Fantasy novels that open like this

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Steerpike, Jul 15, 2017.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

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    I am reading Justine, the first of Lawrence Durrell's acclaimed Alexandria Quartet. I quite like how he opens this novel--I like how he gives us setting, mood, the voice of the narrator, and of course questions, questions, questions! I particularly like the last two lines.

    There is no action to it. I like it for similar reasons that I like the opening to the Gormenghast books, I suppose. SF/F I've read recently open either with action, or with some quite overt hook--some phrase in the first sentence or two that is meant to leap out and engage the reader. I'm curious whether there is any current (say last decade or so) fantasy that starts more like this. If none come to mind, could you open an SF/F novel this way. Would an agent or editor take it? Justine opens thusly:

    The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes...

    I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child--Melissa's child. I do not know why I use the word "escape." The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to rebuild. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way....

    At night when the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in its wooden cot by the echoing chimney-piece I light a lamp and limp about, thinking of my friends--of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora--precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!

    I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all! Living on this bare promontory, snatched every night from darkness by Arcturus, far from the lime-laden dust of those summer afternoons. I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.
     
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  2. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Dark Lord

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    The "escape" to rebuild with Melissa's child is the action hook laced with questons, even if it's in the past. And as you note, questions, questions, questions. So, yes, I think a fantasy novel which opens like this would get a fair shot just like any other. Fantasy is such a broad category, after all.
     
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  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

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    Probably true. I wonder whether it would be harder, particularly among the big publishers. I'm still trying to think of a novel that opens in this style that is fairly recent. Maybe The Last Werewolf. Someone has my copy so I can't check it. I'll look online.

    EDIT: Nope. The Last Werewolf has a fairly standard modern-style opening.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2017
  4. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Dark Lord

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    I haven't been reading much fantasy, more thriller of late, and most fantasy I've read has been older. I think you'd have to look more toward a "literary" fantasy? Again, such a broad field.

    Let's see... Hobb's Fool's Assassin opens pretty tame, particularly chapter one, discussing how the horse's are doing. The prologue is a little more hooky? Maybe? They are framed entirely different, but they aren't much more hook-like than escaping with with someone's child to rebuild a life. I'm sure it's doable, but everything is always difficult in the modern market.

     
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  5. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

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    So, by "like this" do you mean with a framing device featuring a main character reminiscing about the past? Or do you just mean with no physical action occurring on the first page?
     
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  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

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    No...more than both of those. This type of opening has a certain weight and substance. It is a tone, a reflectiveness in the work, and an overall character that tells me this will be a work of substance, not a light read (and I have nothing against light reads; I read them all the time. Sometimes I want a book that digs deeper). It's not the author tossing me straight into a modern hook (or what I see commonly as a modern hook--either action, or an opening sentence like "I would find out later that I was already dead" or something provocative like that intended to snag the reader.

    Does that make more sense?
     
  7. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    There is an obvious hook, like dem says, with the "escape to the island" and "coming here to heal"... raises many questions about what happened, where all his friends ended up, and how things will go on this sick island. Remember, a "hook" is not action, it is a question.

    I also haven't been reading much Fantasy of late, mostly literary fiction, so opening with a question is common in the books I read. However, I did pick up two books by Guy Gavriel Kay to read on my camping trip next week, River of Stars and Tigana, ant both start this way. Setting the scene. Establishing the mileu. Raising questions in the reader's mind.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2017
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

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    Yes, there are multiple hooks. The escape, the child, the limp, everything about the friends and the city.

    Been a long time since I read Tigana. I have a River of Stars in my to-read stack.
     
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  9. FifthView

    FifthView Dark Lord

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    Well it's weighted with a narrator who is full of experience, has the capacity for reflection and meditation upon the past, and suggests a full past that must have come before for this to be possible.

    Edit: I also think that this shows a narrator able to look in multiple directions at once, take the whole thing in. Look where the focus seems holistic. The narrator's not looking only at the past in these paragraphs.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2017
  10. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    I prefer Durrell's poetic prose (it in and of itself is captivating), but here's a 2016 Nebula finalist's opening, from Mishell Baker's Borderline. You'll note there's not much action, if any, but plenty of hooks.

    It was midmorning on a Monday when magic walked into my life wearing a beige Ann Taylor suit and sensible flats. At the time I had more money than sense, and so I had been languishing at the Leishman Psychiatric Center in Silver Lake for just over six months.

    The Center had a rigid routine, and there was a perverse comfort in knowing what misery of boredom to expect and when. Breakfast: grayish sausage, carbohydrate mush, and the kind of eggs that are poured from a carton, all eaten with plastic utensils. Physical therapy: a rotating assortment of blue shirted people who urgently pressured me to feel happy about accomplishing things a three-year-old could do. Patio break: a chain-link enclosed concrete yard where everyone else flocked to light up coffin nails and trade confessions. Knowing they'd all be gone in three to fourteen days and wouldn't stay in touch, I elected to sit in the fluorescent-lit common room and run reel after reel of movies in my head.
     
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  11. This is a good beginning and it has a hook even though there isn't any action. It makes me ask questions: why did the narrator have to escape, and why is Melissa's child with them? What does the narrator mean when they say they came to heal? Why is the narrator limping? Who are the narrator's friends? Why is the city described in such a way?

