What our authors say…
One thing I’ve always known intuitively is that the first page of a book is the most important, and the first paragraph make or break. I suppose that what I go for could be described as intellectual titillation. An opening to which the reader responds, I don’t know what the hell he’s doing, but I need to find out. -A.W. Hill
For more tips, grab the Inspired by Limyaael booklet!
And so, to begin the beginnings rant.
1) DO NOT apply the “100-page rule,” the “three-chapter rule,” or whichever rule that you use when reading.
I’ve encountered an awful lot of people online, as well as reviews, which say, “Well, the first 100 pages/three chapters/half of this book are slow, but after that it really picks up.”
Know what I wonder? I wonder why the fuck the author didn’t begin the story with page 101, or the fourth chapter, or the second half. That’s what I wonder.
Newsflash: The beginning is the most important part of your book, because it is the first thing that a buyer sees. It’s the first thing an editor sees. It’s the first thing a publisher sees. As well as people whose rules match yours, your book will meet people who read only the first page of the book in the store and decide based on that, people who use a shorter “rule” (like only the first 50 pages or the first two chapters), and people who read the whole book but are disappointed enough by a bland or boring beginning to come online and write negative reviews on sites like Amazon. Why would you send your story that you’ve worked so hard on into the world with a beginning that you deliberately put less than your best effort into?
I’ve met idiots who say, “Well, I put more effort into the middle because that’s where the story really gets going,” or “The ending is more important than the beginning, because you don’t want to disappoint the reader.” These people are almost always the same ones who think that no one has the right to criticize a book until they finish it. Oh, please. If the author hasn’t put any effort into the beginning, or she has but it’s not an effort that works for me, I don’t feel compelled to finish it. The second case is just a waste of time. The first is insulting, and the kind of book where I’m much more likely to go write a negative ranty review.
Stop thinking like a reader when you write your beginnings. Think like a writer. This story is a living thing. It must live from the first page onward.
2) Start with a beginning that showcases your skills.
So many fantasy books begin with a bit (or twenty pages) of mythic history, or a panoramic descriptive beginning that tells you something about whatever location the author’s chosen to focus on first. The problem is, the authors doing this often aren’t good at writing mythic history or description. (And “not good” is kinder than some of them deserve).
There is no law that says that fantasy books must begin with mythic history or description. There is no rule that you need to do this just to tell the reader that it’s a fantasy. And there is no requirement that you bore your potential reader to death before she reaches the bottom of the first page.
Are you good at writing action? Show us the hero frantically fighting for his life as he tries to rescue a comrade from the dungeons. Good at humor? Show us character banter. (Each first chapter of J. V. Jones’s books in the Book of Words trilogy began with a pair of castle guards complaining to each other). Good at high, tragic drama? Show us people waiting to die. (Guy Gavriel Kay starts Tigana this way, with an army waiting on the bank of a river at night. Gradually, we learn that the prince leading this army has killed the son of the sorcerer who opposes them, and in the morning the sorcerer is going to fall on them and utterly destroy them). Play to your particular strengths, not against them.
3) You are not a movie camera.
And neither is the book, and neither are the words, and neither are the characters. Got it? There is no reason for you to start the book with the kind of omniscient voice where a camera appears to be panning in across the castle walls, or the green hill country to the hill where the heroine sits on horseback, or the view of the city.
This has several reasons. First, see point 2; these authors often aren’t good at writing description. Second, so many fantasy books start this way that it could put your potential reader right off her breakfast. Third, it requires an omniscient voice, which many authors also aren’t good at. And finally, it leads to the ‘fucking-pick-a-POV-already’ problem that plagues many amateur fantasy authors.
Who is telling this story? Who is seeing this place? Who will infuse it with emotion for the reader, and show us some sad history about it, or some happy history, or tell us that that parade is a funeral march or a triumph? The omniscient voice usually can’t do that. Nor does the sweep in from above or the side tell us who is important to the story; it could be any of the hundreds and hundreds of people who might be standing in the foreground. You’ve cast your reader, and yourself, adrift. There is no reason to do this.
Start first-person, start third-person limited, start with dialogue. Start with a damn bird-man soaring over the countryside, if you think we absolutely must see it from above. Start some way that will connect us to the story, give us people to care about, and not bore us to death with “faithful” detail.
4) Begin as you mean to go on: tone.
There are many reasons that I am absolutely unable to take Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody books seriously. (And if you want to read about them and care about spoilers, skip the whole of this point, because I trash them. Ruthlessly).
There’s the heroine who adopts every child she sees, was supposedly a prostitute but is later shown to have slept with a man only because otherwise he would have hurt a child, is so beautiful that she causes traffic accidents (I mean this quite literally) but believes everyone is only staring at her because she’s ugly, walks through a magical fire and somehow gets her virginity restored, finds a magical sword and suddenly knows how to fight with it, and makes every male in the book fall in love or lust with her. Rhapsody is the purest example of a canon Sue I have ever seen, bar none.
But you know what makes it truly ridiculous? The beginning. The hero is snatched 1400 years back in time, meets Rhapsody, falls in love, decides she’s his soulmate, has sex with her (explicitly described, in purple prose), and then is snatched forward in time again. The explanation is not given anywhere in the first book; it has to wait for the third. The sex is perfect despite both the hero and heroine being virgins. Though the other books try to be serious, the prologue is horribly giggly and sparkly.
Oh, yes, and the crowning touch: The heroine is 14. The hero is 15.
