

Opening Paragraph:

The third mate of the Araby was puzzled. From the foredeck of his old tramp steamer he looked uneasily across a deserted wharf at the little Caribbean port of La Guaira, lying quiet and undisturbed at the foot of the Andes. Too quiet, thought Tod Moran as his gaze swept the empty street. At ten in the morning, with a ship just arrived in port, a whole town does not take a siesta, even in Venezuela.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) The protagonist is named, the setting is given, and the hook is the silence and emptiness of the dockside street at ten in the morning. Note that the reason for the siesta-like atmosphere is not disclosed, but the reason is just as much a mystery to the protagonist, Tod Moran, as it is to the reader.

The Course of Europe Since Waterloo, by Walter Phelps Hall, PhD, and William Stearns Davis, PhD.

Opening Paragraph:

On August 7, 1815, a stately British ship of the line glided out of the harbor of Torbay, and turned her prow southwestward, seeking the broad Atlantic. Upon her quarterdeck paced a little man, stout and heavy-shouldered, with a thick neck and head set low. He was clad in a much-worn green uniform of a French army officer, and the young naval lieutenants watched him curiously, yet with awe, as he walked the deck hour after hour, or stood at the porthole of his cabin, his face pale and set, his deep bloodshot eyes looking across the sea—“eyes that seemed to look at everything, and yet at something beyond.” The ship of the line was the Northumberland. Her passenger was Napoleon Bonaparte. He was bound for St. Helena, there to die a most unresigned prisoner on May 5, 1821.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Here is proof, I think you’ll agree, that a textbook need not be dull and need not be poorly written. The late William Stearns Davis, one of the authors, was a novelist as well as a historian, and he used fiction techniques when collaborating upon this textbook. Notice that he starts on a definite day and gives a picture of a ship in motion. Next he focuses upon the ship’s deck and shows us a little man in action. Suspense, beginning with the reaction of other officers to this man, mounts steadily until the hook is finally tossed out—the man’s name.

Take away the last part of the final sentence, which jumps ahead in time, and you have a professional first paragraph for a novel. Thus, were it fiction instead of a history text, your paragraph might end with the sentence: Her passenger was Napoleon Bonaparte, bound for St. Helena.

“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.

“Advise and Consent,” by Allen Drury

Opening Paragraph:

When Bob Munson awoke in his apartment at the Sheraton-Park Hotel at seven thirty-one in the morning he had the feeling it would be a bad day. The impression was confirmed as soon as he got out of bed and brought in the Washington Post and Times Herald.

PRESIDENT NAMES LEFFINGWELL SECRETARY OF STATE, the headline said. What Bob Munson said, in a tired voice, was, “Oh. God damn!”

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) The protagonist and setting are given, plus a hook that slides over into the second paragraph. The reader’s interest is caught, and he is off to a flying start.

Let me pause long enough to point out two faults in the opening sentence. The first is in the prose. Our better writers would use the personal pronoun he in the dependent clause and save the proper noun Bob Munson for the main clause, thus: When he awoke in his apartment … Bob Munson had the feeling it would be a bad day. The second fault is one of craftsmanship. The protagonist’s feeling that it would be a bad day is psychologically unsound unless he has a reason for facing the new day with anxiety. His impression is confirmed when he picks up the morning paper and reads the headline. But soon after we learn that this news is a surprise to him. He is also angry, because, as majority leader of the Senate, he was not informed in advance by the President.

“The Nigger of the Narcissus” by Joseph Conrad

Plunge Opening Paragraph:

Mr. Baker, chief mate of the ship Narcissus, stepped in one stride out of his lighted cabin into the darkness of the quarter-deck. Above his head, on the break of the poop, the night watchman rang a double stroke. It was nine o’clock. Mr. Baker, speaking to the man above him, asked, “Are all hands aboard, Knowles?”

The man limped down the ladder, then said reflectively, “I think so, sir.”

“Tell the boatswain to send all hands aft,” went on Mr. Baker, “and tell one of the youngsters to bring a good lamp here. I want to muster our crowd.”

(Howard Pease, my Mentor, offers) In reading any story by Conrad we need to focus all of our attention upon his prose. There are undertones and depths not always seen at first glance.

Here in a few words we learn that Mr. Baker is first officer on the Narcissus, that it is night—specifically nine o’clock— and the question “Are all hands aboard?” informs us that his ship is tied up in port. The word youngsters further informs us that Mr. Baker is not young, or he would not have used this term.

