Contact me at because I'm always up for a natter about anything. Well, mostly.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Classic Openings: Murphy

Welcome to a new occasional segment on Secluded Charm!

It's drummed into every writer that if you haven't got a good beginning you've got no chance. Perhaps that's taking it to the extreme but modern life is all about instant gratification.

As a result I thought it might be useful to analyse some of my favourite openings and have a look at why they worked. Now, of course, these are my favourites and they're probably detested by some other people. It's not really about personal taste, it's more to do with looking at specific tools published authors use. First up: Beckett! (No, don't run away!)

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping, and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.

This paragraph hooks me every time, even when I know how the rest of the novel turns out. That's definitely the sign of an intriguing opening. But let's break it down.

1. The first line displays monotony. Not, for me, the kind of monotony that gets boring in a novel but the kind that reflects real life in a succinct paragraph. All too often you hear of hopeful writers feeling as though they have to depict each moment of a day, perhaps to show character or perhaps for some other reason. Beckett manages to convey Murphy's monotonous existence in this one paragraph - and that's not the sole purpose of the opening either.

2. It conveys setting with a few eye-grabbing points. The idea of 'cages' is prominent, not only providing a template of place that many readers will be familiar with, but also revealing character through the precision of it. Who cares which way the building faces and which way the buildings across thus face? Murphy does.

3. The concept that Murphy sat 'as if he were free' is an intriguing one. All human beings know they're not free in any real sense of the word, but this line gives the impression that something else ties Murphy. It's foreshadowing, which both reflects something literal in the near future and something metaphorical later on.

4. Most importantly, something happens! No story can exist without some form of change occurring, be it internal or external change. In many novels the notion of change is revealed later on... after the character, setting, cat's favourite food etc have been established. In the very first paragraph of Murphy we discover he has to move out as the mew he lives in is going to be condemned. There you go: conflict straight away; change straight away!

*Murphy was first published in 1938 and was Beckett's first novel. It is available here.

No comments: