Story Openings–Part 4: Case Studies

From Scott:

We’ve had a few blog entries (including our excellent guest blogger, Robert Vardeman) about what a strong opening needs to have to capture the reader’s attention. Character. Setting. Conflict. Hook. Put all four of them in the opening paragraphs of your book and there’s a strong chance the reader won’t be able to put the book down. Or, in the case of indie ebook publishing, when someone downloads the free sample chapters, the chances of you making a sale will be much better. This is great in theory, but how about in practice? Let’s look at the openings of a few published novels and see if they meet the criteria.

Since I’m likely to criticize the works of fellow authors, it’s only fair that I start by tearing apart one of my own. My first novel, The Killing Frost, is a study in how not to write a strong opening. This is a science fiction novel that takes place in ships and on multiple planets, so the setting would constantly change and therefore be harder to narrow down. But let’s take a look:

Arano Lakeland moved stealthily along the wooded bluff near his home, picking his way through the darkness. Although it was a moonless night, he moved with confidence through the tree-covered landscape. Some of his colleagues thought it odd that he would keep coming back to his homeworld on these short breaks from work, but this forest paradise was his greatest love. Untouched by the wars and petty bickering of the outlying systems, his home here helped him to escape from the harsh realities he had to face every day.

He wore his usual hunting garb: loose-fitting, camouflage-patterned clothing that would allow him to move without being seen by the object of his hunt. Arano was in excellent shape, his body kept lean and fit by decades of hard physical training. Small scars were scattered across his body, memoirs from battles long since forgotten. While he was still a young man by most standards, the experiences he had been through had removed all traces of youth from his countenance and left behind a serious face, the eyes stubbornly trying to hide his emotions.

His breath steamed in the cool autumn morning air and the frozen grass crunched underfoot without a whisper of sound. He stopped for a moment to consider his surroundings.

He laid aside his hand-carved longbow, the only weapon he ever used for hunting, and he knelt to the ground to feel the icy layer of frost beneath him. He sniffed at the air and nodded in satisfaction. The killing frost had come. His quarry would be safe to eat. Now, the hunt could truly begin.

He shouldered his longbow and continued along his chosen path for the better part of an hour. He finally arrived at his hunting grounds, sat on a frozen tree stump, put his back up against an outcropping of rock, and waited. He knew that should he keep moving, the super-sensitive ears of his prey would pick up his movements, despite his uncanny ability to move silently. He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his close-cropped brown hair before pulling the hat firmly back into place.

Character: I met this criteria. We know the POV character will be Arano Lakeland. We know he’s a hunter, and we’re given a fair description of his appearance. The next few paragraphs (in an information dump) tell us a little about his personality. I’d say I have this one covered, barely.

Setting: As I said, this book takes place in multiple areas. But I did describe the setting where we meet our POV character, right down to the fact that it is apparently late fall. I met this criteria, as far as it could be done.

Conflict and hook: Not yet. In the next few pages, I prattle on about shortcomings and corruption in the interplanetary government. This eventually becomes central to the plot, but not soon enough to really create the tension we need to hold onto a reader. At the end of this scene, we learn that he is being recalled to the government’s homeworld because of another victim of an active serial killer. Again, this may be interesting, but I failed to set the hook. Eventually, by the middle of the second chapter, I drop a hint that there is a war looming. But by then, it’s too late.

David Eddings is the bestselling author of The Belgariad, a 5-book series. The first book, Pawn Of Prophecy, starts with a prologue that goes into ancient history in the world he has created. The prologue does introduce a couple of characters (from eons before) who figure prominently, and it hints at the coming conflict. Skipping that prologue, let’s look at his opening:

The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.

The kitchen at Faldor’s farm was a low-beamed room filled with ovens and kettles and great spits that turned slowly in cavernlike arched fireplaces. There were long, heavy worktables where bread was kneaded into loaves and chickens were cut up and carrots and celery were diced with crisp, quick rocking movements of long, curved knives. When Garion was very small, he played under those tables and soon learned to keep his fingers and toes out from under the feet of the kitchen helpers who worked around them. And sometimes in the late afternoon when he grew tired, he would lie in a corner and stare into one of the flickering fires that gleamed and reflected back from the hundred polished pots and knives and long-handled spoons that hung from pegs along the whitewashed walls and, all bemused, he would drift off into sleep in perfect peace and harmony with all the world around him.

The center of the kitchen and everything that happened there was Aunt Pol. She seemed somehow able to be everywhere at once. The finishing touch that plumped a goose in its roasting pan or deftly shaped a rising loaf or garnished a smoking ham fresh from the oven was all hers.

