Instead of breaking down a scene from a movie, this time we'll break down the opening of a book. (Previously, I've done scenes from City Lights, Citizen Kane, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I've also broken down the opening to Starship Troopers.)
Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is absolutely one of my favorite books. The writing is lyrical and story heart-wrenching and beautiful. Greene's style of writing is such that he always has me gripped, whether it's the beginning of the book or the end. And he shows you so much about the character in his opening lines.
So, here are the first two paragraphs from the book:
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which, to look ahead. I say 'one chooses' with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who - when he has been seriously noted at all - has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, 'Speak to him: he hasn't seen you yet.'
For why should I have spoken to him? If hate is not too large a term to use in relation to any human being, I hated Henry - I hated his wife Sarah too. And he, I suppose, came soon after the events of that evening to hate me: as he surely at times must have hated his wife and that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe. So this is a record of hate far more than of love, and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth, even to the expression of my near-hateWhat does this tell us about the character? In the first sentence, we know that the point of view character is a philosopher, giving us a moment of existentialism. The second paragraph confirms our suspicions that he's a creative; a writer to be specific. Perhaps that's why I responded so well to this story. But he's setting a scene for us about a specific moment, and he uses the device of choosing it as a framework to hang the description. In that second sentence, we learn that moment the writer has chosen is black and wet. That it's January also gives us a temperature. 1946 gives us an era. The rain makes it feel cold, the river of it indicates we're in a frigid deluge.
This second sentence, complex as it might be, also gives us a subject we're looking at. Henry Miles.
The third sentence is one of the most important. "It is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there..." This tells us this scene, this image, this moment, will tie neatly into the events later in the book, even the ending. It dares us to memorize the details because it insists that it will be important because the author is competent at his craft. He's promised us, perhaps egocentrically, that's he's skilled in his technical ability. But even now, three sentences in, there's a somber pall over the words and we know that whatever story is about to unfold is intensely personal to the writer.
Then he tells us he's an atheist, which is also important to the story. We're not sure why this is important to the story, but he's sworn to us that it is. This sentence also sends us on a path. We know that the very hand of a God the character doesn't believe in him is nudging him at the elbow to speak to this man, walking in the freezing rain.
But then in the next paragraph, we're given a kink in the situation. He hates this man he's going to talk to. And this man's wife, Sarah, he hates as well. Why? This is the more immediate underlying question that will drive us to continue reading. But in the very next sentence, we're given even more cause to continue reading: he promises us, the reader, that by the end of the events that spin from this meeting, Henry will hate our protagonist back.
Indeed, we're promised the whole book will deal with this hate, rather than love. But our narrator brings love into it. Is love the cause of the hate? Why else would he bother with the word unless it's nagging him at the back of his mind?
Just as we're left to wonder about the objectivity of our narrator, he assures us that his hate forces him to be objective, and the nice things he says of Henry and Sarah should be taken as proof of that objectivity. Can we trust him? Can Henry? Can this Sarah? We're left to ask: what can possibly transpire next?
There's a lot going on here, but what's one thing we don't have? We don't know what our protagonist looks like, or even what his name is. But do we need these things yet? We're given such a clear picture, and directly through his eyes, that we almost don't want to reflect on his visage. It's almost a full page later that we finally learn that his name is Bendrix, and it's uttered by Henry. It's proof that you don't have to start a story with the name of your character or their physical description as long as you can force us so elegantly into their point of view of one of these arbitrary moments.
This was something Greene taught me. He also taught me a lot about structure and what can constitute a book. He's a master of tying everything together so that the beginning enhances the end and the end enhances the beginning. It's no lie that the writer behind the writer here is a master of his craft and that's why this opening and this whole book is worth examining closer.
I highly recommend reading this book. Finish it. Read the closing passages and then read it again and deconstruct exactly how Greene was playing with you. It's why this book has so much re-readability to me. Get it here.
Another interesting thing to do is to watch the filmed adaptations of the book after you've read it. Both versions make choices to condense the material in fascinating ways and they're both worth your time. The most recent stars Ralph Fiennes, Julianne Moore, and Jason Issacs, among others.
And make no mistake, if you go back and look at my early drafts of The Aeronaut, it was pretty much this. I was a hack. If you want to look at the varying drafts, I just posted three different versions of the opening chapter of that book as a bonus on my Patreon.
As for my writing:
The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Empire of the Sun came out at StarWars.com. And my new Playlist over there is all about Obi-Wan Kenobi.
I had a piece about Thinking Like Thrawn come out for Fantasy Flight Games.
And I did a new Ridiculous History piece for How Stuff Works. This was about 3 times society banned books because they weren't ready for them.
A new episode of Fauxthentic History that I wrote dropped as well. The Invasion of Naboo is the first of a two part episode and you can listen here.
As a reminder: You can join my short story Patreon here.
The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.
Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process.
As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you.