November 11, 2016 by bradcharlesbeals
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Book beginnings have always fascinated me. Maybe it was the opening of Genesis – In the beginning, God – that first did it. I mean, this writer knows how to begin. No exposition, just the main character in action, and we the audience are compelled to come to the text on the author’s terms, not our own.
People who talk about such things call this authorial control, and it’s a necessary, though too often omitted, element in our mortal and finite story-telling too. Good writing will control the interaction between author and audience. It won’t tell the reader how to feel or what to think. It will present the right actions within the right context such that the reader will arrive at the thoughts and feelings that the writer intends.
It seems a little like coercion, but it’s not. It’s cooperation. The reader knows (at some deep level) that he’s being led through the story, but at some point early on, he has willingly submitted himself to that leading.
Submit? you ask.
Yes. But willingly. The reader agrees to submit to the author’s world. At first, the reader offers to the written word the surface of the mind, and that’s it. Nothing too deep. If the first page doesn’t spook or offend or bore too much, the reader may offer a little more. Or maybe not — it’s such a tenuous thing, committing to a new book.
And so I’m interested in beginnings and in what the very best writers do to get their audience to joyfully submit to their words. Sometimes I find things there that I can mimic, and sometimes the things that contain such power are beyond me. Either way, the exercise has been good for me so far.
Today I’ll look at one of my favorites: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
Here’s page one…
1 The Sound of the Shell
The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat. He was clambering heavily among the creepers and broken trunks when a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another.
“Hi!” it said. “Wait a minute!”
The undergrowth at the side of the scar was shaken and a multitude of raindrops fell pattering.
“Wait a minute,” the voice said. “I got caught up.”
The fair boy stopped and jerked his stockings with an automatic gesture that made the jungle seem for a moment like the Home Counties.
The voice spoke again.
“I can’t hardly move with all these creeper things.”
The owner of the voice came backing out of the undergrowth so that twigs scratched on a greasy wind-breaker. The naked crooks of his knees were plump, caught and scratched by thorns. He bent down, removed the thorns carefully, and turned around. He was shorter than the fair boy and very fat. He came forward, searching out safe lodgments for his feet, and then looked up through thick spectacles.
“Where’s the man with the megaphone?”
The fair boy shook his head.
“This is an island. At least I think it’s an island.”
I mentioned authorial control above, and we find it here. Golding gives us a defined level of exposition — almost nothing — and he sticks with it throughout the book. We know only what the unnamed, 3rd person narrator can see. One fair-haired boy in a school sweater, another boy, a very fat boy in a windbreaker, and this “scar” smashed into the jungle. Not “a scar from a recent plane crash”…just a scar.
The reader now has questions, gaps that want to be filled. Not like a mystery, where a dead body is found and we want to know who done it, but an entire atmosphere, a whole context of gap and question. The whole book is presented to us as a framed image, an intricate portrait toward the center but blurred at the edges.
These blurs and gaps create tension in the reader, a forward pulling tension, and so the reader is compelled to turn to page two.
That’s how Golding does it.