Favorite Openings: A Darker Shade of Magic

The last example I want to dig into is V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic. I wanted something very recent and a genre example but even without those constraints, this is one of my favorite first pages. From the first line I found myself mesmerized by this book. These days I rarely have time to read a whole trilogy but this one grabbed me by the collar and I inhaled all three in a row in a glorious sprint through a mad adventure.

Schwab’s skills are on full display in this page. She’s a master of characterization and she knows how to let a moment breathe. There’s a scene I think about whenever I want to talk about fight scenes. It’s a brief moment, two characters ambushed in an alleyway. A quick and dirty knife fight. But, on the page, it stretches out. Schwab takes the time to slow down and show us not only what’s happening, blow by blow, but to give us the time to reflect and see what’s going on in the characters’ heads.

When I talk about how the new referent for fantasy is not The Lord of the Rings but instead anime like Rouruni Kenshin or Dragonball Z, this is what I mean. The slow-down, the internal monologue, the interiority of the character in moments of action. The duel that lasts seven episodes. Seriously, Kenshin wyd, just stab the guy already. *ahem* Anyhow, I love this shift in narrative style and Schwab is one of a number of rising stars across the genre to bring voice to this mode.

This is the first page from A Darker Shade of Magic. There are so many things I love about this opening, but what always stands out to me is the slow confidence of the voice. To start an adventure fantasy novel with the description of a coat sets the stage for so much of how the story will unfold. We learn about Kell, about the world, about how magic works, and about the tonal nature of the book. There will always be a whimsy to the story, even as it gets bloody and dark. There’s a lightness to the characters and a sense that they are defined not only by their power and their violence, but by their tastes and their actions off the battlefield.

And all of that wrapped up in a coat. The coat tells us that there are many Londons before we see the Londons. Schwab lays the groundwork for understanding the multiverse, not with pens on a whiteboard like in every science fiction movie of the last ten years, but through a simple practical example. If you take a coat and turn it inside out it’s different. If you put some blood on the wall and speak a magic word, the whole world turns inside out and it’s different. There are many sides to things, coats and Londons alike.

She uses fashion to give us time period. The type of coat tells us a lot about era and tone. It’s not medieval. It’s not modern. It’s an era where formality matters. Where the military defines aesthetics to some extent. Where royalty rules and flashiness is frowned upon.

And lastly, all of this introduces one of the two core relationships in the book. Kell pauses to reflect on his brother Rhy at the end. We get a sense of exasperation, tension, and profound affection. The tension between Kell’s seriousness and Rhy’s ostentatiousness comes through immediately.

So, world, magic, aesthetics, character, relationships, and plot all in a single page describing a single, peculiar coat.

And all so beautifully written and paced. There’s a musicality to this page, a gentle rhythm to it. I did terribly in those poetry classes that made you map out the beats in pentameter or dactyls or whatever. But without needing to map it out, there’s a power to the rhythm of a sentence. The use of “very peculiar” has a steady, marching beat that draws the reader in.

The use of punctuation in the following: “It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.” The use of those broken out bits of commentary forces the reader to slow down and process what’s being said. By the narrator pausing to reflect and comment the reader is given the space to focus on the actual peculiarity being presented to them. And the way the commas accelerate towards the end of the sentence gives a rushing sense of exasperation, of a confounded narrator, of a sense of delight. It gives a sing-song, fairytale beat for us to begin to understand the nature of this universe and be pulled in to the rest of the page.

I’ve talked a lot about confidence and authority in this series of newsletters. And I think that comes through so clearly here. To start on a peculiar detail. To not throw the reader in in a huge rush, but to deliberately slow us down to a walk to settle in for the exposition to come. To carefully lay out rhyming images and structures for us to begin to understand the magics of this world on a fundamental level. It’s masterful. It feels like Schwab is taking your hand gently but firmly and I, as a reader, feel compelled to trust her.

Openings are opportunities. They are a chance to make an impression. To communicate. To enthrall. But most of all, they’re a chance to convince your reader that you know what you’re doing and you’re on their side. It’s a chance to show you don’t intend to impose, but instead, to invite. It’s a collaboration, a partnership, and you’re meeting them part way.

I’ve talked before about the idea of a story as an act of hospitality. So be hospitable. Be welcoming. And show them a well built house, with firm foundations, and a confident hand to guide them.

