back story, Brandon Sanderson, creative writing, fiction authors, Harry Potter, in medias res, Jason deCaires Taylor, Jim Butcher Terry Pratchett, Kim Falconer, Kim Wilkins, Laini Taylor, Maggie Stiefvater, opening line, opening lines, Pamela Briggs, Samy Charnine, setting mood, spells, Stephen King, Steps to publication, Tanith Lee, Ursula K Le Guin, world building, writing, writing fiction
An abridged version of this post appeared on May 16th over at The Supernatural Underground.
Hi Everyone! Next in the Steps to Publication series: the opening line.
Every story begins with a spell, invoked through the opening line. We can expand this to say every chapter, every scene and even every paragraph also begins with a spell.
Why? According the the Harry Potter universe, an opening spell facilitates the passage between two zones, creating an accessible connection. In the case of fiction, the connection is between the reader and writer, a conduit that transports both to a “secondary world” where the story takes place.
Think of the opening spell as the magic that draws the reader in, convincing them to sets aside their ‘real’ world responsibilities and immerse in the pages. Like any good spell, there are a variety of ways to go about it, but realize this inaugural line is rarely written first. Often the first line, paragraph and chapter are edited and revised for days, weeks and months after the story is completed.
Of course, there are exceptions. Stephen King, for example, creates whole stories around the opening line:
Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer‘s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something – Stephen King
To make this opening spell powerful, you have to be willing to give it your all. It might help to identify your approach. Here are four to consider:
- The plunge – shock and awe
- The mood – voice and style
- The compel – it’s irresistible
- The back story – the table setter
Ingredients required for each will vary. I’ll break it down but note all will require a measure of time, imagination, paper and pen or word processor, and of course, solitude.
How ever you create the opening line, it must always whisper: Listen to me . . . Stay with me . . . surrender to me . . .
1) The Plunge
This opening spell is usually dynamic, dangerous and always in medias res. In other words, it starts in the middle of the action, where disaster doesn’t have long to wait.
“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” Maggie Stiefvater, The Scorpio Races
“Sammy’s voice was low, his fingers warmly persuasive. Terri Garey, A match Made in Hell
“I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first.” Pamela Briggs, Moon Called – Mercy Thompson
‘Where’s papa going with that axe?’ E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
“Mother, I’m in love with a robot.” Tanith Lee, The Silver Metal Lover
“Screaming, I slashed and kicked wildly.” Jocelynn Drake, Nightwalker
2) The Mood
These opening spells tend to be more world building. They rely on voice, and the promise of what is to come.
“Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” Brandon Sanderson – Elantris
“Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.” Laini Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone
“By the time the first AIVAS had finished its recital of the first nine years of the colonization of Pern, the sun, Rukbat, has set with an unusually fine display. Anne McCaffrey – All the Werys of Pern
“‘Ark-aawl’ —a hundred voices calling their territory from the treetops. Ly de Angeles – The Quickening
“The wind blew out of the northwest in dry, fierce gusts, sweeping across the face of the Gray Lands.” Helen Low – The Wall of Night
“In the days following the holocaust, which came to be known as the Great White, there was death and madness.” Isobelle Carmody – Obernewtyn
“It is said, in Imardin, that the wind has a soul, and that it wails through the narrow city streets because it is grieved by what it finds there.” Trudi Canavan – The Magicians’ Guild
3) The Compel
This opening spell is often a cross between the Plunge and the Mood. It has elements of both.
“What I have chosen to do is shocking.” Traci Harding – AWOL
“The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” Jim Butcher – Blood Rites: the Dresden Files
“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.” Ursula K. Le Guin – A Wizard of Earthsea
“Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree.” Terry Pratchett – Hogfather
“On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground.” Stephen King – The Shining
On this last one, the author comments:
It sets you in time. It sets you in place. And it recalls the ending of the book. This isn’t grand or elegant — it’s a door-opener . . . There’s nothing “big” here. It’s just one of those grace notes you try to put in there so that the narrative has a feeling of balance, and it helped me find my way in – Stephen King
4) The Back Story
Back story as an opening spell is tricky. Readers want to be in the here and now, diving into what is, not what was. But with the right tone and pace, it can work.
Back story first lines deal with the past in a way that draws the reader in. We must be compelled to ask, “And then what?”
“Eight Months ago, I was attacked in the back alley of my home town and rescued by an uber-hot guy named Chaz.” Amanda Arista – Nine Lives of an Urban Panther
“I cam to London to write and found myself practicing magic instead.” Kim Wilkins – Angel of Ruin/Fallen Angel.
“I never believed in ghost.” Merrie Destefano – Fathom
“In the early 1800’s a man named Amadeo Avogadro hypothesized a number—a baker’s dozen for chemists, but in his equation hid a paradox, one that could alter reality with a single thought.” Kim Falconer – Path of the Stray
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” JRR Tolkien – The Hobbit
Whether the opening begins with fear, shock, surprise, a problem, a question, a character or history, if you keep reading, it has done it’s job.
A few things that may not work as opening spells
Note: There are exceptions!
* Dialog, unless we have a strong sense of who is talking and care.
* Exposition. We don’t want eyes to glaze, ever.
* Superfluous characters or info, because . . . it’s superfluous
* Introducing too many characters, foreign names, places or things we can’t relate to or prnounce.
You’ll find more Steps to Publication HERE!