    All these questions make me want to read more. They all say, "There is a story here. I am telling you a story," The human heart instinctively listens when it senses this.
     
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  12. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    T.Allan.Smith - Yep, I find all the Nubela winners, and any fantasy published in online publications for that matter, tend to have this literary quality to them. You don't see too many pure "fantasy adventure" style stories up for those sorts of awards.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2017
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  13. Aurora

    Aurora Mystagogue

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    Lovely beginning! And there is a hook, yes, the children of the city must pay the price. This passage brings hope into my day and the chance of a trip to the library. I've pretty much given up on modern fantasy, which sucks because it's my favorite genre. I've been reading a lot of historical women's fiction of all things because it's more mood setting.

    I'm not one for fancy prose. What I want is story. Right away. This opening has story and mood and setting in a few paragraphs. It's nice.
     
  14. CF WELBURN

    CF WELBURN Apprentice

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    River of Stars is fantastic! Just finished it. You've probably read Under Heaven, if not I'd recommend doing so first. It's not essential, but it does add a certain weight and poignancy to River.

    ... oh and the extract, yes hooks galore and I love me a bit of prose... Some may find it flowery; for me it adds a whole new dimension to the reading experience. Layers to the story.
     
    Last edited: Aug 22, 2017
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  15. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Grandmaster

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    Here are the beginning paragraphs of "The Queen's Poisoner," by Jeff Wheeler, published by 47North (i.e., Amazon). As I type this, it's #209 paid in kindle store, #1 in Books > Teens > Literature & Fiction > Action & Adventure > Fantasy.

    There's not much action here in these opening paragraphs, other than the mention of something that happened the day before, down in the last paragraph of the extract. But there is the "patch of white hair", the "mark," which to me seems rather cliché, and maybe that would preclude it from having a "certain weight and substance."

    Lady Eleanor sat at the window seat of her chambers, gently stroking her son's head in her lap. Owen was her youngest child, the one who had barely survived his birth. He was a frail lad of eight, though he looked younger than that. His hair was a mousy-brown color, thick and untameable despite all their efforts, and she loved gliding her fingers through it. There was a little patch of white hair above his left ear. His siblings always asked her why he had been born with such a strange patch of white in his dark hair.

    It was a mark that set him apart from his siblings. She considered it a reminder of the miracle that happened after his birth.

    Owen stared up at her eyes with his deep brown ones, seeming to know she was fretting and in need of comfort. He was an affectionate child, always the first to come running into her arms. As a babe, he would murmur his parents' endearments while clutching their legs or hugging them. Maman, Papan. Maman, Papan. Maman, Papan. He had loved more than anything else to burrow into the sheets of his parents' bed after they had awoken for the day, stealing the ebbing warmth. He stopped doing that finally at age six, but he had not outgrown the hugs and kisses, and he always wanted to be near, especially to her husband, Lord Kiskaddon.

    Thoughts of her husband made her stomach churn with worry. Eleanor glanced out the window overlooking the well-sculpted gardens of Tatton Hall. But she found no comfort in the trimmed hedges, the vibrant terraced lawns, or the large foaming fountains. A battle had raged the day before, and she still awaited word on the outcome.
     
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  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox Staff Moderator

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    I rarely judge a book by its first couple of paragraphs, unless those paragraphs are exceptionally bad. My measuring tape runs more to the length of the first couple of chapters.
     
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

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    As a practical matter, I tend to fall more into the "page or two" camp, since that's about all the time I'll spend on a book when I'm in the store and deciding whether to buy it. If I already have the book, I'll give it a couple chapters or so to see where it is heading.
     
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

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    Thanks. I have read Under Heaven. I liked that one quite a lot.
     
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Staff Moderator

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    I'd probably put this back on the shelf if I picked it up in the store. It's not that there isn't much happening in terms of action--I'm fine with that--but rather that the prose strikes me as flat and generic. The Durrell excerpt I posted has a lot of individual character. The same would be true of a writer like Peake. The writing interests me in and of itself, as well as the questions raised. if you're writing in a more or less generic style, you've got to open with a pretty good hook to keep my attention.
     
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  20. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Dark Lord

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    Steer, I've been thinking about this and I think what you're trying to describe may come down to writing that knows how to take advantage of the things that words can do that images can't.

    In most modern writing it seems like the writers are just describing a movie running in their heads. You can almost call out all the camera shots and see the camera panning across the room as the writer describes it. This cinematic writing style is fine so far as it goes. But it feels like the writer is only writing because it's easier than making movies. It doesn't seem to be aware at all that there are things you can't convey with images, or story telling that is better suited to words.

    The opening you posted takes advantage of the ability of words to convey what is going on inside a character's head. You can't really do that with images. You can suggest in general terms what a character is thinking about but you can't really get inside there. The only thing that comes close is the use of a voiceover, which is just slapping the words over the image rather than actually using the image itself in the telling. And a lot of the time it just comes across as cheesy. This is one of the reasons people thought Dune couldn't be filmed. Because Herbert spends SO MUCH time in the character's heads. And though it was eventually filmed, it was a much poorer version of the story, without all the nuanced internal monologue that happens in the book. It pretty much lost all of the thematic significance that Herbert worked so hard to achieve.

    Words can help us explore characters, settings, events and themes in a way images can only suggest. I think the greatest writers understand this and use it to their advantage.
     
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