Fantasy Novel Openings

My current book has flying mounts and floating castles. But how to establish that without losing the reader?
Flying mounts, floating castles, how to establish that in the first chapter?

Novel openings matter. As I reader, I judge a book by the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first scene and the first chapter. If it passes all those bars, it has to really screwup for me to not finish it (which does happen but not too often). From discussions with other writers, workshops and craft books, most writers appear to agree. The beginning is the author’s chance to “close the sale”, get the reader to commit to a purchase.

Speculative fiction like fantasy has a special challenge because the story is not set in an existing, well-known world, or at least it deviates from reality in some way, such as vampires in the bayous. This sets a special challenge for authors of speculative fiction. The reader needs some idea of what the speculative elements are but won’t tolerate a lot of exposition.

In my own experience, this balancing act has caused wild oscillations as I’ve tried to balance disclosure of the world with an engaging story hook. My third attempt at an opening chapter is currently in the critter queue this week (all you critters out there, I’d love your feedback 🙂 ). As I worked on this draft, which is a complete re-write for those who may have seen the earlier version, I’ve tried to mix a small amount of tells to set the stage with an action scene that shows the protagonist doing what he does best, which is flying griffins. I’ve also had Red Circle Ink critique a few intermediate drafts, extremely helpful feedback as always.

As I finished this version of chapter 1, I came across a very useful book by Robert Qualkinbush, How To Improve Your Speculative Fiction Openings,  that really helped clarify why it was proving such a challenge for me. It’s a very short, focused book at 100 pages. I’d call it a bargain at the eBook price of $3 and a bit steep in paper at $10 but well worth a look. After reading it, I did not change my chapter because (I think / hope) I blundered on to his suggestions.Speculative Fiction Openings

What Robert did was analyze over a thousand successful speculative fiction openings to see what worked. Like me, he began this analysis thinking a successful opening must start with a scene. What he found is that roughly 5 out of 6 start with some exposition, some tells to set the scene. There are successful ‘scene’ starts but most often a bit of exposition to set the stage works. This isn’t to say pages and pages of exposition are justified. Sometimes the tell is just a few lines, sometimes it is interspersed with some action, often if it is a bit more than that. This could take the form of a few sentences explaining that the character is in a starship that is under attack with some clues as to the level of technology in the process. Or it could be something bald and straight forward like Tolkien’s opening of the Hobbit where he explains in a few deft sentences what a hobbit is.

Where a scene does seem to work is when it is a passive scene, with a character interpreting something that serves the purpose of establishing the speculative elements.

All of this works much better with examples and Robert provides copious ones, from snippets to multiple pages of opening dissected line by line. This is certainly a narrow, “specialist” work but I think it is well worth the money. If the chapter currently in the queue falls flat, I plan to re-read the book more thoroughly and try again.

My wife, who is also a writer, was wondering if I am focusing too much on the opening. I did spend more than two weeks revising the chapter before moving on to the full draft 2. After the critters feedback, I will probably return to chapter one again. That’s a lot to spend on one chapter but by analyzing my own way of browsing books and what I understand of others’ process, at this point in my writing career the first chapter seems the thing to get right. Fail at the opening and no one will read anything else. Succeed and there’s a good impetuous for the rest of the novel. The rest does matter but, at least as a yet to be published author, almost everything seems to be riding on the opening. Most readers will set a book aside at some point if it fails to sustain interest but after it passes the initial hurdle, readers seem to be a bit more forgiving.

Cover text and artwork can also explain much, of course, but if you can launch your story with just the text, you’ve got that much more of a leg up.

7 thoughts on “Fantasy Novel Openings

  1. I agree. I tend to get glassy-eyed when novels start with telling me a bunch of history/information without introducing any interesting characters or without having anyone do anything at all.

    But even opening scenes can be off. just tried to start reading a novel that starts with a scene, but it still didn’t grab me.Some of it’s because the situation just wasn’t that interesting–hard to see where it was going or why I should care, but some of it was because the writing just wasn’t there (lots of filtering, telling instead of showing and tons of unnecessary “thats,” all the things they tell you not to do in writing 101). I really didn’t “feel” the protagonist’s emotions at all. The writing style felt like very distant omniscient, even though it was in limited third.

