The classes I'm scheduled to teach this fall semester include a Craft of Fiction course, and as I was going over the reading list that I sent in to the bookstore this past March, I realized yesterday that I wanted to change one of the books on the list to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2013 novel Americanah. It's a novel I've been intending to read since its publication, but until now, I've let other books (and student papers) intervene. A few days ago, I started reading it in the hallway, right next to the bookcase where it was waiting to be picked up. The sinuous opening sentence and the lushness of detail in Adichie's first paragraph instantly seduced me:
"Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage."
One long, meandering, detail-drenched sentence followed by three short but nonetheless specific ones, even with the abstractions of "neglect" and "history" used to modify two cities known, like New Haven, in part for their Ivy League universities.
How do you teach something like this? I wondered, doubting that Adichie herself was specifically taught how to write such an arresting opening to her award-winning novel.
Nonetheless, there are instructive ways to look at openings—thirteen ways or more, for sure. When I put together a lesson on story openings for an introductory creative writing course a few years ago, I drew material from an excellent fiction-writing craft book by novelist Alice LaPlante, Method and Madness: The Making of a Story. In this text, LaPlante enumerates the narrative elements that a writer should think about when beginning a story: the first few paragraphs offer the reader a glimpse of the story's who, what, where, and when. Exceptions can of course be made, but I think these questions can be helpful for a writer to consider when beginning to build the world in which the story takes place.
In Americanah's opening paragraphs, Adichie gives us the who: Ifemelu; the where: Princeton; the when: the summer; and at the end of that first paragraph, the what: "She liked
that in this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else, someone specially admitted into a hallowed American club, someone adorned with certainty." The novel's plot hinges on themes of race and identity, and here Adichie hints at their integral importance to her story's narrative arc.
The next paragraph begins with a counterpoint; the author reveals, without preamble, a specific source of the novel's dramatic tension: "But she did not like that she had to go to Trenton to braid her hair. It was unreasonable to expect a braiding salon in Princeton
and yet as she waited at Princeton Junction station for the train
she wondered why there was no place where she could braid her hair."
In sum, an engaging story opening is frequently immersive—a reader lands directly in a specific setting, and here the author makes a vivid appeal to the senses. Conflict is hinted at, if not directly introduced, as is at least one character who is often the point-of-view character. There are, again, exceptions to this method, but if a writer is unsure how exactly to engage a reader in those first few sentences, the story's who, what, where, and when are helpful elements to consider.