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.
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.
- When is it okay to judge an author Includes some great comments on feedback on her fantasy novel opening