The next twenty or so pages continue in this manner. Let’s take a look at the strong opening criteria for this excerpt:

Character: Garion is established as the main character. The problem: he is introduced as a very young boy. Nothing happens to advance the plot until he is 14 (a few chapters later). This presents a couple of problems. First, the POV character’s personality would (or at least should) be quite different by the time the plot moves forward, so giving us information about him as a small child is useless. Second, a strong opening begins at the time of change, when the POV character begins to come under pressure. I looked through the first sixty pages, and he was still safe and sound at Faldor’s farm.

Setting: Eddings definitely knows how to set a scene. He paints a picture of Faldor’s farm, such that the reader could just about draw a map of the grounds.

Conflict and hook: Nothing. Granted, the prologue is intriguing, and promises a spectacular story involving magic, gods, and heroes. But the story fails to deliver in a timely fashion. Not a strong opening!

Let’s take a look at another. This one, Cenotaph Road, was written by Robert Vardeman, and is the first of a six-book series.

Silence fell over the crowd in the Dancing Serpent as the six grey-clad soldiers marched into the room. Their boot heels hit the wooden planking with an ominous rhythm, a rhythm that spoke of doom and destruction and misery. The six arrogantly studied those in the smoky barroom, saying nothing. The tension rose until a man taller than the six strode into the room, his broad shoulders brushing the doorjambs as he entered.

“Drinks for all!” the man called out in a loud, booming voice. The bartender sighed and began putting the heavy glass bottles of potent liquor onto the bar. The others in the room relaxed, and soon nervous laughter echoed through the once-noisy establishment. The grey-clad soldiers were not here to kill. Not this time.

In the corner of the room at a small table, a low conversation went on, neither participant taking much notice of the intrusion by the soldiers. Dar-elLan-Martak gestured in despair, his palms open and imploring.

The next paragraphs, through a conversation with the woman at Lan Martak’s table, establish the character’s personality. He is an honorable man who is good with a sword. Let’s evaluate this one.

Character: In the interest of space on this blog, I cut the entry short, but Vardeman gives the reader a great idea of Lan’s character. Vardeman doesn’t give this information by telling us, he shows us, through a cleverly wrought conversation. Nice work.

Setting: We know this is a medieval fantasy. The opening scene is in a town, inside a tavern. And in this world, grey-clad soldiers are to be feared. He didn’t have to come out and say it. The reaction of the crowd gave us all the information we needed.

Conflict and hook: We know this world has a problem: the grey-clad soldiers are bullies, and everyone fears them. Well, almost everyone. Lan’s lack of a reaction to the soldiers tells us more about him. And in the next few paragraphs, we see Lan’s dilemma. It quickly builds into a life-threatening situation, and he is forced to flee. I can’t imagine not wanting to read more. Very strong opening.

The next opening I’ll examine is The Third Option by Vince Flynn. For those few who haven’t heard of him, Vince was rejected by every major publishing house in New York. He self-published and self-marketed his first book, which became a hit in Minneapolis. Pocket Books picked him up, and now every book he writes is an instant bestseller.

Through the darkness the man moved from tree to tree, working his way toward the large house. The nineteenth-century estate, forty miles south of Hamburg, Germany, spanned one hundred and twelve acres of beautiful rolling forest and farmland and was designed after the Grand Trianon at Versailles in France. It had been commissioned by Heinrich Hagenmiller in 1872 to win further favor with William I of Prussia, the newly crowned German emperor. Portions of it had been sold off over the years as it became too expensive to maintain so much land.

The man walking silently through the woods had already studied hundreds of photographs of the property and its owner. Some of the photos were snapped from satellites orbiting the earth thousands of miles up, but most were taken by the surveillance team that had been in place for the last week.

The assassin had arrived from America only this afternoon and wanted to see with his own eyes what he was up against. Photographs were a good start, but they were no substitute for being there in person. The collar of his black leather jacket was flipped up around his neck to ward off the bite of the cold fall evening. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees since sunset.

For the second time since leaving the cottage, he stopped dead in his tracks and listened. He thought he had heard something behind him. The narrow path he trod was covered with a fresh bed of golden pine needles. It was a very cloudy night, and with the thick canopy above, very little light reached the place where he stood. He moved to the path’s edge and slowly looked back. Without his night vision scope, he could see no more than ten feet.

Mitch Rapp had been trying not to use the scope. He wanted to make sure he could find his way down the path without it, but something was telling him he wasn’t alone. Rapp extracted a 9-mm Glock from his pocket and quietly screwed a suppressor onto the end of it. Then he grabbed a four-inch tubular pocket scope, flipped the operating switch on, and held it up to his right eye. The path before him was instantly illuminated with a strange green light. Rapp scanned the area, checking not only the path but his flanks. The pocket scope penetrated the shadows that his eyes could not. He paid particular attention to the base of the trees that bordered the path. He was looking for the telltale shoe of someone who was seeking to conceal himself.

