Shakira and Usher Hate Tolkien; Opening Sentences in Fantasy

I suspect something horrible may be happening to us; I suspect that someone – the CIA, aliens, maybe that dude who works at the late-night burger place down the alley – is siphoning away our brain power a little bit at a time. My suspicions were first aroused last night, when my wife and I sat down to watch the premiere of The Voice. If you’re not familiar with the show, all you need to know is that the singers get ninety seconds to impress the judges. Not a full song, or, heaven forbid, a set of songs that might showcase different abilities: ninety seconds. And it was awesome. We were never bored. While watching the show I forgot that boredom existed.

Then I remembered a writer’s conference I attended many years back in which I went to a number of pitch sessions entitled “Two Minutes; Two Pages.” Sorta like The Voice, but with literary agents instead of Shakira and Usher, reading instead of singing, and an extra thirty seconds to hawk your shit. Also, I don’t seem to recall a cheering live audience of thousands. At any rate, these sessions made a real impression on me, as the agents, all of the agents, kept saying things like, “I see a million submissions a day. If you haven’t hooked me by the end of the first paragraph, I’m done.”

I really wanted an agent. I rewrote my opening paragraph.

Let me be very clear: I’m not complaining about these agents or their advice. They were passing along what I think is the overwhelming opinion of readers, the people who actually buy the books. It is their job to know what sells and they were excellent at that job. They were just a little ahead of me in the realization that aliens are thieving our attention spans.

These days, it seems that many readers want something good, and by good I mean awesome – a bomb threat, a zombie, someone naked, several naked people, naked people defusing a bomb while fending off zombies –  by the end of the first paragraph if not the end of the first sentence.

Was it always this way?

Well, I didn’t have time for an exhaustive study of opening lines, but I did have time for some half-assed Googling. Half-assed Googling, I realize, runs a distant second to actual statistical analysis, but I was so surprised by the results that I wanted to share them here. I Googled eight fantasy novels, famous novels. The first four were published before 1990, the next four, after. I ignored prologues where they existed, focusing instead on the opening sentences of the first chapters.


Old Stuff:

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all 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.” Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy (1982)

“The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland.” Brooks, The Sword of Shannara (1977)

“The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage…” Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

New Stuff:

“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.” Lynch, Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded…” Martin, Game of Thrones (1996)

“The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird. Logan opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry through the leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much?” Abercrombie, The Blade Itself (2006)

“In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive. The Reaper’s task is not to save.” Jemisin, The Killing Moon (2012)

You don’t need to be a literary scholar to see the differences.

Kicking off the old books we have: a birthday party, some geography, the description of a trail, and the sights and smells of a kitchen. Eddings, for his part, seems determined to absolutely destroy any narrative tension right at the outset, giving us love and security instead of mystery or suspense. Of the early works, Le Guin’s opening is probably the most exciting, but even she doesn’t zero in on a particular scene, providing us instead with something that sounds suspiciously like history.

In the new books, by contrast, we have: a beheading, a strangling, the potential death of the POV character, and a soulless Reaper. I can tell you right off the bat who’s going to end up on The Voice.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that the old books are weaker. In fact, the old books are classics, and deservedly so (whatever you think about Brooks ripping off Lord of the Rings). I do want to suggest that it looks as though the way readers and, therefore, writers approach beginnings is changing. The question is: is this bad? I have no idea. I’ve lost the ability to focus on the question long enough. Maybe one of you, however, someone who has escaped the brain suckers, could tell me what it all means…

12 thoughts on “Shakira and Usher Hate Tolkien; Opening Sentences in Fantasy

  1. Well, Brian, this is the first of your posts that I can truly relate to as someone who doesn’t read fantasy, both because I have an unpublished novel decaying on my hard drive, and because I’m addicted to The Voice and Adam Levine’s high-pitched squeak. As for my novel, on the basis of the first fifty pages, which I worked and re-worked until I could recite them, three agents asked for the whole 365-page circus and replied with the silence of no chairs turning…without even that pat-on-the-butt feedback afterward. In a perfect world, two lines of timed-for-ads criticism would have accompanied the emptiness so that I would have had some idea of what to do with the book other than nothing. Also, a pat on the butt from Adam Levine would also have been welcome. Anyway, baby clawing at my face.

    • Good to hear from you, Sam! We missed you at AWP, but I totally get that baby+snow+grading = impossible.

      I remember you talking about the novel a while back. What genre is it? Sounds like you just didn’t hit the right agent yet…

  2. Many people don’t realize that ALL fiction is now derivative of comic books. The mantra for both high and low quality comic book writing is that you must hook the reader at the beginning and ending of every page to ensure that the weakest of attention spans is not disrupted. That is the explanation given to writers. I have never failed to finish a comic book though, and I suspect that is not an uncommon experience. I think that what comics try to achieve is a certain ‘high’ where I forget boredom existed.

    It is another conversation altogether, but the fact that the predominant DNA in TV, Movies, Fantasy Novels, Science Fiction Novels, Mystery Novels, et cetera comes direct from comics is not limited to structural DNA alone. It is plot as well.

