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Monday, 14 June 2010

Classic Openings: To Kill A Mockingbird

This is one of the novels of the 20th Century, for both Americans and readers elsewhere. To Kill A Mockingbird celebrates fifty years of being in print this year and the Pulitzer Prize Winner remains Harper Lee's only novel. It's a legendary piece of fiction and the magic starts right from the off.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood walked, the back of his hand was at right-angles to this body, this thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading up to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

The beginning of a fantastic story! But what makes these first paragraphs so good?

1. The best authors set the scene without seeming to do so. Lee feeds the reader information about what's to come but not patronisingly. We discover that the as-yet unnamed narrator has a brother named Jem and that he's mad about football. Other names are thrown in - the Ewells, Dill, Boo Radley - created a lush universe full of characters right from the off.

2. The narrator settles quickly. What I mean by that is there's no need for either the author or the reader to pause to get a feel for the voice. It's a simple voice that is easy to slip into. It's not unnecessarily flamboyant and it doesn't jar. A narration that flows well is gift to a reader.

3. It prophesies. Almost everything in this short extract points to the future. Intrigue is immediately garnered by the mentions of Boo Radley and Jem's arm. The reader may not care about the characters yet but there is at least a glimmer of intrigue to keep them reading.

4. It utilises description without overdoing it. Lee is a skilled writer and she uses that in the opening section to great effect in describing Jem's arm injury. It's enough to make the reader shudder at the thought of the injury then smile at Jem's reaction to it. It builds character, as I said before, and that has to be a primary goal of any opening. If you don't build up character swiftly the reader will want to know why they should care about whatever's happening to your characters.

To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960. It is available to buy here.

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