So, if ending a book is, as Barbara Hambly says, like coaxing a dragon to land on the point of a pencil, what’s a good metaphor for beginnings?
I think we all agree that the beginning of a book is very important. I’d say, “And very difficult,” only it’s not actually difficult to begin a book — at least, for me, the beginning, including the all-important first line, writes itself. I hardly ever change a beginning very much at all. (There are exceptions.) (Middles are the hard part.)
But difficult or not, the beginning is definitely crucial. Raise your hand if you read the first page of a book before you buy it! At least if you’re in a bookstore with the book actually in your reach. Any hands not go up? Right.
I think we can assume that the World Fantasy Award nominees this year must have appealed to a lot of people. I have five of the six nominees, so let’s take a look at how each of them begins:
1: Zoo City (Beukes)
Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears thorugh my window. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.
Shielding my eyes — morning has broken and there’s no picking up the pieces — I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed. Benoit doesn’t so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticing out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood. feet like that, they tell a story. They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.
The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbing under his nose. Like he doesn’t know that my computer is out of bounds. Let’s just say I’m precious about my work. Let’s just say it’s not entirely legal.
Okay, how about that? We get a vivid use of language and imagery, a noir feel, a clear indication of the setting — Johannesburg, maybe near future. Immediately we wonder why ‘Mongoose’ is capitalized. And there’s the intriguing question of what kind of work the narrator does that isn’t entirely legal. Even though I read a lot more fantasy than SF and even though a noir cyberpunky kind of feel isn’t necessarily my favorite, I’d turn the page.
2) Redemption in Indigo (Lord)
A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscience with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing. It is a half-tamed horse that you seize on the run and ride with knees and teeth clenched, and then you regretfully slip off as gently and safely as you can, always wondering if you could have gone a few metres more.
Thus I seize this tale, starting with a hot afternoon in the town of Erria, a dusty side street near the financial quarter. But I will make one concession to tradition . . .
. . . Once upon a time — but whether a time that was, or a time that is, or a time that is to come, I may not tell — there was a man, a tracker by occupation, called Kwame. He had been born in a certain country in a certain year when history had reached that grey twilight in which fables of true love, the power of princes, and deeds of honour are told only to children. He regretted this oversight on the part of Fate, but he managed to curb his restless imagination and do the daily work that brought in the daily bread.
Today’s work will test his self-restraint.
Quite a different tone, isn’t it? A narrator, but this time omniscient and outside the action, totally different from the close first-person pov in the first example. This is the one that starts off with a Senegalese folk tale and goes on from there. And, of course, it sounds exactly like a folk tale — or like a story which is going to start with a folk tale. I really like that first sentence. And how do you like that bit about history reaching a grey twilight? Nice, huh?
3) The Silent Land (Joyce)
It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go. And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place, and happily.
If there are a few moments in life that come as clear and as pure as ice, when the mountain breathed back at her Zoe knew she had trapped one such moment and it could never be taken away. Everywhere was snow and silence. Snow and silence; the complete arrest of life; a rehearsal for and a pre-echo of death.
But her breath was warm and it said no to any premature thought of death. She pointed her skis down the hill. The tips of her skis looked like weird talons of brilliant red and gold in the powder snow as she waited, ready to swoop. I am alive. I am an eagle.
Fantasy grades into horror on the far side, right? All that about life and death, does that signal that this story is really horror, or did I just get that idea from the jacket copy and the (very artistic) cover? Actually, it’s simplistic to say that this novel is horror; it sort of is, and sort of isn’t. The language is very clean and creates a very clear scene, doesn’t it? Did you notice that the second sentence is a fragment? That contributes to the sense of stillness the author is creating in this opening scene. I read the first few paragraphs here and immediately feel like I can relax into the story — I trust the author’s skill, though I’m nervous about what he might do to his protagonist.
And isn’t it interesting that we might have chosen these three books to exemplify point-of-view options? Limited first person, omniscient first person, close third person. I didn’t even notice that until now. Okay, onward!
4) Under Heaven (Kay)
Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.
They would listen to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew’s end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.
Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.
In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fishhawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter.
In winter the cold was savage, it could take the breath away. The north wind when it blew was an assault, outdoors, and even through the cabin walls. He slept under layers of fur and sheepskin, and no birds woke him at dawn from the icebound nesting grounds on the far side of the lake.
The ghosts were outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down.
Okay, I read once that you should be wary of letting any sentence stand by itself in a paragraph. I started paying attention after that and I think that’s basically true. But it sure isn’t a universal rule. I didn’t realize until now that Kay wrote his first three paragraphs as one sentence each. How ’bout that?
Kay writes beautiful prose and this is certainly a good example of that, isn’t it? Lovely prose, and we instantly know so much about the setting and the protagonist. And then there’s the thing about the ghosts. Even if I didn’t already love Kay’s writing, I’d be hooked.
5) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin)
I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.
I must try to remember.
My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.
My mother was an heiress of the Arameri. There was a ball for the lesser nobility — the sort of thing that happens once a decade as a backhanded sop to their self-esteem. My father dared ask my mother to dance; she deigned to consent. I have often wondered what he said and did that night to make her fall in love with him so powerfully, for she eventually abdicated her position to be with him. It is the stuff of great tales, yes? Very romantic. In the tales, such a couple lives happily ever after. The tales do not say what happens when the most powerful family in the world is offended in the process.
Oookay. so much going on here, it’s hard to know where to start. Can you think of another opening where the reader is challenged so immediately and directly with such big questions? And that fairy-tale feel in the third paragraph, that’s intriguing, too; it catches me immediately.
I’ve read (somewhere, don’t ask me where, I don’t remember) a review of this book which basically said, It’s a nice fantasy, but nothing new or striking. I totally disagree. I think this narrative voice is really unusual and striking, I think that comes through right from this very powerful beginning, and I think Jemisin did an amazing job with this book (and its sequel, btw). In fact, let me just add here, I nominated this one for every possible award and voted for it where I could, I was glad to see it on the ballot for the Nebula and Hugo, and I think it deserves to win the World Fantasy Award — though I’m not quite through reading Zoo City, but I don’t think I’ll change my mind!
I’ll throw out a few:
First, though you hear a lot about first sentences, I’d say it’s clear you have several paragraphs to grab the reader. I’d say one of these, maybe two, have boring first sentences, but that’s not relevant because the first sentence doesn’t stand alone.
Do you have to start with action? You hear that a lot: you have to start in the middle of action. I’d say that’s clearly an overstatement at best and maybe just wrong. At Archon last week I participated in the writer’s workshops and one of my workshops was on beginnings, and I said that at least in fantasy, you often start with the setting, not with action — but the setting is not objective; it is seen from your protagonist’s perspective. Well, I rest my case.
The truth is, you have to start with something that will make your reader want to turn the page. That may mean you open your book by dropping your protagonist off a cliff, but obviously it doesn’t have to mean that at all. Though it’s true that someplace in the first few pages you usually show how your main character has reached a turning point where his life is going to change forever. But I don’t think even that is always true.
And, last, about point of view? Write it how you want to or how it wants to be written. I expect I’ll maintain till my dying day that a limited third person pov is easier and more straightforward than any other option, but hey! These books could constitute a workshop in different ways to handle pov.
It’s books like these that make me maintain that you learn to write by reading.