There’s no better way to drive off a potential reader than to frontload a story, or even a novel, with a lot of extraneous material. Paragraphs about the turning leaves, the deteriorating neighborhood, the family’s history — all of these can be lovely, even lyrical, and the details may even be essential to the finished work. But more times than not, putting the critical subject first will keep the reader reading instead of checking the phone.
One of the most powerful ways to introduce the bear is with a zinger one-liner:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
“I am an invisible man.” — Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I don’t know.” The Stranger, Albert Camus
And on a considerable less famous note: “I hated my mother in the summer of 1963, and as I recall, she hated me back.”—The Activist’s Daughter, Ellyn Bache
But more often than not, it takes more than one line to introduce the bear. The opening can be as long as you like so long as it encapsulates the main subject of the story and is potent enough to keep the reader’s attention.
“One night, deep into it, when sounds are prone to carry, a baby boy lies crying on Sara Creamer’s kitchen table. He is minutes old, still wet with his mother’s blood, and hungry for his mother’s milk.
But she does not hear his cries She is no longer there.”
This is the opening of Bren McClain’s critically acclaimed debut novel, “One Good Mama Bone,” about a young woman who takes on the job of raising her husband’s orphaned, illegitimate child. It’s a unique and remarkable story about motherhood, in which a cow (yes — and though it sounds unlikely, it works amazingly well) teaches Sarah how to deal with the daunting tasks of motherhood. Though the cow becomes a powerful mother figure. the critical focus (the “bear,” if you will) is on the young woman who will be thrown into a predicament she can’t escape — something suggested in those first lines.
“At four-thirty on Sunday morning Mag came up from sleep with her heart thumping and sweat pouring from her, the way she’d awakened years ago when her son Izzy was out delivering newspapers and she found him two blocks away lying on the street with a broken ankle. She sat up in bed, wide awake, sick to her stomach. She hated motherly premonitions; she thought she was through with them. Except for Simon the seven boys were grown.” From my novel, Safe Passage, about a family with a son/brother in Beirut when terrorists attack the airport that serves as a Marine headquarters.
“The dog was a tan fice–Cowlicked, thin pointed sticks for legs, a pointed little face with powerful whiskers, one ear flopped and one straight.
He was lying on the back steps of Mattie Rigsbee’s brick ranch one summer Saturday morning when she opened the door to throw out a pan of table scraps for the birds. She placed her foot on the step beside him. She was wearing the leather shoes she’d cut slits in for her corns. The dog didn’t move. Holding the bowl, Mattie stepped on out into the yard and tried to see if it was a him or her so she could decide whether or not it would have been possible to keep it if she were younger and more able. If it insisted on staying she would have to call the dogcatcher because she was too old to look after a dog–with everything else she had to do to keep up the house and yard. She was, after all, seventy-eight, lived alone, and was — as she kept having to explain — slowing down.”
Much more low-key than the other examples, this is the opening of Clyde Edgerton’s comic novel, Walking Across Egypt, about an aging woman who is decidedly not slowing down. There’s detail here, yes, but very much focused on the character of Mattie, still far more vitally interested in life than she imagines — which is the whole point of this very funny book..