Notice the repeated taps on darkness: from the lighted cabin to the darkness of the deck, the night watchman, nine o’clock, a lamp needed. We are soon to meet the main character, James Wait, a black seaman. The mood of this novel is somber. The darkness is followed by somber daylight at sea, and then blackness and a terrific storm. On a deeper level are darkness and turmoil within the characters. All this is the work of an artist.

“The Chase and Capture of Adolf Eichmann,” by Bela von Block

Opening Paragraphs:

The tall, gaunt man with protruding ears and a receding hairline got off the bus and started to walk along the murky Buenos Aires street. Outwardly he was relaxed, just another working man after a hard day. Inwardly he was tense, watchful—as he had been, day and night, for 15 years.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) With the use of the three fundamentals the author catches our attention by beginning this article at a moment in time just before the climax. First, a character is presented in action in a definite setting; then comes the hook. Though this reads like fiction, it is fact. Notice that the protagonist’s name is not given. There are two reasons for this. His name is given in the title. He is also now living under an assumed name, perhaps one of many that he has used since Hitler’s Germany crashed under the onslaught of the Allied Forces. He is a man hiding from retribution.

“Lust for Life,” by Irving Stone

Plunge Opening Paragraph:

“Monsieur Van Gogh! It’s time to wake up!”

Vincent had been waiting for Ursula’s voice even while he slept, “I was awake, Mademoiselle Ursula,” he called back.

“No, you weren’t,” the girl laughed, “but you are now.” He heard her go down the stairs to the kitchen.

The hallmarks of the opening are present in the naming of the main character, establishment of the setting, and a hook of playful interplay and expectation.

“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.”

“The Past,” by Ellen Glasgow

Opening Hook Paragraph:

I had no sooner entered the house than I knew something was wrong. Though I had never been in so splendid a place before—it was one of those big houses just off Fifth Avenue—I had a suspicion from the first that the magnificence covered a secret disturbance. I was always quick to receive impressions, and when the black iron doors swung together behind me, I felt as if I were shut inside a prison.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) This story is not to be an intellectual puzzle but a more emotional story, no doubt with chills and thrills. Though this paragraph gives other information, the emphasis from the first to the last sentence is on a hook opening.

“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 Nephew,” by James Purdy

(Bad) Opening Paragraph:

All the flags were out in front of the houses and stores in Rainbow Center on Memorial Day, as Boyd Mason drove his Buick back from a real-estate trip to Kentucky, and parked on the east corner of Peninsula Drive and Crest Ridge Road, at the side of his sister Alma’s house, where he had lived since his wife’s death twenty years before.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) This one-sentence paragraph contains more than a dozen facts, at least half of them not important enough to be included so soon. When you overload a first sentence or paragraph with so much information, your reader is apt to come up so wobbly and bewildered that you lose him. Therefore, prune your opening paragraph until only a few important facts are given.

“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.

“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.

“He Turned Disaster into Triumph,” by Martin Abramson

Opening Paragraph:

When the phone rang, Jennie Hanners walked across the living room of her home in suburban Long Island, N.Y., lifted the receiver and listened in stunned silence as a gruff voice told her that her husband, a respected high-school teacher, had been arrested and charged with the crime of fraudulently procuring narcotic drugs.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) This is the first sentence of the opening paragraph. Notice again how an author, even when writing non-fiction, focuses upon a moment in time, with a character in action and a hook.

“The Feminine Mystique,” by Betty Frieden

Opening Paragraph:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?”

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) Notice how the author mentions an unspoken problem, then gets down to specifics. The protagonist is the young married woman who lives with her husband and children on an income evidently not too small. The setting is any suburb. The hook is the question she is afraid to ask even of herself. Surely thousands of feminine readers will not only be caught on the author’s hook, they will also identify themselves at once with the protagonist, whose fixed activities are their own.

“Catbird Seat,” by James Thurber

Opening paragraphs:

Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway. It was theatre time and seven or eight men were buying cigarettes. The clerk didn’t even glance at Mr. Martin, who put the pack in his overcoat pocket

and went out. If any of the staff at F. and S. had seen him buy cigarettes, they would have been astonished, for it was generally known that Mr. Martin did not smoke, and never had. No one saw

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) In analyzing this paragraph we note that the author is baldly stating what he wishes us to know.

First, by naming the protagonist Mr. Martin (and calling
him Mr. Martin throughout the story) we are nudged a short
distance away from him.

Second, the time and place are given at once, with the
noun Broadway a more subtle way of naming the city. Times
Square would have given us the same idea.