    Obviously, it grabbed at least one agent and one editor, not to mention some readers and reviewers (who said nice things about it), so maybe I’m not the best judge of what’s interesting. Hard not be overwhelmed with frustration and despair sometimes when trying to polish my own MS and when I’m vacillating back and forth about whether It’ll be marketable or not. And sometimes stories improve as you go, so I usually try to give a book at least a couple of chapters before tossing it down in disappointment.

    Anyway, I enjoy your blog 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comments! I found the whole first chapter rather challenging and quite a bit frustrating. it’s the sort of thing I can spend many days working on, send it out for critique, have it get hammered and afterwards wonder, why did I even think that was the right way to launch this book?

      But I can’t even sulk about negative feedback for very long these days. It’s just back to trying somemore 🙂

      I did find the book quite useful for gelling a few of my hazily perceived notions on a speculative fiction start.

  2. Hi, Marc. A lot of the speculative fiction I read does not come out and grab you in the first chapter. It has long made me wonder how these authors got away with it when we new writers are constantly smacked over the head–“hook em! hook em! hook em!” My theory is that a lot of these writers are more old school when hooks were not as important, but they are now established and people will buy their stuff regardless. Not always the case, I know, but its a thought.

    For me, this is where reading in other genres help a lot. For instance–the thriller. They grab you at the beginning and don’t let go. I remember vividly The Da Vinci Code’s opening scene. A museum curator is trying to gt away from someone who is trying to kill him. Wow. Even that sentence is enough to get your attention. There’s something we can learn from that.

    Thanks for the post and again thanks for the read of your first chapter! Go Marc! Go!

    1. THanks for dropping by, Dan!

      You put your finger on an interesting problem, something my kids cleverly put as “But *he* did it!” or more usually “But heeeeeeeeee did it!” You can find examples of all sorts of ‘sins’ in novels by successful authors, and sometimes first time authors. What does this mean? I don’t think it is carte blanche to follow their lead. They may simply have been very lucky, or more likely, while they violated one “rule” there was something else about their writing that really grabbed readers.

      You can find a number of “rule violations” in the Harry Potter series and ROwling is faulted for a host of sins by other (jealous) writters but in the end, she connects with a large number of readers so best to try to figure out what worked for her and consider that and ignore the rough edges. As for openings, you are quite correct that there are plenty of examples that violate a lot of guidelines but first off, there’s no reason to make things harder for us as a writer, and second, I personally don’t read fiction that does grab in early on so I really don’t want to write it. That’s not to say I don’t, desire and capability are not the same 🙂

  3. Anyone with clout can do what they want, so we can never take a cue from that. It’s the newbies we can learn from, but I agree that lots of great books don’t get my attention right off. A great opening is something to aim for but not kill yourself over I think.

    If you self-publish, you don’t have to worry about what agents/publishers think anymore. Sometimes their advice and viewpoint is suspect

    1. True on the successful authors but that might actually undercut your thought on ignoring agents/publishers: you can tell when some writers became so successful they could ignore the editors and it wasn’t really a good thing. I find Stephen King’s earlier, more concise books a lot better than his latter, bloated books. There’s nothing in Tommyknockers, for instance, that couldn’t have been done in half the length (although that book had other problems as well). Same could be said for the later Harry Potter books. From what I’ve read Rowling felt very rushed to deliver but I wonder if she would have felt quite so rushed if she had taken the same time to deliver half the word count, which generally would have been plenty for the story in each of the books.

      I think, editors and agents do have mostly good advice and one ignores it at ones own peril. Most of the self-pub books I’ve read that start off with an author’s note extolling the virtues of not have to satisfy a publisher are also not books I particularly liked. Where those in the business can go wrong is in taking a chance on a new idea. But where they are usually right is on style, length, story development, technique, etc.

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