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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

contest 1, starting the ball rolling

Since you all are being shy

Let me kick off the contest with three suggestions — and one is so immodest that I am using it less to suggest that is a winner, as to explain my thought process about what an opening sentence and paragraph can and should do. Perhaps that will invite you authors to select some of your own, and to talk us through your decisions in how you started your books.

An American Plague, Jim Murphy: "Saturday, August 3 1793. The sun came up, as it had every day since the end of May, bright, hot, and unrelenting." This leads us into a paragraph that ends, "dead fish and gooey vegetable matter were exposed and rotted, while swarms of insects droned in the heavy, humid air." We get the dateline information right away, and chronology will become a kind of character in this book, in which the momentum of epidemic is driven home by dates; chronology will also give us the ticking clock sense of a race against time. Then look at the last word of that first sentence: "unrelenting" Jim has made weather a force — it is not merely background, it is an actor. We are always warned against giving emotions to nature, but here Jim is not anthropomorphizing, he is characterizing. And that first ominous sentence leads into a paragraph where the "hot, humid air" is suffed with death, rot, and decay. Notice that Jim has done two things — set a tone for the book, just as vividly as any vampire book that begins with the spooky castle, and set up the idea of illness as carried by vapor. We are in the tone of the book, and the mindset of the time, yet entirely within description of what might be seen as pure background. This is a great opening for a nonfiction book.

Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow (adult, favored by my wife, the Henry James fan) "In the early 1850s, few pedestrians strolling past the house on H Street in Washington, near the White House, realized that the ancient widow seated by the window, knitting and arranging flowers, was the last surviving link to the glory days of the early republic. Fifty years earlier, on a rocky, secluded ledge overlooking the Hudson River in Weekawken, New Jersey, Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States, had fired a mortal shot at her husband, Alexander Hamilton…." Notice the misdirection — starting with the widow, 50 years after the death of the subject of the book, we sense that this is a book about someone misunderstood, ignored, passed over. Again, the author uses the opening to establish the atmosphere, the themes, the tone of the book, rather than with a direct statement about his subject — we are entranced, not merely informed.

Immodesty: my book on RFK. "His brother Jack leans back, straight as a board, counterbalancing the wind. Flash II, Jack calls his trim Star Class boat, whose sails billow like the stylish dresses of well-brought up debutantes." The paragraph ends, "the third brother — ten years younger than Joe, and eight that Jack — Bobby, with the name that sounds so girlish, so sweet, Bobby cannot swim." My purpose here is to give the reader the feeling of Bobby being obscured by his shining brothers who live in a world of cotillions; he is hidden within his family from the outset. I could not begin with Bobby, because Bobby, to me, was part of a larger unit that shaped him. To begin with him would give the reader the sense that he had an individual importance, which was totally untrue to him — in fact it was his life challenge to both find his place within the family, and to define his own individual self. I wanted readers to feel that struggle, even before I named it.
So folks, tells us about openings you like, that you created, that caught your eye.


  1. Tricia Stohr-Hunt says:

    Hi Marc,
    I loved this opening from Russell Freedman’s book The Adventures of Marco Polo.
    “As Marco Polo lay dying, friends and relatives gathered anxiously by his bedside and begged him to confess. They pleaded with him to tell the truth, to renounce his exaggerations and lies, so that he might meet his maker with a clear conscience.”

    I read this opening to a group of fifth grade student. I told them where Marco Polo was from and when he lived. Then I asked them what kind of lies he might have told that his family felt were so important to correct. (Beyond playing Marco Polo in the swimming pool, none of these kids had ever heard of him.) We then looked at some historical maps and proceeded with the reading. They were hooked, just as I was when I began this amazing book.

    This will be fun. I’m looking forward to reading the other suggestions.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Tricia: another fine suggestion. And it makes two key points: you can begin anywhere, Sis starts with baby Darwin, Freedman with dying Polo; and Freedman’s book is as much about lies and truth as about MP — which his opening perfectly establishes. You might say Sis’s theme is about seeing, how Darwin observed, recorded, drew, “saw”; so we have two suggestions in which the opening communicates the themes of the books. More?

