Today’s gospel is the Prologue from the Gospel of John (1:1-18). The words are familiar and are the gospel for Christmas Mass during the Day. When musing about what to write, I kept coming back to opening lines of books or first chapters that made me want to read the rest. For me the most memorable comes from Norman Maclean and his masterpiece A River Runs Through It:
“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.”
I was hooked. I had no idea where the book was going, but I knew I had to read the story.
Every story needs a beginning that engages the reader. The first chapter might well be the one that “makes or breaks” readership for the remainder of your book. It sets the tone, tells the reader about the manner in which you will write, and might well be the go/no-go for the second chapter. When you search online for the critical elements of the first chapter of modern writing, the list vary, but here is one that I think is succinct and on-point:
- A great opening paragraph
- A compelling character
- An authentic sense of place
- A strong voice
- A well chosen starting point
- A burgeoning conflict
- A hook for your intended readership
I think that Maclean’s opening achieves its goal and covers all the key points of the above list. But that is a modern writer’s guide. What about ancient writings? Moran Hooker explains this function: “It was customary for the Greek dramatist to introduce the theme of his play in a ‘prologue,’ which provided members of his audience with the vital information that would enable them to comprehend the plot, and to understand the unseen forces – the desires and plans of the gods – which were at work in the story” (Hooker, 186). The opening of the Prologue explains the desires and plans of God.
“From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only-begotten Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.” (John 1:17-18)
The prologue, in this sense, prescribes our comprehension of the plot and explains the behind-the-scene activities of God. What is explained is the “unseen forces” that are at work in and around the real events described by the narrative. The prologue is guiding the reader to see the invisible (God) in the visible (historical persons and events). The prologue of John functions as the cornerstone for the entire gospel, the lens through which the gospel must be read.
But I am also of the mind that the Prologue would satisfy a modern author’s guideline
- A great opening paragraph: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
- A compelling character: “He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be”
- An authentic sense of place: “A man named John was sent from God.”
- A strong voice: “[John]came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him”
- A well chosen starting point: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”
- A burgeoning conflict: “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” and “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.”
- A hook for your intended readership: “ and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth.”
I was hooked. I had a sense of where the book was going, but I knew I had to read the whole story.
Such are my musings on the Prologue of the Gospel of John
Morna Hooker: “Beginnings and Endings,” in The Written Gospel, ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Donald A. Hagner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)