Favorite Openings: The Killing Floor

I see a lot of people on my timeline making fun of Lee Child. They mock his prose, his characterizations, his approach. And, yeah, sure, there are things to criticize. But I also think he’s a master stylist and an incredibly effective storyteller. I not so secretly love the early Jack Reacher books. I think they are pure adrenaline fun and Reacher is a phenomenal character to carry a whole series on his massive, massive shoulders.

Anyhow, I want to talk about how brutally effective this opening page is from The Killing Floor. This is the very first time readers will meet Jack Reacher. This is the first time we’re introduced to Child’s world, his rules, his characters. And god damn— I love it so much.

This is, in so many ways, the exact opposite of the Hill House example I used yesterday. Stylistically, narratively, aesthetically. But it is just as effective.

One of the first things to notice about this page is how ruthlessly blunt it is. There are so few… verbs. So few full sentences. Anyone who’s been a long time reader of this newsletter has to be zero percent surprised that I think a list of fragments can be very effective at making a point.

The thing about all of these fragments, the clipped, short tone, the rat tat tat rhythm of it is that it gives us character. We don’t know Jack Reacher’s name, profession, history. But from this opening alone, we know he’s someone who thinks about threats, about weapons, who is always aware of his exits, the dangers in a room, the obstacles. He describes the diner in terms we can understand. We can see the space in our mind’s eye. The implied tactical awareness of how to move through a space. That he’s a man who is old-fashioned because he prefers a diner that is old-fashioned. That he’s an underdog, walking through the rain all the way from the highway.

We learn Reacher’s thought process. The second paragraph starts with a rambling unfocused sentence about the paper. “In a booth, at the window.” Something about a president. Bored indifference and ordinary routine. But then the police cruiser arrives and you can feel his thought process accelerate here. “I saw the police cruiser” to “They were moving” to “Doors burst open, policemen jumped out.” The thoughts are going faster, verbs and subjects are dropping. Sentences running together. Guns, movement, strategy.

We get that this is a man who thinks about violence and its execution. Just from the description we get, not only the excitement and adrenaline rush, but that up against his calm observation. We know he’s a dangerous man because of how he reacts to danger.

We also have a question. This is not a man afraid of arrest, of police. Why? We learn a lot in this question. He’s white. He’s got authority. He’s confident. He has reasons to feel unthreatened. He not only has physical command of the situation, he has structural command. He believes he will be untouched by this in the long run.

And so, when we learn later that Reacher is a cop, former military police, it is no surprise.

There’s so much character and world in this opening. A simple scene of blunt, simple description gives us an entire world. Because world building isn’t about made up names and descriptions of faerie castles. World building is about rules. What are the principles that drive your world? What are the boundary conditions around action? What are the consequences of violence? Will battles be fought with fists or with words? What does failure look like? What does victory look like?

This opening tells us that the rules are about the law. It tells us that power is the authority of the state and the consequences of violating those rules is violence. It also tells us that some men are above those rules and Jack Reacher is one of them. This, in turn, implies that the men he will be up against are also above those rules or at least believe themselves to be. This opening says: this is a book about crime, but not about the law. It is a book about how violence, outside of a strict application of the law, is sometimes the answer. It establishes the world by showing us the rules of how it works.

Child is a stylist. He may not be pursuing a beautifully turned phrase. He may not be lauded as a great lyricist. But this opening drips and oozes with style and confidence. The changing rhythms of the prose, the sharp firing of Reacher’s neurons, all of it says “I know who this man is and I’m going to tell you about him.”

There’s such authority to this page and it’s compelling. As a reader I know, by the end of this page, that here is a writer who knows how to tell a tale. I trust him. I feel that this will be worth my time to sit with because a firm, strong hand is on the tiller.

Voice, character, world, tension. These are the elements of a great opening. Show your reader you can give them these things clearly, concisely, and leave them with questions they want answered, and they’ll be yours. This is authority. This is the power of a strong start. Layer in as much as you can, as quickly, and as interestingly as you can. There are lots of ways to do this. If you’re Lee Child, sometimes that means dropping a few of the words that usually go in a sentence. Now go find your own way to do the same.

Favorite Openings: The Haunting of Hill House

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has what I think is my favorite opening paragraph of any book I’ve read in recent memory.

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

I want to talk a moment about why I love it so much. There are lessons to be learned here, I think, so let’s unpack a little why I think this works.