  3. Betty Carter says:

    I think the opening that has always come to my mind is Loren Eisley’s The Immense Journey. Unfortunately, the book is not where I can put my hands on it at the moment, but in the first paragraph of a book on the beginnings of life, he mentions finding a skull and writes: “We stared at each other a little blankly, the skull and I.” To me that shows that as the reader I’m entering a mystery and that both the past and present have an important part in it — and neither is sure what part the other plays. That sentence alone stopped me, made me think of discovery — that it was serious stuff and up to the revealer as much as the revealed

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    I don’t have my copy at hand, it is at my mother’s along with my other high school faves. But I love the choice. It shows that nonfiction can be personal, without losing a bit of its authority. And note his confidence, his assured tone, that is, at the very same time, unassuming and witty. You know you will enjoy spending time with this man.

  5. Monica Edinger says:

    I love Jennifer Armstrong’s opening to Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. One page titled Just Imagine beginning, “Just imagine yourself in the most hostile place on Earth.” After giving the chilling facts of why the Antarctic is this place she ends with one final curt paragraph. “In 1915, a British crew of twenty-eight men was stranded there, with no ship and no way to contact the outside world. They all survived.” Wham. If that doesn’t make you want to turn the page I don’t know what does!

  6. Monica Edinger says:

    I should add it is the command for the reader to imagine this extraordinarily hostile environment and then turning around and plopping 28 shipwreck into it that makes it such a dramatic opening; one that grabs the reader and makes them want to find out how.

  7. Marc Aronson says:

    Note, in Monica’s example, that we ask the reader to imagine, but this is in no sense fictional. This is a perfect example of engaging the reader’s story-making mind, without taking a single step away from facts. Note, too, that Monica favors immediacy — wham, you are hooked. Betty, Tricia, and Jeannine mention atmospherics, tone, themes, style. See how many different kinds of seduction an author can employ — all while being true to nonfiction.

  8. Loree Burns says:

    From Catherine Thimmesh’s TEAM MOON:

    “It was mind-boggling. The television itself had been a flat-out miracle when it began to dominate the scene a mere twenty years previous. And now, that technological wonder of wonders was going to trump itself. Because very soon, if all went according to plan, it would transmit pictures of an actual man, on the actual moon.”

    I admire this opening because it so easily dragged me out of my modern day ho-hum sensibility–which is to say, back to a time when television is a wonder and landing a man on the moon just a delicious idea. And by including that one niggling phrase “if all goes according to plan”, the author sets up a premise for the entire book: will it work? can we actually land a man on the moon?

  9. Marc Aronson says:

    Yes — one of the big challenges, I am finding out, in writing about relatively recent history is getting kids to realize how different things were in the pre-digital days. And that nice phrase adds the undercurrent of drama.

  10. From Ian Frazier’s FAMILY: The Twentieth Century began on a Tueday.

    You just know this writer has something interesting to say and a unique way to say it.

  11. Sarah Flowers says:

    Here’s one I like, from James Cross Giblin’s The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler: “There are no memorials to Adolf Hitler in Germany, the country he ruled with an iron hand from 1933 to 1945. Nor do visitors flock to his grave, for no one knows where his remains are buried at all. Perhaps his ashes, like his skull, remain locked away in an archive in Russia. Or perhaps they were scattered to the winds years ago at some unknown location in eastern Europe.” It sets the time and place, and also a mood: somewhat scary and troubling, not at all the story of a hero.

  12. Marc Aronson says:

    I like what Sarah says about the mood Jim creates. As noted in my blog today, some of you seem to want an opening to grab you — like the first five minutes of a James Bond movie, others prefer a slowly developing mood, like a movie where you are not quite sure what is going on, but you feel an atmosphere, a tone. The good news is that authors can pick the opening that is appropriate to their book.