  3. They had a nice writeup on first sentences/graphs in Analog. Definitely worth a read. (and it’s by a writer, not an agent.)

    “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
    — that’s Martin’s actual first sentence, in the prologue. It’s not nearly as “punchy” as a lot of the newer style. He’s holding back on the horror, deliberately pulling a punch — don’t start it out hard and scary.

    The general rule is “Make you want to read the next sentence… the next page”

    Tolkien sounds like he’s setting us up for a teaparty (as in it would be quite fitting for an Jane Austen book opening…)

    Brooks and Leguin, while pretty, are basically introducing us to the world. With the presumption that they’ve got time

    1978, Analog:
    Lessa woke, cold. Cold with more than the chill of the everlastingly clammy stone walls. Cold with the
    prescience of a danger stronger than the one ten full Turns ago that had then sent her, whimpering with terror, to hide in the watch-wher’s odorous lair.

    Starting in media res can be very very powerful. It’s not the only technique, but it’s certainly riveting.

    I think the key ought to be to look at game intros (or thief fanmissions, for that matter). You have to make the person want to read on — I love the picture Brooks paints, but I want /someone/ in it.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Kim.

      I’d argue that the start to Martin’s prologue is also pretty “hooky” — it’s getting dark, the speaker is clearly nervous, and we’ve learned a number of people are dead. Certainly a good deal more exciting than Brooks or Eddings.

      Also, I completely agree with you about the importance of having people in the picture. People and something immediate that’s happening.

  4. Standard advice from an editor I know: Write Short Stories First.
    1) they’re quicker to write
    2) they’re harder than a novel
    3) Magazines have a vested interest in investing in you. They want more good writers. They’ll help you learn.
    4) They look awful good on your cover letter to agents.

  5. I personally don’t believe that the first paragraph should be a decisive factor in getting a book published, but the agents do. When I go to bookstalls, i usually look at the back of the cover, read what the book is about, and then decide whether to buy it or not.
    Death is the most interesting thing nowadays, it seems, as 3 out of 4 of your examples has a reference to death.
    I’d like to see different stuff in future.

    “Rot. It was the rot, Tan’is reflected as he stared down into his daughter’s eyes, that had taken his child.” pretty much nailed it though, I think.

  6. Yikes. I SO despise the Voice and American Idol, and etc, etc. Sorry. For me comics are inefficient in terms of return for expense, I read too fast and will burn through a comic in 20 minutes, even slowing down to look at the pretty pictures. And they cost too much.
    One of the reasons I’m a fan of David Weber, John Ringo, David Drake, Mercedes Lackey, Tolkien, and Eddings, among many others. Nice, long, chewy novels.
    Now, how to hook an agent, editor or publisher these days, without the flashy intro? I wonder if any of the “classics” would actually get published these days?

    • It’s a great question. I do see books getting published that don’t open with a huge splash, so I’m sure it’s still possible. There’s no question, however, that as more people start to write, the competition to stand out, especially when you’re totally unknown, becomes more and more fierce. Hard to say whether that’s a good thing or not!

  7. I always read the first few pages and the last few pages of any book I’m considering buying and if I like the writing, the characters grab me then I buy so first (and last!) impressions count. To date I’ve not found any book I’ve selected through this methodology to disappoint.

  8. I’m a professional musician and only recently I’ve been dedicating myself to writing. I always loved fantasy and I thought it was about time for me to try and write my own. By reading blogs such as this and informing myself about the practices of editors and the inner workings of the industry, I soon realized that the matter of the opening lines as a lot in common with the problem of “hooks” in pop songs. Nowadays, if you want a song to be even considered for radio play it needs to have a catchy chorus before it hits the 30 seconds mark. Now, as far as my taste is concerned, nothing good in music has ever been composed with this rule in mind and I do believe this to be true in literature as well. If an author is capable, passionate, has good knowledge of the genre and can write, then the opening paragraphs of his stories will be the ones that best resonate with his taste and vision. And if those stories don’t get published then, in my opinion, it only means that the market/ the time/ the target/ has been deemed not right by the industry. Same as with music, if one wants to write for the industry, then he/her should very much provide what the industry wants at a certain moment. But if one writes because of a vision, something he/her feels should be written, than that vision itself is the only guideline that matter, as I see it.

    I don’t know if fantasy holds a similar place in the literary world as pop does in music, maybe someone would be able to answer this question. The comparison between old and new is certainly revealing and I believe that one would find a similar result if all the other art forms, which had been turned into money making professions, were to be analyzed as well. I did that with music at least, and I know that to be true.

    • I’ve always been interested in the tension between individual artistic vision and marketplace concerns, whether it’s in music or writing. It seems to me that the greatest artist (Bach, Shakespeare) were able to write to order (whether music for church every week, or a play that would generate some money) while also exploring their own visions. You’re right, though, that the exercise of writing solely to someone else’s order isn’t likely to produce much of value…

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