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…

NOT SHRINKAGE! Fantasy and the Problem of Distance

All fantasy writers must, at one point or another, face down the following conundrum:

1. An epic world is physically vast.
2. A vast world takes a long time to traverse.
3. Too much traversing gets really, really boring.

The author is left to attack one (or more) of the three premises, but each approach has its risks.

Some writers choose to make their worlds smaller. Scott Lynch confines the action of his first book to a single city. Patrick Rothfuss allows Kvothe more leeway in The Name of the Wind, but the vast majority of book one transpires in just two locations; the voyages between are elided pretty swiftly. This can be an elegant solution; all the more so in the realm of fantasy, where concision and focus are not commonplace virtues. Confining the action to one specific locale (or a few of them) allows the writer to fully explore the location and avoid all the tedious traipsing required to get from point A to point B. That said, one of the reasons that many of us read epic fantasy is to explore a truly vast and diverse new land. Tightening the focus undermines this opportunity.

Some writers choose to whittle away at the second premise. The world can be huge, as long as your characters (or some of them) have a way to jump around with a little more alacrity when we get bored of slogging down the dusty roads and stopping at the wayside inns. Robert Jordan has the ‘Ways’ and later, when even those are too tedious, the ability of just about every major character to open a gateway. Tolkien has Gwaihir the eagle tote Gandalf around in two instances (once in his escape from Orthanc, the other after his battle with the Balrog), as well as rescuing Frodo and Sam after the destruction of the Ring. There are plenty of ways to move characters around a fantasy world quickly, but here, too, we run into dangers, although a different set from those mentioned above.

Chief among these new problems is shrinkage. As characters move more quickly, the world seems smaller. It’s harder to have forgotten cities or unexplored primeval forests when people can jump from one end of the world in an eye-blink. It’s harder to adopt an ominous tone, saying, “No one knows what lies beyond the mountains,” when the characters could simply hop through a gateway or jump on an eagle and check. The solution here is to limit the method of travel to certain occasions (e.g. it only works once a year) or characters (e.g. only these two dudes can do it).

But it’s easy to run into unexpected plot consequences. People are forever asking why Gandalf didn’t just stick Frodo (with the Ring) atop Gwaihir – ship him off to Orodruin and have done with it. While it may be possible to respond to this objection, the overarching problem remains: much of fantasy depends on physical obstacles to human movement. The very notion of a quest is generally dependent on geographical distance. Shrink that distance and quests (and treks, and hunts, etc.) shrink correspondingly in their significance.

The dangers inherent in attacking the first two premises lead some writers to attack the third: they disagree with the very notion that a slog of, say, a thousand miles, must eventually get boring. In fact, many writers find opportunity in this challenge. Fantasy literature is replete with epic treks (one of my favorites being the Chain of Dogs in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen). There’s no question that a long journey in which the protagonists are exposed to strange places – the more frightening, unexpected, and exotic, the better – can be a joy to read. And yet, I would contend that most series can only pull off one or two of these. After that, the reader (and characters) are familiar with the world and we want to get on with the plot already.

There’s no perfect solution. I tend toward option B in my own writing: selective opportunities for fast travel. Having created these opporutnities, however, I’m constantly amazed at how frequently they threaten to screw up my plot. I’d be curious to hear how other readers and writers think about this “problem of distance,” and the solutions you find most compelling.