One thing your opening must do is communicate to the reader what kind of book they’re in. Not necessarily genre in the big, book store category sense, but genre in the sense of “is this book for me?” And I think this opening does that incredibly well. It makes no bones about the kind of story it is and its interests. It says, clearly and concisely: this story is scary as fuck.

Jackson sets it up beautifully. The final turn, “whatever walked there, walked alone,” is such a chilling, strange, and unsettling shift in the tone. We’ve been building to it all along “not sane,” “holding darkness within,” “silence lay steadily.” But the introduction of something walking in Hill House tells us that this is not a novel of bucolic, simple comforts. Hill House is not a refuge, it is a threat.

But it also tells us what specific kind of horror novel we’re in. This isn’t the kind of book where a monster lurks in the shadows to tear the heroine limb from limb. It’s not about jump scares or chase scenes. This is a book that relies on a slow accumulation of dread until we fall into a nightmare dreamscape necessitated by a retreat from “absolute reality.”

Jackson is telling us, not just about the category and tone of the book, but the entire shape of the story is in the shape of this paragraph. It’s going to be about madness and fear and dreams. And it’s going to start with a normal seeming house with “walls upright” and “doors sensibly shut” and it’s going to end with a monster. It’s going to build quietly until we are trapped in the house, alone, and afraid.

One of the best storytelling tricks you can do is to tell your reader exactly what to expect and then give it to them. The thrill isn’t in not knowing what’s coming, it’s in knowing exactly what is around that corner and dreading it, fearing it, needing to see it with your own eyes.

The second thing that this paragraph does that is essential is it introduces us to the protagonist. We meet Hill House in all its glory. We are told what we’re contending with, what we’re focused on. The rules are established. The house is old. It’s solid. And it’s haunted. We are focused on a character and we are given a question. What happened here? And therefore what is going to happen here? We are told that the house is not sane and something walks there.

Our curiosity, our need to know about Hill House and the people who will encounter it shortly, gives us the stakes of the story. There’s a tension inherent in the mystery of the question. What does Hill House, not sane, want? What will it do? And why are we so afraid?

The last thing I want to point out is the one that’s the most overlooked and the hardest to talk about. There’s a hypnotic beauty to these sentences. The phrasing, the rhythm, the word choices. The tension between this cold academic phrasing of “no live organism” and the rhythmic pull of the “larks and catydids.”

She luxuriates in the description here, but with such a simple economy. We know so much about this house and where it’s situated, without long florid description: “walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut.”

The punctuation is exquisite, forcing us to pause and consider what Jackson is saying. Each of those commas are as remarkable as a gun shot. Followed by a semicolon that tells us we’re leaving the absolute reality of material construction and heading into the horrors that lurk there.

I talk so much about storytelling, but the words matter. The how of the telling matters as much as the what of it. Structure and intent are absolutely necessary, but they all collapse in the face of a beautifully turned sentence. Don’t forget the music of a beginning. Don’t forget the rhythms that can lull a reader into submission. Use your words to invite them in and then trap them in structures they can’t escape any way but through.

Shirly Jackson was a master stylist. Every word drips with intention, with menace, and with beauty. She sets the stage, tells us what kind of story we’re in for, introduces her player, and does it with style so compelling that we can’t look away. Study her work. There are lessons to be learned here for all of us.

The Beginning is a Terrible Place to Start

Whenever I run a crit group, I find myself giving the same recommendation over and over and over again: start your book somewhere else.

It seems obvious, right? You start telling your story at the beginning. But, here’s the thing about beginnings, nothing is happening yet. The beginning of the story is, by definition, before the interesting stuff.

Any scene in a book, especially at the start of a book needs to be doing more than one thing at once. Any story is dense, but a novel more so. There’s an enormous amount of information that needs to be transmitted to the audience as quickly as possible. Characters, stakes, arcs, worldbuilding, story promises, inciting incidents. All of this needs to be laid out in a way that not only makes what your book is as clear as possible, but engages the reader fully. Too little and they get bored and wander off.

If your scene is only doing one thing: whether that’s introducing a character or telling us about a worldbuilding element or introducing a plot point, that’s not engaging enough. You need to find a way to do more than one, ideally all three, at once.

Generally, if you’re starting the story where your protagonist starts to get involved, or is getting the back story to understand the inciting incident, then you’re really only working at one or two levels at once. A stronger start can be to push on the boundaries of linear, temporal storytelling, or layer in another point of view.

