Dramatic Openings

With the following dramatic scene, George Orwell opened a book about his early years, Down and Out in Paris and London. It puts us immediately into the environment he's about to discuss. Not content with "telling" us about his street, Rue du Coq d'Or, he "shows" us the street by letting us hear some of the inhabitants speak. And he doesn't have them speak just so we can hear their speech patterns, he has them speak of things that show us what life was like on the street of the golden rooster.

The Rue du Coq d'Or, seven in the morning. A succession of furious, choking yells from the street. Madame Monce, who kept the little hotel opposite mine, had come out onto the pavement to address a lodger on the third floor. Her bare feet were stuck into sabots and her grey hair was streaming down.

Madame Monce: "Salope! Salope! How many times have I told you not to squash bugs on the wallpaper? Do you think you've bought the hotel, eh? Why can't you throw them out of the window like everyone else? Putaine! Salope!"

Thereupon a whole variegated chorus of yells, as windows were flung open on every side and half the street joined in the quarrel. They shut up abruptly ten minutes later, when a squadron of cavalry rode past and people stopped shouting to look at them.

The ending of Orwell's opening is what a journalist might call a "natural close": All action in the scene stops when the people stop to watch the cavalry ride past. This gives the writer a perfect natural opportunity to step back and launch into a summary section that tells the reader more about life on that cobblestone street.

Writers of good nonfiction know the value of conversation throughout a piece. They are particularly aware of its power to grab the reader right from the beginning. Nonfiction that doesn't let us hear the human interaction tends to lose readers.

In his justly well-known book on paleontology, In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin opened Chapter 20, "An Old Log Cabin," with some very simple but vivid conversation. Although we don't hear his side of the conversation, we feel his presence, partly by the way he sticks his hand into the scene in line 2:

"Feel it," she said. "Feel the wind coming through."

I put my hand to the wall. The draught blew through the chinks where the mortar had fallen out. The log cabin was the North American kind. In Patagonia they made cabins differently and did not chink them with mortar.

The owner of the cabin was a Chilean Indian woman called Sepulveda.

"In winter it's terrible," she said. "I covered the wall with materia plastica but it blew away. The house is rotten, Señor, old and rotten. I would sell it tomorrow. I would have a concrete house which the wind cannot enter.

Señor Sepulveda was grogged out of his mind, half-sitting, half-lying by the kitchen stove.

"Would you buy the house?" she asked.

"No," I said, "but don't sell it for nothing. There are North American gentlemen who would pay good money to take it away piece by piece."

Chatwin shows the cabin partly by letting us hear the inhabitant (the way Orwell did earlier), and he uses those parts of the conversation that tell (show) us something about the subject (cabin), not just something about the old woman. A valuable part of this technique is that the writer (and his or her reader) get two-for-one. Through the person's words we learn something of the person while simultaneously learning something of the subject.

Chatwin uses an interesting device when he has the woman speak in Spanish, referring to materia plastica. The author could have had any other words in Spanish to give us the flavor of the Spanish conversation, but he chose materia plastica, presumably because he felt that most Norte Americanos could hardly miss the point. Again, we get a two-for-one: We learn that she's tried in vain to use some plastic stuff to keep out the wind; that the Patagonian winds of winter could lead to one's discontent; and we're reminded that the entire conversation is probably in Spanish.

Hunter S. Thompson is particularly adept at capturing the nuances of conversation and often uses them to establish the overall tone in the opening, as he did in the following piece about the Kentucky Derby, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," published in Scanlan's Monthly (June 1970). Whether these conversations are verbatim reports or not is moot. We do know right away that the conversations sound reasonably true to what we would expect to hear in that situation with those particular types of people. Notice how easily, efficiently, and effectively conversation gets us into a scene, taking us deeper and deeper into the article—the purpose, after all, of a dramatic, scenic, involving opening.

I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands...big grins and a whoop here and there: "By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good.and I mean it!"

In the air-conditioned lounge I met a man from Houston who said his name was something or other—"But just call me Jimbo"—and he was here to get it on. "I'm ready for anything, by God! Anything at all. Yeah, what are you drinking?" I ordered a Margarita with ice, but he wouldn't hear of it: "Naw, naw.what the hell kind of drink is that for Kentucky Derby Time? What's wrong with you, boy?" He grinned and winked at the bartender. "Goddam, we gotta educate this boy. Get him some good whiskey____"

I shrugged. "Okay, a double Old Fitz on ice." Jimbo nodded his approval.

"Look." He tapped me on the arm to make sure I was listening. "I know this Derby crowd, I come here every year, and let me tell you one thing I've learned—this is no town to be giving people the impression you're some kind of faggot. Not in public, anyway. Shit, they'll roll you in a minute, knock you in the head and take every goddam cent you have."

