A while ago I did a post about judging a book by its first 250 words (it’s common for writing contests to pick this number for your writing sample). I showed that some famous books have beginnings that don’t really hit on the substance of the book. On the other hand, I showed that some books do manage to jump right into the meat of the book with the first 250 words. In either case, it’s interesting.
Since then, I’ve looked at some other well-known and best-selling books. After the break, another set of examples.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids. They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country, ten miles from the nearest railway station and two miles from the nearest post office. He had no wife and he lived in a very large house with a housekeeper called Mrs. Macready and three servants. (Their names were Ivy, Margaret and Betty, but they do not come into the story much.) He himself was a very old man with shaggy white hair which grew over most of his face as well as on his head, and they liked him almost at once; but on the first evening when he came out to meet them at the front door he was so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.
As soon as they had said good night to the Professor and gone upstairs on the first night, the boys came into the girls’ room and they all talked it over.
“We’ve fallen on our feet and no mistake,” said Peter. “This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like.”
No witches, no fabulous creatures, no battles, no mystical Lions. As far as this excerpt goes, we have a group of kids who are staying with a funny-looking old man. To be sure, by the time we’re at the end of Chapter One, we’re in Narnia talking to a faun, but if we stopped at 250, this is where we’re left.
* * *
Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers
If you want to find Cherry-Tree Lane all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the cross-roads. He will push his helmet slightly to one side, scratch his head thoughtfully, and then he will point his huge white-gloved finger and say: “First to your right, second to your left, sharp right again, and you’re there. Good-morning.”
And sure enough, if you follow his directions exactly, you will be there—right in the middle of Cherry-Tree Lane, where the houses run down one side and the Park runs down the other and the cherry-trees go dancing right down the middle.
If you are looking for Number Seventeen— and it is more than likely that you will be, for this book is all about that particular house— you will very soon find it. To begin with, it is the smallest house in the Lane. And besides that, it is the only one that is rather dilapidated and needs a coat of paint. But Mr. Banks, who owns it, said to Mrs. Banks that she could have either a nice, clean, comfortable house or four children. But not both, for he couldn’t afford it.
And after Mrs. Banks had given the matter some consideration she came to the conclusion that she would rather have Jane, who was the eldest, and Michael, who came next, and John and Barbara, who were Twins and came last of all.
The writing here is good, but as far as story goes we’re basically being introduced to a family, with no real clue where the story is going from here. As with the previous example, if we read on to the end of Chapter One, things get much more interesting. Mary Poppins has arrived, and has already notched up several small miracles on the handle of her parrot-headed umbrella.
* * *
Now let’s look at some examples that get us into the story a bit faster, or have other points of interest:
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.
Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the colour of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out OK. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat.
This excerpt has some excellent writing, and gets a good start at building a world and establishing some characters. It even drops a hint (“day of the reaping”) that all is not well (we’re pretty sure from the context that we’re not talking about picking corn here).
We still don’t know the premise of the story, but it’s a workable setup.
* * *
Let’s take a look at one of the top best-selling authors in what’s generally considered his major debut:
Carrie by Stephen King
News item from the Westover (Me.) weekly Enterprise, August 19, 1966:
RAIN OF STONES REPORTED
It was reliably reported by several persons that a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky on Carlin Street in the town of Chamberlain on August 17th. The stones fell principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively and ruining two gutters and a downspout valued at approximately $25. Mrs. White, a widow, lives with her three-year-old daughter, Carietta. Mrs. White could not be reached for comment.
Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls in the shower room were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again. Some of them might also have claimed surprise, but of course their claim was untrue. Carrie had been going to school with some of them since the first grade, and this had been building since that time, building slowly and immutably, in accordance with all the laws that govern human nature, building with all the steadiness of a chain reaction approaching critical mass.
What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic.
Graffiti scratched on a desk of the Barker Street Grammar School in Chamberlain:
Carrie White eats shit.