Yesterday, I wrote about tension. About how establishing stakes can help you grab your reader and pull them into your book. I didn’t talk about how to do that. Eventually, you’ll start to care about the character yourself and then the stakes are the reader’s own relationship with the character. But at the start, you can’t rely on that.

Start too slow, start at the beginning, and you’ll lose your reader because there’s not enough happening. Start too late, at the climax of the action, and you’ll lose your reader because they’re confused and indifferent to the outcome.

The trick is to do both at the same time. Consider how you can move your entry point into the story forward. If you jump ahead you have the opportunity to layer in more elements. Move to a point where things are already in motion, then you can tell us more about how the character feels about the situation, layer in a short flashback to what got them to this place. It adds more opportunities for introspection, for planning, for context to a reaction they’re about to have.

Consider if your inciting incident is actually all that inciting. Is it really the thing that drives the interesting questions of the book? What if that already happened? What if we’re seeing it in the rear view mirror of a character speeding off to meet their fate? Is there a way to see it through different eyes, retold by another character? What frames it in a way that we learn about what happened, who did it, why they did it, and the world they did it in all at once?

You can give us what we need to know to establish tension and show us the potential consequences of that tension breaking the wrong way and establish the rules of your world all at the same time. You don’t have to do each of those things in isolation, step by step.

I often describe a novel as a layer cake. A short story is a quick bread, a loaf of cake, syrup drizzled onto a dry crumb. A novella a birthday cake of two, three slabs of yellow cake, chocolate cake, a dab of buttercream. A novel is at least a tiered wedding cake or, my true preference, a god damn millefeuille.

Layers, texture, density of experience. This is what makes a great read, in my opinion. Give us as much density of information as you can at every moment with the greatest comprehensibility. Don’t make us think about absorbing that information, but layer it in to every sentence, every scene. Don’t make us work for it but don’t leave us wanting either.

Don’t start at the beginning. Start at the interesting.

Tension/Action

I had a Twitter thread recently about novel openings and people kept dming me being like “write a newsletter about this” and I kept responding “I already did!”

Narrator voice: He had not.

There’s a bunch of stuff I touch on in the thread but the one I wanted to explicate more is the difference between tension and action. Writers are told to start with action. To start with a character doing something, going somewhere, in conflict with someone. Sometimes this is literally dropping into a gunfight. Sometimes it is opening with a line of dialogue. Sometimes it is a character witnessing a crime.

This is, second only to starting with a character waking up, in my personal opinion, a huge mistake. Take the example of a gunfight. You start with a character, under fire, chasing, being chased, shooting, being shot at. But as a reader, I simply don’t care about this exchange. There’s an assumption inherent in this approach: that a gunfight is exciting and interesting just because gunfights are inherently so. But, in my opinion, that’s wrong. What makes action interesting are stakes. What makes a scene interesting is how invested the audience is in the outcome.

We don’t know the hero yet. We don’t know what she wants. We don’t know what she cares about. What will hurt her the most? Will it be getting shot? Will it be losing a treasured object? Missing her chance at revenge? What matters here?

We think that survival is stakes. But if I don’t care about a character, what interest do I have in whether she lives or dies? Stakes are about wants, not survival. Stakes are about relationships. Between a character and another. A mind divided against itself. We care about people, after all, not a person. We care about how people interact, the bonds of friendship, of family, of partnership, of love. We are interested in how enemies might become lovers. How friends might become foes. The pain of losing a loved one, the joy of their successes.

Action scenes are not about the physical contest. They are about the feelings that that contest evokes. The fight, unsurprisingly, is a metaphor for the relationships at stake.

These are stakes. Not the pain of getting shot but instead the pain of failure. The pleasure of success. And if you have stakes then you have tension. To have tension I need to know what drives a person. And it is very hard to communicate that in the middle of a chase or a fight. Or, if you do start there, make space in the beats between to show us the interiority of your contestants. Let your hero have emotions. Let their mind wander.

To achieve tension, you must give us context. Give us a point of failure, a potential disappointment. To let us revel in success you have to show us defeat.

So, if you want to grab your reader, I always believe you need to find a way to start with tension, not action. Action is the inevitable release of tension. Action is the catharsis, the climax. Don’t start at the peak. Start near it. Don’t start way down on the downslope, at the base camp. Start where the story is interesting. But starting at the top means the only place you can go is down.

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