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 ūüôā ). 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.

The Synopsis: Nemesis or Unexpected Helper?

If you’re like me, you probably dread the synopsis. How am I supposed to boil down my wonderful, intricate novel into a few short pages? What am I supposed to do with the apparently contradictory feedback, “it’s too long” and “you didn’t tell me enough about X”? Answers to those questions elude me but to my surprise while working on my next project the synopsis went from thing of dread and scorn to a useful tool.

For those looking for thoughts on how to write a synopsis for a query or a¬†contest, this isn’t it. Instead, let’s focus on the beginning of the project when you are staring at a blank sheet of paper, maybe with some thoughts on yellow-stickies (or if you are like me lots of OneNote pages). Where to begin? As an engineer, in years past, I’ve turned to detailed outlines: sketch out the story and story writes itself, right? That’s never really worked well for me. I tended to get lost in the minutiae; outlines can have a lot of detail and sub-clauses. They quickly become hard to keep track of and more-over, are hard to digest for¬†the writer with little hope of getting¬†much feedback from someone else.

So my next step was to focus on the main plot inflections (in the bridge metaphor of a novel, the piers that hold up the suspension wires) and only do a detailed outline to the first pier. Once that is reached, outline to the next pier. This is an effective technique but it has its weaknesses, namely; by not doing much detail around the later inflections/piers, it doesn’t force me to think through the end very well. I find myself getting to the piers sooner than planned and still not getting to the end of the story, meaning that much of the novel remains unplanned.

Now, you may be a pantser (aka “seat-of-the-pants” writer who just starts writing and sees where the story goes) but I’m not and if you aren’t published, I’d suggest you too give a lot more thought to where you are going. (If you are published, hey,¬†it works for you, go for it.) So what to do?

Here’s where the synopsis can be a useful tool. Think of it as a narrative outline. You can use it as a summary of your story for the purpose of hashing out the characters and plot at a manageable¬†level of detail and in a narrative format¬†just like¬†your novel. Nice thing is, since it is being used as a personal tool, you don’t have to worry about the usual restrictions on length, or even making it have a particular zing to it. It’s purpose is to help you define your novel, not sell it to some stranger.

Is a synopsis really any different from an outline? In the broadest sense, no, they both sketch out what the story is about. But in a practical sense, very much so: the outline is cold, mechanical, hard to read, generally harder to modify. Oh it seems to have lots of easily movable bits and pieces but this is a novel and plucking one plot point and moving it somewhere else may rip invisible plot strings. More importantly, an outline isn’t written like a story. There’s no narration, no flow to it.

The synopsis on the other hand may have a lot more summary and exposition than your novel but it at least uses the same basic writing techniques. It flows with equal weight to all parts of the story. That is, it is less prone to what you often find in outlines where there is too much detail in some places and not enough in others. Most importantly, you can share your synopsis with friends for some early feedback and since it is written more like a story, you are much more likely to get some useful feedback than with an outline. You may go through many synopsis drafts but that is just a 3-6 page re-write, small effort for a novel writer.

When you have a synopsis you like, you will probably find that each paragraph in the synopsis maps naturally to a chapter, making a perfect guide as you go. I can’t do it but for those folks who can write chapters out of order, this can be a big help. Whether you maintain a current synopsis as the work progress or let it get out of date is your call.¬†Once the novel gets going you may not need the tool anymore.

Finally, as an added bonus, if you start the project with a synopsis, when it comes time to actually write one for a query, you have quite the head start. You probably can’t use your original synopsis anymore but by already summarizing the novel and using that as a guide while writing, the synopsis-for-query becomes much easier to write.

So, don’t fear the synopsis. Conquer it by making it a valuable writing tool.