Many Kinds of Beginnings

Okay, first of all let’s be clear on the purpose of this workshop, shall we?

This workshop is to teach you to do better beginnings, and of course, that means eventually you’ll start off better right from the beginning.  That, however, like most things in the arts, takes a certain amount of internalizing the idea of how to begin, a certain amount of having practiced it so long it’s second nature.

I’m here to tell you that after 20 years of being published and selling most of what I write I can do it sometimes.  Sometimes I type in a perfect beginning and I go in awe of myself for a few hours.

Most of the time, though?  Most of the time I go on the “stick some words up there so I can start this book, I can always go back later and revise it.”

Where my knowledge of craft comes in is that revision.  It’s doing first pass on a book, looking at what I have up there, and then, sometimes ploddingly, constructing a new beginning.  And sometimes the GOOD beginning only hits when the book is getting typeset (Which I’m sure endears me to my publishers, yes.)  An example of that is Darkship Renegades, which had a much longer, clunky beginning.  That’s because a second book needs to bring the reader up to date on what went before, and that is another workshop (seriously) because it’s a tricky bit of craft.

Anyway, this workshop will give you — hopefully — the initial tools to evaluate and maybe even re-write/re-craft your beginning.  If it makes you so good you begin all your books RIGHT the first time, great, but don’t count on it till you have some practice.

Now, take out your number two pencil and take notes, because there will be a test.  (Wow.  I miss torturing students.  I just realized that.)

Anyway there are many kinds of beginnings.  Honestly, there are more than I can cover in a single post.  But I’m going to cover some types that have caught me in the past.  Keep in mind, while you’re going over these, that certain types of beginnings are better for certain kinds of books.

I find the “Uh WHAT?” beginning tends to work better for science fiction or thrillers or something where the “Uh WHAT?” will “pay out” through the story.  Though it can also work pretty well in mystery.  (Which honestly can also do fairly well with an “Atmospheric” beginning or a “Cool story bro” beginning.)  Fantasy tends to work very well with atmospheric, but it can do very well with “These people!” beginning.  And so can Romance.  What you have to remember is not to start a story with an atmospheric beginning and then have the rest of your story be as prosaic as boiled oatmeal.  Don’t start a story with a “Uh WHAT?” and then have the story be completely mundane.

One of the best FAILED beginnings I ever read was when I was a reader for a small press magazine.  It opened with “Marge, the stealth chickens are back again.” … and then it went on to be an attempt at magic realism, with a couple whose house had unexplained phenomena, where nothing was ever explained or solved.

I could see doing it as “The stealth chickens were back again.  The office was covered in invisible feathers.  You could tell by the way the muffled your steps, got up your nose and made you sneeze, or made the computers overheat.  Sometimes an invisible egg broke on a keyboard — because the user didn’t see it in time — and gummed up the insides.  The steady cot cot cot of well fed chickens became background music to the work day.
That morning, Bob had had enough.  After getting invisible egg on the bottom of his shoe, slipping on invisible feathers and almost breaking his head, he announced, “The exorcist didn’t work.  It’s time to get serious.”

From there I could take it at least five different ways from SF to Fantasy.

So, keep your genre in mind.


1- Uh… WHAT?

Beginnings often get you with the first line.  Often, but not always.  Sometimes it’s the second of the third line.

The only one I can remember of the top of my head — because they’re mostly used in short stories, is the one for 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

That grabs right away, because even in Europe where they use military time, only digital clocks show 13.  Old fashioned clocks strike 12 twice.

Another one is the classical Jim Butcher opening “The room was on fire, and it was not my fault.”  It’s doubly funny for those of us who’d already “met” Harry Dresden, but it’s still a “uh, what?” because people’s normal reaction to being in a room on fire is NOT to be scared of being blamed, but to run screaming.

This kind of opening is a great trick if you are still submitting on spec to magazines.  The normal magazine editor is buried under mountains of submissions.  If you make him go “Uh… what?” you’ve won the first strike.

The best one I ever managed, and it sold first fling out (for an antho, as happened) was “Dying is easy.  It’s staying alive afterwards that’s difficult.”

If there’s a concept in your short story or novel that lends itself to this kind of summary, use it, because it grabs.