Third, there is certainly a hook that attracts our attention.

Why did Mr. Martin buy those cigarettes, mentioned by the
author four times in this short paragraph? And the last
sentence, No one saw him, further arouses our interest and
rightly leads us to expect to expect that these cigarettes will play an important part in the story.

“The Burning,” by Eudora Welty

Opening Hook Paragraph:
Delilah was dancing up to the front with a message; that was how she happened to be the one to see. A horse was coming in the house, by the front door. The door had been shoved wide open. And all behind the horse, a crowd with a long tail of dust was coming after, all the way up the road from the front gate between the cedar trees.
(My mentor Howard Pease continues) The protagonist, or main character, is named, and you see what happens through her eyes. You soon realize that Delilah is a slave, and the incredible hook is her picture of Sherman’s men coming to burn the plantation house. There is no mention or the date. In the simplest language, Delilah’s own language, the action moves forward with no comment from the author. You, the reader, draw your own conclusions.
(from a collection of opening paragraphs at www.secondroot.com)

“Anna Teller,” by Jo Sinclair

Opening Paragraph:

Anna Teller was the only refugee on the plane from Munich to New York.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) This first paragraph is one sentence only, and a short sentence at that. The protagonist is named, the setting is given, and the small hook is a statement that contrasts Anna with all the other passengers.

The second paragraph describes the passengers who keep glancing at Anna because she is so obviously different. The third paragraph presents an objective description of Anna as seen by these passengers. Next, the action begins, with dialogue. This is a craftsmanlike way of starting a novel.

Glance back at this short first paragraph and notice how uncluttered it is. Only a few selected facts are given.

“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.

“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.

“The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,” by Brian Moore

Opening Paragraph:

The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodgings was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantelpiece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. As she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bed springs, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) Here we have Miss Hearne, probably nearing middle age. The setting is a shabby lodging house in Belfast. And the very small hook is Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about her new lodgings.

In reading novels you’ll find that writers apparently do not feel the need to capture the reader’s interest at once with a hook. The novel reader is a leisurely reader, and he will usually give you a chapter before he decides either to go on reading or to toss your book aside. In this opening paragraph about Miss Hearne the author emphasizes the aunt’s photograph, and for a reason. At the very end of the novel Miss Hearne moves into another lodging, and the first thing she does is to put this photograph on her new mantel. This is what writers call the circle pattern; the novel ends where it began, and the reader gets the impression of life going on as before for Miss Hearne.

“The Chase and Capture of Adolf Eichmann,” by Bela von Block

Opening Paragraph:

The tall, gaunt man with protruding ears and a receding hairline got off the bus and started to walk along the murky Buenos Aires street.  Outwardly he was relaxed, just another working man after a hard day.  Inwardly he was tense, watchful—as he had been, day and night, for 15 years.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) With the use of the three fundamentals the author catches our attention by beginning this article at a moment in time just before the climax.  First, a character is presented in action in a definite setting; then comes the hook.  Though this reads like fiction, it is fact.

Notice that the protagonist’s name is not given.  There are two reasons for this.  His name is given in the title.  He is also now living under an assumed name, perhaps one of many that he has used since Hitler’s Germany crashed under the onslaught of the Allied Forces.  He is a man hiding from retribution.

“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.

“Girl in White” by Adela Rogers St. Johns

Opening Paragraph:

Heading down the corridor to the elevator, Scotty Dakers kept her thoughts away from what the doctor had said, what Ingles, the head nurse, had said. She forced herself to concentrate on the numbers on the doors she had to pass. Number 517 had been little Mrs. Halles, who had actually walked the sixth day after a fusion operation; 509 was old Robertson with all his money, whom Doctor Luke had dragged miraculously back to life; 501 was where they’d finally told Mitch Delberg the truth.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) This first paragraph warrants examination. The protagonist’s name, Scotty Dakers, might be either masculine or feminine; but the author does not keep us guessing. “Scotty Dakers kept her thoughts … She forced herself … “ We are with our heroine walking down a corridor. The mention of a doctor and a head nurse and numbered rooms all indicate a hospital. Scotty’s knowledge of the patients behind each door further indicates that Scotty must be a nurse. What was said to Mitch Delberg, the patient in Room 501, is the hook. Notice that there is a minimum of what we call author’s statement, direct statement. Mrs. St. Johns does not tell us that Scotty is a nurse on Ward C of St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco. Instead, she enters the mind of her protagonist, and does so at a definite moment in time. Scotty’s thoughts ring true. Reader identification is immediate. If Scotty already knows something of importance to the story, the reader is told what it is. If Scotty learns something, the reader learns it at the same time. Not once is the reader jerked out of the consciousness of Scotty. Identification is complete, and satisfying.

