What is an Incipit?
All works that take place in time have a beginning and an end. That beginning is called the Incipit. It can be that of a song, of a poem or, as in this case, of a book. The beginning of a story is very important in the modern era.
In ancient times Incipits were simply fixed phrases that were put on the first few pages. Now that the ‘oh Musa’ of the Greeks has become obsolete we focus much more on those few lines. And it is very important to know how to use them.
Many readers (we are all guilty of this) rely on the cover before buying a book. And if the cover test passes, you open it gently and direct your eyes to the first sentence.
Does it appeal to you or does it sound boring? The quick question that runs through the reader’s head, the answer will be crucial. Does it sound interesting? Fine, I’ll take him home with me and give him a chance to make me fall in love with him.
It doesn’t inspire me? Too bad, I will put him down immediately and my eyes will no longer linger on him.
I may sound overly melodramatic but that is how it is, there are books that go down in history and books that remain untouched in a corner. And it all depends on the readers who decide to give them a chance or not.
I will now show you the incipits of some of the most beloved books, by many different generations.
“All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.“
Reading this extract carefully, what is it that attracts an outsider to the story? “All children, except one”? What does that even mean “except one”, who doesn’t grow up and why? The thing that jumps out at you is the pleasant irony of the book, ‘You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”
This Incipit, like all the others I will show you, immediately demonstrates the author’s very good writing. You can tell that whatever it is about, it will be told by an expert hand.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. “It’s so dreadful being poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy.
“We’ve got Father and Mother and each other,” whispered Beth, contentedly, from her corner. The four young faces brightened at Beth’s words. But then Jo reminded them sadly, “We don’t have Father. And we won’t for a long time.”
Each girl added silently, “And perhaps we won’t ever again.” For their father was far from home, fighting in a dangerous war.“
Rereading the beginning of this classic brings a smile. You find yourself in the room with four little girls who are sad because Christmas will not be the same without presents, and especially without their father. This Incipit immediately makes you wonder, why won’t these little girls receive any presents, if they apparently did before? What war is their father fighting?
It immediately gets you into the childish mind, simple and clear words that simply show you humble little girls who love their parents. The greatest virtue of this beginning is that you don’t feel like you are being told the story, you simply turn the page and BOOM you find yourself in a living room in the middle of a conversation.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith,
his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly
through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a
swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured 5
poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an
enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a
heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week.
The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way.
On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures 15 which are designed to that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.“
This beginning goes straight to the point, it wants to show you right away the seedy place where we find our protagonist, who is not very fit either. There is stench, no electricity in the middle of the afternoon and something called ‘Hate week’. There are a lot of stairs to climb and Winston struggles with a pesky varicose ulcer. The biggest questions that arise in a reader are, ‘What is the Hate week? And who is being hated? But above all, why does this poster constantly appear with someone saying they are staring at you? Who would put them up? This Incipit is very appealing, it wants you to wonder who Winston is and what kind of place he is in.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
“The studio was filled with the rich odor of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pinkflowering thorn. From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as usual, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey sweet and honey-colored blossoms of the laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flame-like as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid jade-faced painters who, in an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion.“
The main thing that is shown in this Incipit is the wonderful descriptive skill. The environment is described so well that, even with your eyes closed, you can see it building around you. Our Henry, who seems like an artist of some kind, is very detail-oriented, feels surrounded by beauty and wants us to feel the same. The writing is very sophisticated, the words gently caress the bright environment in which Henry finds himself. The reader has no desire to put the book down.
Pride and prejudice
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?” Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
This was invitation enough.“
This Incipit is very light, thus provoking a pleasant laugh. We find ourselves spying on a conversation between husband and wife, or rather between wife and a husband who has nowhere else to go. Mrs Benner absolutely wants to tell the good news and we all listen to her. Besides making you laugh, this Incipit makes you start the story quietly without hurrying. And it makes you wonder, Will this rich, single man really fall in love with one of the daughters? And how will it happen?
The ultimate hitchhiker’s guide
“The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means—it was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.
The only person for whom the house was in any way special was Arthur Dent, and that was only because it happened to be the one he lived in. He had lived in it for about three years, ever since he had moved out of London because it made him nervous and irritable. He was about thirty as well, tall, dark-haired and never quite at ease with himself. The thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about. He worked in local radio which he always used to tell his friends was a lot more interesting than they probably thought. It was, too—most of his friends worked in advertising.“
This Incipit is very original because it does not start with a speech, or with a description of the place where the protagonist is. The sentence immediately mentions a house, what is so special about it? It doesn’t look like much, but apparently it is the home of our protagonist. A protagonist who is easily irritated, his face always irritated and who tries to make it clear that his work is more interesting than how they make it sound. What’s so special about this Arthur? He has a normal job and a mediocre house, why do we focus on him? We will only find out as we read on.
If your problem is not writing the beginning but actually starting to write your book, read this article to solve the problem and put your story on paper (or screen).https://iinkonscreen.com/how-to-stop-procrastinating-your-book-task/
Read these Incipits carefully and go and re-read those of your favourite books, what is it that convinced you to read them? Take inspiration and allow yourself to be taught by the writers before you, that is how you improve.