In a recent comment, Pete Mack provided an “anti-Bulwer Lytton paragraph” — the first paragraph from a Raymond Chandler noir dectective novel:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
So, sure, let’s pause for a moment and take a look at anti-Bulwer Lytton paragraphs. Rather than taking time right now to go through my own library, I will cheat and link this post: IN SEARCH OF THE FIRST PARAGRAPH, from the Fantasy Author’s Handbook blog. This post provides a nice selection of good opening paragraphs from SFF novels, in the context of discussing what does and doesn’t work well in such a paragraph.
My favorite of their choices — in the category of “beautiful writing that would make me run screaming from this book” — is this one:
My fingers are like spiders drifting over memories in my webbed brain. The husks of the dead gaze up at me, and my teeth sink in and I speak their ghosts. But it’s all mixed up in my head. I can’t separate lines from lines, or people from people. Everything is in this web, Esumi. Even you. Even me. Slowly the meat falls from the bones until only sunken cheeks and empty space between the filaments remind me that a person was there, in my head. The ghosts all fade the same way. They fade together. Your face fades into the face of my husband and the dying screams of my daughter. Esumi, your face is Seth’s face, and the face of the golem.
Aaaah! No way would I read this book, but that sure is beautiful writing.
The post then goes on to attempt to pin down what fails and what succeeds in an opening:
The first paragraph of so many well-intentioned manuscripts begins with the author either lovingly describing the weather or other physical conditions of the setting, or describing in equally loving detail what the hero is wearing. Truly bad attempts managed both a weather report and fashion report in one opening paragraph. …
Where is your character (and for Clarke, English magic was as much a character as Strange or Norrell) at the beginning of your story—not physically, but emotionally? Details may be sprinkled in, but all of these paragraphs are about feelings.
Interesting observation! Over the weekend, maybe I will take a look at some of the books in my library and see if I think their opening paragraphs are about feelings and where the protagonist is emotionally.