2- Cool Story, Bro

This is more a situation or a thing that’s not quite normal, or is interesting in other ways.

The classical example for this is, of course, the opening for Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia.

On one otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.

Now, I didn’t just wake up that morning and decide that I was going to kill my boss with my bare hands. It really was much more complicated than that. In my life up to that point I would never have even considered something that sounded so crazy. I was just a normal guy, a working stiff. Heck, I was an accountant. It doesn’t get much more mundane than that.

That one screwed-up event changed my life. Little did I realize that turning my boss into sidewalk pizza would have so many bizarre consequences. Well, technically, he did not actually hit the sidewalk. He landed on the roof of a double-parked Lincoln Navigator, but I digress.

My name is Owen Zastava Pitt and this is my story.

It’s not your …. normal first line strange, and yeah, the second is strange but what we’re doing is going “How the hell did that happen.”  And by the end of that oepning we’re going “Okay, WHAT? Cool story bro, now tell me the rest.”

3- Something’s Happening Here

This is just opening with things on the move.  It seems simple. It isn’t, because you need to keep the reader interested in what’s on the move without stopping to give a long “how we got here” explanation.
The perfect opening example is Under A Graveyard Sky by John Ringo.

“AlasBabylon Q4E9,” the text read.

“Bloody hell.” And it really hadn’t started out as a bad day. Weather was crappy but at least it was Friday.

Steven John “Professor” Smith was six foot one, with sandy blond hair and a thin, wiry frame. Most people who hadn’t seen him in combat, and very few living had, considered him almost intensely laid back. Which in general was the case. It came with the background. Once you’d been dropped in the dunny, few things not of equal difficulty were worth getting upset about. Until, possibly, now.

He regarded the text from his brother and wondered if this was how morning walkers on 9/11 felt. He knew the basic code. Alas Babylon was a book about a nuclear war in the 1950s and survivors in the aftermath. The novel by Pat Frank was still one of the best looks at post-apocalyptic life ever written. And he and Tom had agreed that it was the best choice for a code indicating a real, this is no shit, general emergency. Not “I’ve got cancer” but “grab the bug-out bag and activate your Zombie Plan.” Which was why he wondered if this was the same feeling those morning New Yorkers had felt looking up at the gush of fire from the side of the Twin Towers. Disbelief, sadness, even anger. His mouth was dry, palms clammy, his sphincter was doing the bit where it was simultaneously trying to press neutronium and let go all over his seat. He felt all the cycles of grief go through him in one brief and nasty blast. Tom was not a guy to joke about the end of the world. Something had hit something or another.

Despite knowing it’d gone tits up, he hit reply.


The return message was immediate.

“Confirm, confirm, CONFIRM. Q4E9. CONFIRM!!”


The appeal should be obvious.  By this time you’re in the middle of it, you might as well find out what happens next. Needless to say to open with “Cool Story Bro” the opening has to be something out of the ordinary happening.  Yeah, people might get riveted by a description of someone making an omelet, but it best be a dragon egg omelet.

Another good one of these is the opening of Heinlein’s Friday (Which also has shades of “These people!”)

4 – These People!

This is when the situation is not particularly weird, the action isn’t moving at a clip, but we still want to know what These People will do next.  Either because these people are inherently fascinating, or because … well, because they’re the sort of people who seem to be interesting.

I’m not going to type it in, but go read the beginning of Venetia, by Georgette Heyer.  It caught me because “these people” are my type of people and that conversation could have taken place at my breakfast table, though admittedly only if I kept chickens.

And I’m sorry, I must apologize, but I’ve just figured out I don’t have They Walked Like Men by Clifford Simak in electronic.  This is annoying, because it’s one of my favorite openings, but if I go downstairs to the library to look for it in physical form, I’ll get caught and not come back for at least a day.  So …

Um, it opens with a tenant who just went to take his landlord to the airport.  He drops his keys at the door. Because the landlord is a skinflint who uses a low wattage bulb in the hallway, the tenant has to bend down to find the keys, which is when he sees the bear trap.

This is a “Uh what?” when you hit the bear trap, but up till then (a few sentences) it’s a “These people” because well, we all have friends who are skinflints.  It’s just normally it doesn’t save us from a bear trap.