The locker room was filled with shouts, echoes, and the subterranean sound of showers splashing on tile. The girls had been playing volleyball in Period One, and their morning sweat was light and eager.
Kapow! Look at that. King takes his 250 words and practically makes a movie billboard out of it. He lays out the entire premise right up front.
It’s as if King says to all of us, “hey, here’s this outcast girl, being tormented by everyone in school, and guess what! The tormented girl is telekinetic! I tell you that right up front! Look at those ominous foreboding sentences! Anyone with the brain of a chicken would know exactly what’s going to happen next. And it’s still going to be a great read!”
There are theme parks with roller coasters like Space Mountain, enclosed in buildings. You get into the car, go through a tunnel, and the ride is a trip into the unknown. If you like roller coasters, this is fun.
But then there are the other kind of roller coasters, those big wooden monsters with the track right out in the open air, soaring over the top of the park. As you stand in line, you see every hill, dropoff, and loop you’re going to hit. Heck, you can see the lines of cars full of screaming people actually hit each one of them. But you know, that’s a lot of fun too.
This is why King gets the big bucks.
* * *
Nueromancer by William Gibson
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
“It’s not like I’m using,” Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. “It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.” It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.
Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a web work of East European steel and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone’s whores and the crisp naval uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with Joe boys,” Ratz said, shoving a draft across the bar with his good hand. “Maybe some business with you, Case?”
Case shrugged. The girl to his right giggled and nudged him.
The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it. The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic. “You are too much the artiste, Herr Case.” Ratz grunted; the sound served him as laughter. He scratched his overhang of white-shirted belly with the pink claw.
Gibson gets some good information into this beginning. You get a sense of an unfamiliar world where many nations are crammed together. If you pay attention to the description of the bar, you can infer that you may be in Japan. The prosthetic arm, more complex than those available at the time Gibson wrote this, is an “antique.” If you move beyond the 250 words, the environment of this world and its technology becomes much more evident, but so far you’re not too sure of anything else other than Case being the protagonist.
An interesting aside: Gibson’s impressive first line, “the sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel,” was given a clever twist by Neil Gaiman in Neverwhere: “The sky was the perfect untroubled blue of a television screen, tuned to a dead channel.” The humor is that the miserable grayness of a dead channel in the “old days” has been replaced by the lovely blue you see on a flatscreen when there’s no signal.
* * *
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things.
Or at least, how I try.
***HERE IS A SMALL FACT ***
You are going to die.
I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.
***Reaction to the ***
Does this worry you?
I urge you–don’t be afraid.
I’m nothing if not fair.
–Of course, an introduction.
Where are my manners?
I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.
At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I’ll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps.
The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying?
Huh. Maybe the sky will be the color of a dead TV channel? The basic story of The Book Thief is about a girl in Nazi Germany who “borrows” books from someone’s library, and ends up helping to hide a Jew from the Nazis. Did you get that from the first 250 words? What did you get? It would be interesting to take a survey of people who hadn’t heard of the book to see what they thought it was about.
* * *
Now, finally, a blast from the past:
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land.
The first paragraph of this excerpt falls under a long list of paragraphs I wish I had written. It does get across the idea that the narrator is going to sea, but that information is almost beside the point. This paragraph is almost music, and it’s amazing how intelligent the writers of this time assumed their readers were.
Unfortunately, Melville throughout this book is amazingly inconsistent. There are many parts like this first paragraph that justify his fame, but (in my uneducated opinion) there are other parts of the book that either drag horribly or divert so far from the narrative that I skipped over several of them the first time I read Moby Dick in college. There are some places where you wonder if someone eventually poked Melville at his desk with a long stick and asked him, “umm…weren’t you writing about the whaling trip?”
I think there are some abridged versions that quietly drop some of these parts, but I don’t know for sure. I’m proud to say I have since plowed through all of a complete and unabridged version, and yes, some places are still a hard slog, but a few of them grow on you with time.