“The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse,” by William Saroyan

Opening paragraph:

One day back there in the good old days when I was nine and the world was full of every imaginable kind of magnificence, and life was still a delightful and mysterious dream, my cousin Mourad, who was considered crazy by everybody who knew him except me, came to my house at four in the morning and woke me up by tapping on the window of my room.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) Notice that this paragraph presents the three fundamentals in one long sentence. It also tells us that this story will be like the simple tale told aloud in the first person. Simple only on the surface, however, this viewpoint in reality is difficult to carry through with complete success. The limitations and weaknesses inherent in all first-person narratives may be why so many readers dislike this viewpoint, and why some editors greet its use with dismay. (See chapter on Point of View.) If you have the deftness and charm of a William Saroyan, or the sophistication and ironic wit of a Somerset Maugham, go ahead and try your hand at a first-person story. Otherwise wait until you become a craftsman.

“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.

“A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner

Opening Hook Paragraph:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.

(My mentor Howard Pease continues) Here the author names his protagonist, or main character, who has just died.  Then he throws out a hook to arouse our curiosity about her.  We, too, now want a glimpse inside Miss Emily’s house.  And we get that glimpse—and never forget what we see.

“Boy Crazy,” by John De Meyer

False Hooks in opening paragraphs:

Walter Fenton squinted sleepily as the morning sun flooded through his bedroom window. He stretched up to pull the shade down. Then his mouth fell open in astonishment, What he saw out on the lake he could hardly believe. He shook his wife Emily.

My Mentor, Howard Pease goes on to explain what he means by False Hook:

Our protagonist is Walter Fenton. The setting is a house near a lake, and the time is an early morning of bright sunlight. Next comes the hook, questionable on two counts. First, the statement His mouth fell open is so trite, so old-hat, that it should never be used today. Second, the sentence “What he saw out on the lake he could hardly believe” shows the author hiding information in a desperate effort to rouse interest. Instead, it is likely to rouse irritation. Such a hook is like a child’s excited announcement, “I’ve got a secret!” after which he teases you until you beg him to tell. The revelation is always a disappointment, because by then your expectations are too high.

“The Ambassadors,” by Henry James

Opening paragraph:

Strether called, his second morning in Paris, on the bankers, in the Rue Scribe, to whom his letter of credit was addressed, and he made this visit attended by Waymarsh, in whose company he had crossed from London two days before.

As this comes from chapter five’s opening paragraph and lacks a hook, I included it as an example of a long sentence.  It is exposition, but it puts a lot of water over the dam to then move into the story line.

“A Jury of Her Peers,” by Susan Glaspell

Opening Paragraph:

When Martha Hale opened the storm door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head, her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away—it was probably further from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.

According to my Mentor, Howard Pease, this satisfies 3 requirements:

1. Name your protagonist, your main character.

2. Mention setting, so the reader will immediately know the story’s background: a farm, a city street, a boardinghouse, a hotel, a plane. The time element is often included as an important part of the setting—the time of year, the time of day.

3. Throw out a small hook to catch the reader’s interest.

“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.

“A Cold Potato,” by Peter De Vries


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 Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” by Ernest Hemingway

Opening Hook Paragraph:

It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.

(My Mentor Howard Pease continues) This introductory paragraph, like Faulkner’s, consists of one sentence only.  While Faulkner’s is made up of fifty-seven words, Hemingway’s is twenty-four.  Yet note the carefully selected information in Hemingway’s sentence.  He does not overload it with facts.  Indeed, he suggests more than he states.  He deliberately chooses to limit himself by using the objective viewpoint. (More about this in the next chapter.) The curtain has gone up on his drama.  Like a theater audience we see the characters, watch their actions and hear what they say.  The author may suggest and give hints, but there is no delving into the mind of anyone, no effort made here to have us identify ourselves with anyone.

This one-sentence paragraph gives us the time of day, and the characters are mentioned, though they remain unnamed and unnumbered.  The word tent tells us that this is an outdoor story, and the double green fly and dining tent suggest wealth.  Knowing Hemingway and his fondness for big game hunts, we suspect that these people are on a safari.  Then comes the hook: they are pretending that nothing has happened.