5- Atmospheric

Sometimes the best opening isn’t with things moving, or with the “uh, what” but, particularly for certain fantasy worlds, with an atmospheric narration of something that is inherent in the world.

Take the opening to Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett: (Typos mine, because copying manually)

The little cup of valleys, glowing in the last shreds of the evening sunlight, was the kingdom of Lancre.  From its highest points, people said, you could see all the way to the rim of the world.

It was also said, although not by the people who lived in Lancre, that below the rim, where the seas thundered continuously over the edge, their home went through space on the back of four huge elephants that in turn stood on the shell of a turtle that was as big as the world.

The people of Lancre had heard of this.  They thought it sounded about right.  The wolrd was obviously flat, although in Lancre itself, the only truly flat places were tables, and the top of some people’s heads, and certainly turtles could shift a fair load.  Elephants, by all accounts, were pretty strong too.  There didn’t seem to be any major gaps in the thesis, so Lancastrians left it at that.

Of course, as some of you rules lawyers will tell me, the best of these openings partake of three or four different types.  But I identified the strongest.

REALLY good openings meld all of them.  Take this from Puppet Masters, by Robert A. Heinlein:

Were they truly intelligent? By themselves, that is? I don’t know and I don’t know how we can ever find out. I’m not a lab man; I’m an operator.

With the Soviets it seems certain that they did not invent anything. They simply took the communist power-for-power’s-sake and extended it without any “rotten liberal sentimentality” as the commissars put it. On the other hand, with animals they were a good deal more than animal.

(It seems strange no longer to see dogs around. When we finally come to grips with them, there will be a few million dogs to avenge. And cats. For me, one particular cat.)

If they were not truly intelligent, I hope I never live to see us tangle with anything at all like them, which is intelligent. I know who will lose. Me. You. The so-called human race.


For me it started much too early on July 12, ’07, with my phone shrilling in a frequency guaranteed to peel off the skull. I felt around my person, trying to find the thing to shut it off, then recalled that I had left it in my jacket across the room. “All right,” I growled. “I hear you. Shut off that damned noise.”

“Emergency,” a voice said in my ear. “Report in person.”

I told him what to do with his emergency. “I’m on a seventy-two hour pass.”

“Report to the Old Man,” the voice persisted, “at once.”

That was different. “Moving,” I acknowledged and sat up with a jerk that hurt my eyeballs. I found myself facing a blonde. She was sitting up, too, and staring at me round-eyed.

“Who are you talking to?” she demanded.

I stared back, recalling with difficulty that I had seen her before. “Me? Talking?” I stalled while trying to think up a good lie, then, as I came wider-awake, realized that it did not have to be a very good lie as she could not possibly have heard the other half of the conversation. The sort of phone my section uses is not standard; the audio relay was buried surgically under the skin back of my left ear-bone conduction. “Sorry, babe,” I went on. “Had a nightmare. I often talk in my sleep.”

“Sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine, now that I’m awake,” I assured her, staggering a bit as I stood up. “You go back to sleep.”

“Well, uh—” She was breathing regularly almost at once. I went into the bath, injected a quarter grain of “Gyro” in my arm, then let the vibro shake me apart for three minutes while the drug put me back together. I stepped out a new man, or at least a good mock-up of one, and got my jacket. The blonde was snoring gently.

I let my subconscious race back along its track and realized with regret that I did not owe her a damned thing, so I left her. There was nothing in the apartment to give me away, nor even to tell her who I was.

I entered our section offices through a washroom booth in MacArthur Station. You won’t find our offices in the phone lists. In fact, it does not exist. Probably I don’t exist either. All is illusion. Another route is through a little hole-in-the-wall shop with a sign reading RARE STAMPS & COINS. Don’t try that route either—they’ll try to sell you a Tu’penny Black.

Don’t try any route. I told you we didn’t exist, didn’t I?

Weirdly — did I claim to be normal — it was that last paragraph and question that grabbed me.  Eh.

Okay, so tell me your very favorite opening, and what grabbed you about it/why it worked.

Next week and then in following weeks we’ll take one these (and possibly others) , one by one, and then you get to do your own opening.  (I told you you you’d need your number 2 pencils and that there would be a test.  No whining.)