I thanked him and fitted a Marlboro into my cigarette holder..

Nothing need be said about his use of conversation to open this article. It sounds to me absolutely, totally, right-on-the-money true to life. Note how Thompson has also appealed to our senses: visual (how dark it was); tactile (that the air was thick and hot like steam baths; people hugged and shook hands); and aural (his use of "whoop"); and our sense of taste (his reference to several iced drinks). He appealed to our tactile sense again when the man tapped him on the arm, and he engaged both my sense of vision and my tactile sense when he said that he "fitted" the cigarette into the holder—I could feel that fitting action. It's worth noting, too, that he did not "tell" us all about these matters in one descriptive paragraph. Each sense was tapped in context—when it came up in the story. That's the way to do it—weave, weave, weave.

In This Boy's Life: A Memoir, Tobias Wolff describes a scene in which he and his mother are on their way to the Northwest to escape the boy's father in Florida. This simple scene snares our attention on the first page.

Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. "Oh, Toby," my mother said, "he's lost his brakes."

The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.

Richard Selzer's nonfiction piece "The Discus Thrower" collected in The Rituals of Surgery, begins the way a short story might. We see a person immediately, the author describing the man physically in very vivid language, language that gives us unexpected images, unexpected metaphors.

I spy on my patients. Ought not a doctor to observe his patients by any means and from any stance, that he might the more fully assemble evidence? So I stand in the doorways of hospital rooms and gaze. Oh, it is not all that furtive an act. Those in bed need only look up to discover me. But they never do.

From the doorway of Room 542 the man in the bed seems deeply tanned. Blue eyes and close-cropped white hair give him the appearance of vigor and good health. But I know that his skin is not brown from the sun. It is rusted, rather, in the last stage of containing the vile repose within. And the blue eyes are frosted, looking inward like the windows of a snowbound cottage. This man is blind. This man is also legless—the right leg missing from midthigh down, the left from just below the knee. It gives him the look of a bonsai, roots and branches pruned into the dwarfed facsimile of a great tree.

Dr. Selzer arrests us right away by his descriptions, particularly the simile that shows us what the man's eyes look like by saying they're frosted like the windows of a snowbound cottage—they look inward. He shows us through another striking simile that this legless man looks like a bonsai tree, the dwarfed facsimile of a great tree, which shows us more about this once great man than it tells us what he looked like.

Let's look now at author George Plimpton in Paper Lion as he puts us on the football field when he goes out for the first time to learn (the hard way) what it feels like to face a line of professional football players. He involves us not by conversation but by vivid description of himself in action—in a scene. His use of vivid, concrete words involves us immediately.

I came up off the bench slowly, working my fingers up into my helmet to get at my ears. As I crossed the sidelines I was conscious then only of moving into the massive attention of the crowd, but seeing ahead out of the opening of my helmet the two teams waiting. Some of the defense were already kneeling at the line of scrimmage, their heads turned so that helmeted, silver, with the cages protruding, they were made to seem animal and impersonal—wildlife of some large species disturbed at a waterhole—watching me come toward them. Close to, suddenly there was nothing familiar about them. With the arc lights high up on the standards, the interiors of their helmets were shadowed—perhaps with the shine of a cheekbone, the glint of an eye—no one was recognizable, nor a word from them. I trotted by the ball. Its trade name "Duke" was face up. The referee was waiting, astride it, a whistle at the end of a black cord dangling from his neck. The offensive team in their blue jerseys, about ten yards back, on their own twenty-yard line, moved, and collected in the huddle formation as I came up, and I slowed, and walked toward them, trying to be calm about it, almost lazying up to them to see what could be done.

For another example of an opening that does not depend on dialog for its strength, read this paragraph that opens Chapter 3, "An August Day's Sail," in Spring Tides, by Samuel Eliot Morison:

A light, caressing southerly breeze is blowing; just enough to heel the yawl and give her momentum. The boy and I get under way from the mooring by the usual ritual. I take in the ensign, hoist the mizzen, cast off the main sheet and slack the backstays; he helps me hoist the mainsail, sway the halyards and neatly coil them. I take the wheel and the main sheet in hand, the boy casts off the mooring rope and hoists the jib, and she goes like a lively dog let off the leash.

Now that's what this chapter is all about—letting a lively piece of writing off the leash. The longer it's held under leash by nondramatic, nonvivid, noninvolving language, the less likely the reader will be excited to continue to read. Everyone's more excited by a dog that's unleashed and hurtling forward off the page.

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