A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slops curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees–willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night track of ‘coons, and with the spread pads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.
So runs the first paragraph of Of Mice and Men breaking the “rules” for starting a novel and yet fulfilling what those rules are supposed to ensure–basically, the hook.
It has no people. It’s pure exposition, just setting. There is no character engaged in solving a problem, and yet it snags as surely as all those excellent techniques.
For one thing, some of the descriptions shimmer with beauty. Not ornateness or self-conscious prettiness, but as the right, the ultimate way to say it. “The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool,” and “willows . . . carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding,” and “sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs.” Also the cataloging of animal tracks in the last sentence—not only just a list of the animals, but in one or two words capturing the essence of each track — “the split-wedge tracks of deer.”
But beautiful description alone is not enough to keep a reader reading, not enough to make me forget the distractions that carry me away from the text.
It’s a cinematic technique, opening with the place, and the passage of time from the water flowing over the sun-dappled sand to the animals coming to drink in the dark. It’s still several hundred more words before the characters arrive, and when they come in, the place will be important.
Maybe the contrasts are what hold the place for conflict until the people arrive. From shallow to deep, from riverbed to mountain heights, from spring willows to detritus from last winter’s floods, from dead leaves to the skittering lizards, from map points to a cast of wildlife, and again from daylight to darkness.
I think the two things together form enough of a promise that conflict (which is the core of a reader’s interest) will follow, and the quality of the writing gives me confidence that I am under the guidance of a master of the craft, so that I’m willing to wait. A less deftly handled first paragraph containing the same information could easily send me off to something else.
Steinbeck. What an opening. What a writer.