My friend Jackie recently reread The Witch of Blackbird Pond for the first time since she was in junior high. This is a middle-grade novel written by Elizabeth George Speare. It was originally published in 1958, and I haven’t read it since I was a kid. According to Jackie, it still holds up, so I decided to read it again too.
When I reread the opening paragraph, I was blown away. It made me think about a lecture my MFA advisor Tod Goldberg1 once gave about the opening paragraph of Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter. Between the two, I was inspired to write this post.
Here is the first paragraph of The Witch of Blackbird Pond:
This paragraph consists of only two sentences. Two sentences. Reading it carefully, how many pieces of information does it give us? Here are some of the things I came up with:
- The story we are about to read begins “in mid-April”–it is springtime.
- The story begins in the morning.
- The story begins in 1687–it is the late seventeenth century.
- The story begins on a ship.
- The particular ship is a “brigantine,” a two-masted sailing vessel that navigated the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century.2
- The name of the ship is the “Dolphin.”
- “Dolphin” is an English word, so we know this is an English ship.
- The ship is fast–it sails “briskly.”
- The ship is no longer on “the open sea,” but is now sailing along the Connecticut River.
- The ship is entering a harbor, so we know it is about to dock.
- Based on the name of the river and the time period, we know where the ship is about to dock: in the New England Colonies.
- The ship has been sailing for five weeks, so we know the ship’s passengers have undergone a long journey from far away.
- This first paragraph introduces the protagonist, Kit Tyler.
- We can guess that “Kit” is a nickname, and therefore, even without reading the back cover, we can guess the protagonist is probably young.
- This first paragraph gives us the first glimpse inside the protagonist’s point of view–she is so anxious to see land that she has been hugging the ship’s rail since daybreak.
- Kit is on the forecastle deck–the uppermost deck and the most forward part of the ship, “standing close to the rail.” She is physically pressed forward, like Kate and Leo in Titanic; she is as close to the action and to land as she can possibly get.
- Kit is staring at the shoreline “hungrily”–she is not only anxious to see land, she is hungry for it; she is anxious to be off the ship and wants to be ashore.
- Kit is alone in this opening paragraph. Because our protagonist is a young woman traveling alone on a ship in the seventeenth century, we can assume some things about her personality and her character, e.g., that she is brave, independent, and adventurous.
- This first paragraph already raises some questions: why has Kit traveled to the Americas and why is she traveling alone?
- The first paragraph already arouses tension, too: what will happen to Kit in the New England colonies in the late seventeenth century? The book has the word “witch” in its title, and Kit is arriving in Connecticut about seventeen years after the Connecticut Witch Trials (which lasted twenty-five years) and only five years before the Salem Witch Trials began. I am already anxious!
This seems like such a simple paragraph. Two straightforward lines of prose written with uncomplicated language. It appears effortless, but based on my experience, I am guessing Ms. Speare worked over this opening paragraph many, many times. She used her words economically, made each word earn its keep, and crafted tight prose that gives the reader a great deal of information without resorting to flashbacks or information dumps.
Two sentences. Before the third sentence, Speare has grounded her reader completely in the story. She then takes her reader right into a scene. And not only is she in a scene, she opens that scene with dialogue–a conversation between Kit and the ship’s first mate, Nathaniel Eaton. The opening dialogue immediately propels the narrative of the story forward:
Again, so understated, but so packed with meaning.
Take a look at a few first paragraphs of classic novels:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. –Jane Austen, first paragraph of Pride and Prejudice
One sentence and we are already drawn in by Austen’s sarcastic sense of humor and have a good idea where the story is headed.
Again, this opening paragraph consists of just one line, but it immediately provokes thought, ignites tension, and again, gives us a clue as to the kind of story we are about to read.
And perhaps my favorite opening paragraph of all time:
By the time we’ve read this opening paragraph, we know more about Ishmael than we know about many of our own close friends. He’s broke, he’s depressed, he’s bored. He is over it. People annoy the hell out of him. He sees strangers walking down the street and wants to knock the hats off their heads! He’s alienated from society. He needs to get out of town before he loses his temper. He heads to sea because he finds the ocean calming and healing–the sea centers him. He tells us in the first line that the story he’s about to share happened many years in the past, so we know that, whatever happens on this journey, he will survive to tell the tale. Ishmael has invited us to call him by his first name–we are his friends and his confidantes. And we can relate. One hundred and seventy years after this novel was originally published, we can still relate to what Ishmael is feeling. Eight lines into this story, we are right there with him as he embarks on this epic journey. (Notice, too, the rhythm of Melville’s sentences, the way he alternates short and long sentences, like the ebb and flow of the sea.)
Reading good, well-written books is one of the best things writers can do to improve their own writing. I especially love to study the opening paragraphs of novels. A great writer squeezes a lot of information into a relatively short space in order to ground the reader in time and place, introduce one or more main characters, establish the plot, and create opening tension.