Starting a fantasy novel?
Where to begin? It’s in your head; you can see the scenes, the characters, the settings; you’ve even envisioned the ending. Now, where to start it?
A friend told me a hint: Start on the day that is different.
That will grab your attention and your reader’s attention.
Let’s look at examples from four novels.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel is an excellent example of starting on the day that is different.
From the beginning of the book, the wizarding world is celebrating the demise of Lord Voldemort. But wait, that’s not the emphasis. The first chapter is from Uncle Vernon’s viewpoint. What was it to him that some weird people in odd clothes should be out, especially when they should have stayed in?
It’s just that the day would change his life also, and not in the respectable, ordinary way for him.
To our hero, Harry Potter, this was truly the day that was different in his life, even though he slept through it. This first book and all the following books reference this day over and over.
So what was the difference on this day? It was that Harry Potter was the boy who lived.
The reader is drawn into wondering just exactly what is going on and why. I kept turning the pages for seven books worth.
Till We Have Faces
C.S. Lewis, in his retelling of the Greek myth of Psyche, uses a character not mentioned in the original myth at all. But here in his work, Lewis explores the reactions and actions of a bitter and yet compelling woman in an unromanticized and generally crude ancient era.
The novel begins not so much on the day that’s different but the day when Oruel’s attitude is different. Oruel had decided she didn’t care what the gods would do to her, she was going to tell her story. She was determined to get her complaints against the eternal powers off her chest, so to speak and so help her. And she was sure all humanity would side with her.
From the memorable first sentence through the end of that extraordinary first paragraph, Lewis reveals Oruel’s character, her flaws but more – something about her that touches our human empathy. Lewis does this by starting right at the crux of her complaint, directly at the moment when she has decided to speak against the gods, against fate, against the whole system of the cosmos. She’s like a fictional Job.
And the reader is hooked…I certainly was. I still judge many a first line by Lewis’s opening sentence in Till We Have Faces.
Pride and Prejudice
Of course, Jane Austen is not a fantasy writer. Ah, that she had been! However, her most famous novel is a classic example of where and how to begin.
The opening line tells us readers what the book is going to be about, what main conflict we can expect, what kind of characters we’ll meet, and even hints on the novel’s resolution. The novel becomes a kind of essay on the treatise announced in the first sentence.
It’s not an earth-shattering question; it’s not a philosophic meat grinder. It’s simply a statement of fact, both in the early 19th century and even now. The genius is how Austen phrases it so elegantly, so boldly, and then how well she proceeds to develop it through the book that follows. The sentence becomes a motif worthy of Beethoven.
The day the novel begins is really an ordinary day to the book’s characters except for one bit of news, a tiny item in fact: the leasing of a neighboring manor. Even this news would have been of no consequence except for the marital status of the new tenant.
How could any of the five sisters have know how much that day would change their lives? Of course, Mrs. Bennet much desired one of her girls to marry the new neighbor and was determined it would be so. But we and they find out later the real change was not from the tenant but from whom he brought with him. Watch out, Elizabeth.
Now, I believe that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the metaphysical state of the tenant was of more interest, and very well it should be if he was losing body parts across the county.
But in Austen’s classic, I still smile at the wit she showed from the start.
Curious Origins of a Restless World
Now I go to my own novel. Is it in league with the others? That’s not for me to say, but it’s doubtful. Yet even the most mediocre can learn from the greats… and maybe find a way out of mediocrity.
I start with a day that changed the whole planet, its present and its future, the day the planet’s ‘Adam’ makes his first bad choice. But one story is hard to write for an entire planet, so I limited it down to him, to the man, to what his choice meant to him at that time.
But I wanted closer in. I wanted to telescope to the moment things changed. For Ayro and his world, that moment would be when he actually chose what he knew he shouldn’t.
Consequences come quickly afterward. It’s that way on our world, too.
When you’re writing your story, pick out that crucial change, an odd day, the moment that is different.