Barnaby Conrad's Best Beginnings

Book Review
Barnaby Conrad (1922-2013)

101 Best Beginnings Ever Written 

Barnaby Conrad
Quill Driver Books, 2009
Softcover, 182 pages with index

After reading this book, I added it to my suggested reading list for students in my memoir-writing classes. I have long advised students to begin their stories with action or something interesting that entices readers to stay. Paying attention to fiction is a great way to learn to write better nonfiction.

A well-drafted opening is a must
Capturing the reader’s attention straight off is the premise of Conrad’s entertaining and practical book, a premise he defends by showcasing beginnings of selected novels and short stories published during the past 300 years. “A well-drafted opening—maybe just the first sentence—immediately tells the editor that he is dealing with a good writer.” The opening does not have to be shocking, startling or amazing, he says, but it does need to tantalize and intrigue the editor, and thus the buying public, to read further. Conrad cautions, though, a great beginning cannot hide a poorly written story.

The subtitle of his book is A Romp Through Literary Openings for Writers and Readers! Romp: to play or frolic in a lively or boisterous manner. Conrad does, thoroughly enjoying his takes on classic and popular literature from a kaleidoscope of authors including Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, Anna Quindlen, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. Conrad’s observations are credible, as he was author of more than thirty fiction and nonfiction books, and “chauffeur-secretary-verbal punching bag, and protégé” of Sinclair Lewis, first Nobel Prize winner from the United States. Beginnings is the middle of Conrad’s Best series. The others are 101 Best Scenes Ever Written (2006) and 101 Best Sex Scenes Ever Written (2011).

Some Conrad gems
Although 101 is in the title, Conrad's examples easily are three times that. Some of his insights:
  • “At last we get to a human being. Dare we hope for a story?” On Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.
  • “As most professional writers urge: ‘Forget the adverb; get the right and vigorous verb!’” On F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.
  • “Z-z-z-z.” On Sebastian Faulkes’s Birdsong.
  • “… readers always empathize with victims of perceived injustice.” On Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
  • “John Grisham knows the importance of beginning fast, and he likes to have the reader believe that his fiction actually happened.” On Grisham’s The Appeal.
  • “Stories aren’t written; they’re rewritten!” On Jack London’s "To Build a Fire," first written in 1902 and rewritten in 1908. 
  • “Readers invest emotion in characters in trouble.” On Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.
Conrad maintains much classic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would not get the attention of today’s editors and publishers because of stilted language and ho-hum starts. His advice for today’s authors: “Get to something happening! Or about to happen! Start closer to the climax! Conflict! Never use exclamations!!!!!!!! (in your fiction, that is!)”

Chapter topics
At least 101 other list makers would disagree with Conrad’s selections of best beginnings. He speaks to the limits of his choices by declaring them to be basic and by suggesting readers visit a library or bookstore and read first pages of novels to discover their own best beginnings.

Conrad categorizes his list into twelve chapters: Characterization, Setting, Setting—Plus Character, Dialogue, Seemingly Factual, Interrogatory (questions), In Medias Res (Latin for starting a story in midpoint), Generalization, Author to Reader, Action, Epistolary (letters), and Emotion.

In chapter thirteen, Conrad fesses up to the existence of “many wonderful beginnings that seem to thumb their nose at being categorized.” In the last chapter, fourteen, you get your money’s worth alone, with rapid-fire entries of more than 200 well-known beginnings from such enduring authors as Tobias Wolff, Pearl S. Buck, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Willa Cather, Zane Grey, and J. R. R. Tolkien. I’m disappointed Conrad doesn’t comment on works of authors in the last chapter and does not list them in the index.

Author, artist, and bullfighter Barnaby Conrad founded the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 1973 that grew into a renowned annual event, drawing famous authors from around the country. He ran the conference with his wife, Mary, until they sold it in 2004. Text and photo courtesy

What best beginnings kept you glued to stories? What are examples of best beginnings you wrote?

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  1. Thanks for pointing us to this book Wayne. Beginnings are a huge challenge. I'm eager to get my eyes on those pages.

  2. Good to hear from you, Sharon. Some of Conrad's selections may be found online by searching >novels great first lines< or similar. I liked his book mostly because of his choices and not his comments, which is why I was disappointed in his last chapter. As for his choices, I wish he had selected a few more contemporaries who have great beginnings, such as James Patterson and Mary Higgins Clark; not necessarily great literature, but great beginnings.

  3. Correction. I meant to write I liked his book mostly because of his comments rather than his choices. I left my brain in the other room.