A book’s beginning is critical. A book with a lousy opening scene won’t make it past an overworked slush reader who has learned the hard way that the 100th paragraph is very seldom much better than the first. And should that book make it to print (perhaps via self-publishing) readers are likely to take one look at that bad beginning and put the book down in favor of something more obviously entertaining.
An oft-given bit of advice is that those writing for YA/middle grade readers need to write a “big” opening for their books, something with monsters and mayhem that can’t be missed by impatient youngsters.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books have been undisputed bestsellers. And of course the whole series caught on with The Bad Beginning, the first volume. So I was quite interested in the opening that Snicket employs for this wildly popular book. Is it big? It is loud? Is it full of monsters and mayhem? No. It is none of those things. Instead, the very first paragraph is a darkly whimsical, tongue-in-cheek apology for the grim nature of the story the reader is about to experience:
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. (T)hey were charming, and resourceful … most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery, and despair. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.
This is a pretty bold opening, the reverse-psychological textual equivalent of titling a book Don’t Read This, Or Else! But in amongst the narrator’s warning, we get a promise of pleasant, smart protagonists along with plenty of conflict in the form of their unending misfortunes. The first paragraph promises the reader that Something Will Happen … and if the reader has a taste for schadenfreude, then so much the better.
The book delivers plenty of whimsical misfortune. Snicket’s narrative moves briskly, but not at a breakneck pace, and he successfully relies on his readers being willing to sit down and give his story a chance. This, in turn, should give writers some hope that we don’t need to treat our readers as if they skipped crucial Adderall doses.