This is not an appropriate beginning for a high fantasy novel that refuses to explain or explore the time travel concept until the third book. Indeed, the whole episode is just another excuse to make Rhapsody sad and Speshul. She refuses to love another man after that, you see.
I would have supposed this was common sense, but since the Rhapsody trilogy exists, I know it can’t be. So:
If you mean your book to be a light and funny fantasy, don’t begin with a gore-soaked prologue where six likeable heroes die. If you mean your book to be a quick-moving, action-oriented story, don’t do a twee description of the princess’s ball gown in which we can hearyou squeeing. And if you mean your book to a serious high fantasy, don’t begin it like a timeslip romance novel.
It really doesn’t matter if you think that you need the prologue to be written in just that tone. Why? I bet you can find one reason that it should be to twenty reasons why it shouldn’t. And, again, remember, there will be plenty of readers who are picking up the book and glancing at the first page without knowing anything about the twists and turns the story takes later. If they get into the story thinking it’s a high fantasy and it turns into a romance novel (this is a common complaint on the Rhapsody boards on Amazon.com), they’ll be disappointed. If they buy the book because they like the prologue and then you switch tones on them, that also disappoints.
Be honest with that prologue and first chapter. Why is it written the way it is? Do you know? If you don’t know, there’s a big problem.
5) Begin as you mean to go on: pace.
There’s a nasty trick that some authors pull, wherein they start out with a tense and exciting paragraph, page, or prologue, and then hit you with ten pages or so of description and flashback.
I usually skim the description with glazed eyes, then start reading again when the story actually starts. I almost never miss anything. The authors don’t make their description matter to the story, and the actual meat of it resides where the characters are speaking, fighting, making love, eating, or whatever. Why not skim? There’s no penalty to it, and I don’t have to see the embarrassing purple mess that authors often make of their descriptive writing.
I’ve known other readers who didn’t stick around with a book long enough to see what the author did with it. Having hit that long descriptive shtick, they ran away. Though I wound up liking Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy (I just pretend the ending never happened), there are 200 pages in the beginning that just describe the castle, and Simon wandering around the castle, and hearing history from the doctor he’s apprenticed to, and Mysterious Evil Things of Dark Portent™ happening.
200 freaking pages.
Nobody needs that much before the story proper starts shaking its mane and kicking up its heels.
I’ve heard other readers argue that Williams just does slow beginnings, as witness his recent War of the Flowers, where the hero angsts for 100+ pages before getting his ass to Faerie. That’s bullshit. His first book, Tailchaser’s Song, a cat fantasy, has a charming little legend at the beginning, and then kicks into high gear from the first chapter. It’s a light little courser, not a big lumbering draft-horse, and the beginning is far better for it.
If your book is going to be leisurely, by all means, take all the time to describe everything that you like. Otherwise, don’t expect all your readers to be that patient.
6) You have a whole book. Save the flashbacks.
We don’t need to know your character’s whole history.
Yes, I know. How can we not possibly want to know every detail about Johnny’s favorite colors and the time that he fell down and broke his leg and the time that he made a decorated eggshell for his mum and the time that he got bullied at the Midsummer Fair?
Well, I don’t. I care about the present story, about what’s happening to Johnny now. I assume that if the author really wanted to tell me the story of Johnny’s childhood above all else, that’s where she would have started. (Shocking, I know).
Since I’m like that, you can imagine my impatience with books that open with flashbacks and infodumps about the character’s history. That infodumping marred what I thought was otherwise a mostly fine fantasy, Carol Berg’s Song of the Beast, and made me glad that I’d already read the Rai-kirah trilogy, so I could know that not everything she wrote was like that. Every time that Berg switches a narrator in Song, she tells the story of that narrator’s childhood. Since she’s a fine descriptive writer, this is not nearly as heinous as it could have been, but you can still picture me cowering in the corner and wanting to know if it’s safe to come out yet.
You have a whole book. Slot the information in little bits and pieces later, once we’re already interested in these people. Beginning a book with an angsty monologue or flashback is often deadly.
7) Begin the story as close as possible to the character’s point of change.
You’ve probably heard this. Almost everyone I’ve talked to has.
Then why the hell aren’t more people following it?
Seriously. If what you really want to write is the prequel to the story you have now, write that one. If what you really want to write is the narrator’s childhood, write that instead. If you want to write a more biographical fantasy book, where it’s going to be a history of the narrator’s life and not just his adolescence, then you can begin from childhood and trot to death with no problem. But there aren’t a whole lot of fantasy books like that outside the Arthurian subgenre.
You have this character. This character is going to make her move (or, sadly more often, get snatched into making a move, such as being caught up by a band of passing strangers who tell her she’s the Chosen One). She’s getting bored, or she’s being abused and is about to run away, or she’s going to discover her magical talent.
Why wouldn’t you begin the story there, instead of 100 pages back with angsting about her childhood and her family?
I don’t know. Go talk to all those people who claim to know it and yet haven’t mastered it.
8) You don’t necessarily require a prologue.
I already did the prologue rant, so I’ll just say that:
- I think all my complaints there are still valid.
- I have almost never seen a fantasy book without a prologue. I have seen many, however, that would be improved by the loss of the prologue.
- There’s no point in beginning a book twice. Let the true beginning lead the story off. If that’s in the prologue, fine. If not, type “Chapter 1” and let the story run from there.
Prologues are such standard fantasy practice that I think authors tend to start with them automatically, whether they need them or not. There’s no reason for that.
This is one of my favorite things to bitch about, given the amount of people I’ve met who insist that the beginning isn’t important. Yes, it so fucking is. How can the first thing your reader sees not be important?