Among the advice indelibly ingrained in me from working at a newspaper for many years:
- Don’t use more than five sentences in a paragraph.
- Don’t worry about “flow;” you’ll build your own meaning.
- Don’t open with a question.
- Don’t open with a list.
Opening with one strong image invites the reader into the dark house of story by switching on a light in the entryway; opening with a list is more like assaulting the hapless guest with multiple floodlights. Instead of gaining the orientation he seeks, the reader is overwhelmed with images you’ve given him no context for sorting.
Some authors use lists to great advantage, however—and later, you’ll see some right in the novel’s opening. Let’s look at some examples.
Elizabeth Joy Arnold’s Promise the Moon explores a family’s healing after the young father’s post-Gulf War suicide. After a one-page introduction from the man’s wife, Arnold switches to the perspective of the young daughter, Anna. The list is found as this POV opens:
My dad was a hero soldier. I looked up hero in my dictionary, and this is what it said:
1) A person who is admired for great courage, noble character, and good deeds.
2) A sandwich, usually made with crusty bread, a.k.a. submarine, hoagie.
3) An illustrious warrior.
My dad was the number one and number three kinds of hero both. A double hero.
Seeking a dictionary definition not only shows Anna’s innocence as she tries to sort through a monumentally complex subject, it reveals her story goal: she wants to know her father. Other lists this character offers throughout the story, such as the top three awkward things people said to her after her father’s death, show that this is how she processes the chaos in her life. The humor promises that this book will encompass the full range of human emotions.
In my novel The Far End of Happy, an accumulation of lists suggests the burden my protagonist suffers while dealing with her husband’s downhill slide toward suicide. These include a fix-it list for the aging farm, a bulleted list of emotions she off-loads into her journal, mental health resources of which her husband would never take advantage, a list of creditors and amounts owed, and a list of reporters wanting to talk to her during the standoff.
Opening with a list
In a bold move, Colum McCann opens his novelization of dancer Rudolph Nureyev’s life, Dancer, with a list that is one-and-a-half pages long. I can almost hear my newspaper editor saying, “If you’re going to break a rule, break it big.” Here are a few of my favorites. [Read more…]