What makes a good story? What makes a great story? Is it the action? The setting? The characters? The dialogue? The opening? Does it change with different genres.
Today I’m starting a series on what, to me, makes a great story. Since I write in the fantasy genre, my examples will come from there. My goal is to do two to three of these a month until I’ve felt that I’ve said all I have to say on the subject.
The best place to begin is, well, the beginning. I assume most readers are like me in that they aren’t going to waste their time reading twenty pages of a story let alone a couple hundred while waiting for it to “get good.” My time is too important for that. An author has only a small amount of time to grab a reader’s attention and suck them into the story. Some may give the story a page or two, others only a paragraph. I’ve heard of some people putting a book down after just the first sentence. Therefore, that beginning had better be great.
Below, I’ve defined four different approaches that I feel a writer can take when starting their story and quoted the first sentence or paragraph from several popular books (within the fantasy genre, of course, and all of which I’d highly recommend) that demonstrate how to make the opening great. I’ve added some of my personal thoughts on each approach and the pros and cons of using each method.
Let’s get started!
Joe Abercrombie –The Blade Itself
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.
The great part about starting a story with action is that if done correctly, it immediately sucks the reader into the story. Not only are you trying to figure out what’s going on, but your heart is racing as well. From the two sentences above, we know the “point of view” (POV) character’s name and that things are happening so fast around him that he can barely make sense of what’s going on himself. We also know that he is running from something and more than likely has been in a fight. I personally love these openings, but it can be hard to do it well. This particular opening works because it is fast-paced and not long winded which is what you want action to be.
The downside of starting with action is that some find it hard to work in the details of the character, story, and setting while maintaining this quickened pace. I think it’s important to remember that an action scene, especially at the beginning of a story, is not the place for an info dump. Avoid it at all costs.
Paul Kearney – Monarchies of God Vol. 1 (Hawkwood and the Kings)
A ship of the dead, it coasted in on the northwest breeze, topsails still set but the yards braced for a long-lost wind on the open ocean. The yawlsmen sighted it first, on the eve of St. Beynac’s Day. It was heeling heavily, even on the slight swell, and what was left of its canvas shuddered and flapped when the breeze fell.
Stories that begin with setting too often focus on the extreme details before establishing something else to draw the reader into the story. Don’t get me wrong, details are fine and necessary but I wouldn’t throw too much at the reader too soon unless it is meant to accomplish something else…such as a tone which can be expected throughout the rest of the story.
In the example above, we know the setting is either at sea or perhaps along the coast. Regardless, naval life should play a large role in the story, which it does. Besides that we get the feeling of something almost like a ghost ship coming into view. Now, we don’t know the main character yet or what the story is about but the tone is interesting enough that I want to keep reading in order to discover more about how the dead ship got there and what it means.
Steven Brust – Jhereg
There is a similarity, if I may be permitted an excursion into tenuous metaphor, between the feel of a chilly breeze and the feel of a knife’s blade, as either is laid across the back of the neck. I can call up memories of both, if I work at it. The chilly breeze is invariably going to be the more pleasant memory. For instance…
Focusing on character as the way to open your story is probably easier when telling a first person narrative rather than in a third person narrative. In many ways, I feel like you HAVE to establish that first person voice even faster because usually this individual is the sole narrator.
The great thing about this example is you immediately get inside the POV character’s head and know what kind of story you’re getting into. You know you’ll be reading about someone who is used to handling knives, probably a killer. However, the “voice” isn’t just some thug but also someone who comes across as an intelligent and possibly humorous character.
The downside of using this sort of opening is that nothing has actually happened yet. You know the character but you have no idea what caused him to think these thoughts.
Paul Kearney – The Ten Thousand
By the sea, Rictus had been born, and now it was by the sea he would die.
I wanted to throw in an example of a character opening with a third person narrative. As I said I think it is more difficult to do this in third person but it is something that can be done. Although only one sentence long, the opening to Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand tells you the name of the character and that he is ready to die and reminiscing about his past. As a reader, you want to know what could have caused such morose thoughts.
George RR Martin – Game of Thrones
"We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.
Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”
Dialogue can have the same effect as action in that it throws the reader right into the middle of things. I think dialogue is a great way to start a story but if a writer decides to do this, I think they need to take a hint from Martin and break it up with a few other things. Not only is Martin using dialogue but he is also using character by showing that the two talking have a strained relationship, setting by showing that they are in a forest at night, and tone by the characters talking about the dead with a feeling that something bad could happen at any moment.
I think dialogue can be a bad way to start off a story when it is the only thing going on. In other words, after half a page or so, break it up with something else so the reader gains a little context. Make the reader care about the conversation.
Joshua P. Simon – Warleader: A Blood and Tears Short Story
A wad of spit struck Tobin’s cheek as he stumbled backward. The back of his free hand came up and wiped away the insult. An echo of jeers sounded around the practice circle. One of the loudest voices came from the big Kifzo warrior named Durahn. “It looks like he may cry this time.”
Above is the opening to the short story I’ll be releasing within the next month. It is a prequel and fills in some back story about one of my main point of view characters in the fantasy trilogy I’m writing.
I tried to do several things with the opening. One, there is a bit of action in the sense that they are in a practice circle which means there is a fight going on. Tobin is being berated by the onlookers which means he isn’t well liked and, in fact, has been spat on. So we also get a bit of character as well.
Joshua P. Simon – Rise and Fall: Book One of the Blood and Tears Trilogy
A deafening silence filled the inner courtyard. Massacred bodies with faces frozen in fear and despair covered the space once home to beautiful gardens. Nothing stirred except for the five High Mages fanning out amongst the motionless forms, each searching for a sign of life. The smell of burnt flesh enveloped Amcaro and worked its way into his nostrils and robes.More than two dozen royal guards lay dead, joined by half as many servants - charred husks against the white stone floor.
This is the opening paragraph to the first book of my fantasy trilogy. Similar to the short story opening above, I hoped to accomplish a few things here. In this instance I focused mostly on setting and tone. We know the point of view character, Amcaro, is looking on at a scene of utter destruction, basically the aftermath of some disaster. In this case, I started the scene right after the action had occurred. He is not alone as others are looking for a sign of life. I wanted a sense of shock and weariness coming from his perspective as he took in the scene.
So, what do you think makes the opening of a book great? What pulls you in and keeps you reading? Answer in the comments below!