Flynn has packed a lot of information into these opening paragraphs. Let’s take a look.

Character: We learned the POV character’s name (Mitch Rapp). We know he is an assassin, from the United States, and he is on a mission. Since there was a surveillance team working with him, we know he is part of a larger organization, likely the U.S. Government. And from what we’ve read, it appears he is very good at what he does.

Setting: Flynn tells us we’re in Germany, on a nineteenth-century estate, following a path through the woods in chilly, fall weather. Rapp is stalking the manor house, but he may not be alone. Flynn did a great job setting the opening scene for this book.

Conflict and hook: From the very start, we have conflict and tension. We know the POV character is an assassin. Since he’s on a mission, we know he’s going to try to kill somebody. And we have the added tension that he is not alone. I definitely want to read more and find out how this turns out. Very strong opening.

I’m going to review one more opening. Since I reviewed my first novel, which had a weak opening, it’s only fair that I review another of my books, with a much stronger opening. My forthcoming novel, 14 Days ‘Til Dawn, is still in the final editing stages, so this opening will likely change.

[Rick comments: This will be Scott’s sixth novel. He has come a very long way since his first one.]

The convoy of transports left the main highway connecting the cities of Coronus and Gorlon and rumbled onto a rutted dirt road. Beren leaned his head against the wooden railing behind him, his gaze fixed on the empty night sky above. Not quite empty—the third planet of the Alpha Centauri system was half-visible, illuminated by the star almost one hundred million miles away. Its pale luminescence gave a faint glow to the vegetation-covered moonscape around him. Overhead, Centauri 3 appeared serene. Swirling white clouds partially obscured massive continents outlined by deep blue oceans. He had often remarked in casual conversation that he wished the people of Coronus could somehow move to the planet. Life on Centauri 3’s largest moon was bleak, at least for the residents of Coronus. They lived in constant fear of being Chosen. Even the growing Donor population was not yet enough to keep the free citizens of Coronus from being taken. For years, he had hoped that his military service would somehow exempt him and his family from the program.

But now it had finally happened. With a knock on his door, his entire world had crumbled around him. The Gatherers took him, his wife, and her sister, along with several others whom Beren did not even know. At least his daughter was not among them. She had moved to the city of Centrus to work for a scientist who was studying power production techniques.

Although Beren and the other Chosen would likely live for a few more weeks, their time remaining would not be pleasant. He could accept his own fate as something he always knew might happen. But as he thought of his wife in the hands of the vampires in the floating city of Centrus, a boiling rage sprang up within his chest. What if, rather than immediately being bled by the vampires, she was instead taken for the breeding program? With firm resolve, he promised himself it would not happen.

His only thought was escape. Soon, they would reach the farming community of Blante, where they would stop to pick up more Chosen. This would be the last stop before they arrived in Gorlon. Beren did a quick mental calculation.

The sun had set six cycles ago. Centrus constantly orbited the moon in a solar-synchronous orbit, which kept the city of the vampires exactly opposite the daytime side of the moon. That meant Centrus would pass over Gorlon in the next cycle—twenty-four hours—which would technically be “midnight” on the moon. He had until then to manage the escape. He twisted and pulled his hands in an effort to free them from the ropes that bound them in front of him.

Character: We know the POV character is Beren. He is married and has a daughter (who has moved out on her own). He, his wife, and sister-in-law have been “Chosen.” We don’t know what that means until later in this opening, but by the tone, we know it’s not good. And he has decided not to go quietly. Which is where his military experience should play a large role.

Setting: Even from this small excerpt, we know this is a moon in the Alpha Centauri system, likely around the third planet. There are vampires living in a floating city, and they appear to be the rulers of the continent. They randomly choose members of the population and take their blood for sustenance.

Conflict and hook: This book starts at precisely the right time: the moment of change. Beren has just been Chosen. He, his wife, and her sister are all fated to die at the hands of the vampires. He decides not to let it happen and begins to take matters into his own hands. We have the conflict, and we have the hook. What happens next? You’ll have to wait until the book comes out next month.

Take a look at your own novel(s). Read the first few pages. Does the story start at the moment of change? Do the first several paragraphs introduce the main character? Do they tell us something about the world where the story takes place? And do you have some type of conflict, something to hook the reader and make sure the reader keeps going? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, it’s time to get working on your opening.


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