This weekend I taught a class at DFW Writers Conference, titled “Rayguns or Magic Wands: Building Your World in 500 Words or Less,” and while prepping for this class ate up many, many hours of writing time, it was a great experience and I’m glad I got to share this information with the attendees.
(And now I take this moment to recommend DFW Writers Conference – it was a great use of my time, and I plan to go back. You should too!)
Unfortunately we didn’t get to cover the last bit, so I promised I’d include notes from my presentation on my website, and here we are.
So. Today’s post focuses on crafting a beginning that pulls the reader in and gives a taste of the worldbuilding that the writer has spent more time than they’d probably care to admit developing. Which leads us to the first of several important questions:
What does my beginning need?
A first line!
From Elizabeth Bear’s list of oughta’s, a first line oughta:
- Illuminate the theme of a book.
- Raise a question.
- Begin to develop setting, character, and tone.
- Hold the keys to resolution.
Some great first lines are zingers (“Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” ~ Elantris), while others have softer beginnings (“The primroses were over.” ~ Watership Down), but both indicated different types of worldbuilding.
They don’t try to ‘do it all.’
The Elantris opening line indicates, among other things, the type of government set up, a name of what will likely turn out to be an important country, a time of day, and the understanding that in this world, people are capable of being damned for all eternity and it’s likely to take one by surprise.
The Watership Down setting indicates the time of year and the (very) pastoral setting.
What each story chose to focus on says a great deal about what type of story they are planning to tell.
What else does a beginning need?
- A protagonist with at least one strong, defining trait that will come definitely into play in the scene.
- A strong, clearly-conveyed motivation for that protagonist.
- An interesting conflict that is easily understood regardless of setting.
- Highly polished writing.
- A twist at the end of the scene. – get them to keep reading past what amounts to a one-note character, simple setup, and hints of an intriguing world.
Question marks are shaped like hooks for a reason – so leave lots of questions!
Also, we discussed Elemental Genres (as defined by the podcast Writing Excuses) later in the presentation, which leads us to something I mentioned in the first line section that I wanted to discuss a bit more:
An indication of the type of story this will be.
This isn’t just a hint that this will be a fantasy novel or a historical novel set in 1600th century China, this indicates the tone promises you’re making to the reader. For example, An Abundance of Katherines by John Green is probably best categorized as Adventure+Humor+Relationship.
The tone set at the beginning should match the rest of the story, though as I mentioned in my presentation, there’s always an exception to the rule. Thus…
FOLLOW NO RULE OFF A CLIFF.
Writing Excuses has an abundance of resources on their website on Elemental Genres and on many, many other topics. Please look around their website to see if any of their topics in the past 11 seasons covers something you need to work on in your own writing, because they are amusing and instructive.
That’s all I have time for tonight. Next up we’ll talk using swear words, insults, and idioms for fun and profit.