  1. Please do the workshop on beginning a second (third, fourth, N-th) novel soon! I’m starting the 4th in a series now, and the thing could drown under the weight of the accumulated backstory!

  2. Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.
    ‘What does “under the name” mean?’ asked Christopher Robin.
    ‘It means he had the name over the door in gold letters and lived under it.’

    Probably the humor is what drew me in. 🙂

  3. “You see, I had this space suit. How it happened was this way.
    “‘Dad,” I said, ‘I want to go to the Moon.'”

    I didn’t even have to look that up, it’s stuck with me over the years. Mind you, I’ve probably read it more times than I have years, but it’s still stuck with me.

  4. As you might expect I went and checked and The Walked Like Men is one of those golden age classics that has never been digitized.
    I know there is an active effort by certain individuals to track down rights to such works, professionally scan and format to e-book, then publish. Unfortunately there still exists an attitude amongst some rights holders, mainly estates and publishing houses, that e-books are somehow the work of the devil and it’s far nobler to let many excellent works languish in obscurity.

    1. Right? I OWN the paperback — probably three — but the library is still only minimally unpacked, and really not organized. I need to write a couple more books and get someone to put in more shelves.

      1. The usual sf samizdat folks have it translated into Russian, in a highly unofficial old text file. But I don’t think that’s going to help much. Their title translates as “Almost Like People.”

        Simak (or Saimak, amusingly enough, so as not to be confused with all the contemporary Simakovs and Simakovas) is apparently out of favor with the official Russian publishing world. He must have offended somebody posthumously. But there was a fairly complete series of his stuff published back in 1993-1994, so… yeah.

        The samizdat sf world apparently still loves him, which isn’t any surprise at all. “Humanism and lyricism, loneliness and romance – in my opinion, key words in relation to the works of Simak.”

        1. Whoops! Nope, actually They Walked Like Men and The Goblin Reservation have been reprinted several times. TWLM was in 1993, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2014. Almost always with different covers, too.

          Sorry, I just love poking around Russian book sites.

      1. It wasn’t my favorite opening, so perhaps I shouldn’t answer, but since a full day has passed…

        I’d say it’s an “Uh, what?” opening: the main issue that comes to mind after reading is, “What the heck is a hobbit?” and you read to find out.

        Continuing on with the opening, I would say that after the initial “uh, what?” it turns into a “these people”: Tolkien spends the next few pages describing the hole, but what he’s actually telling you is about the nature of hobbits.

  5. The opening for Snow Crash. I got the book gratis in a video game I picked up in the early nineties (free book was the clincher) and the opening, first page, and first chapter have been among my favorites ever since.

  6. Yup. A hook is good, a chain of hooks is even better. Don’t let the reader get away.

  7. I’ll presume to add one:
    The Doomed Character.
    When there’s a looming threat, but the main characters will remain unaware of it for some time. So you open the story with a character who will encounter the threat and die in the first few pages. The first chapter of A Game of Thrones is a good example of the trope.

    1. Usually the Doomed Character takes long enough to die that you need to introduce him with one of the others.

      1. Yes to the first part. They’re often short stories in their own right. (I suspect Block’s “Notebook Found in a Deserted House” started as one of these openings.)

        To the second part (that is, a major character is introduced alongside), I’m having trouble coming up with a single example of your contention. (Beyond a name-drop on a hastily mailed parcel). So “usually” is inaccurate.

  8. This is my rant on The Puppet Masters, and may, perhaps, be somewhat off-topic (and is certainly my opinion only). And this is possibly too long a post for the topic.

    I realize I’m not a writer, just a reader — but using the opening from The Puppet Masters (which was a brilliant book) reminded me of why editors are really vital.

    For those not familiar with what happened to the book, the short version is that Heinlein wasn’t happy with the edits that produced the final printed version. So he left instructions for his estate to take advantage of the new copyright law provision that said that an estate could cancel any outstanding contracts, and bring the work back under the estate’s control. Which they did, and, again following his instructions, they only licensed his unedited version, so that any copy you buy now (and that includes all of the electronic versions), is his text, not the post-edit text.

    And, having read both versions, there is no question that in general (I could probably even say “in every case”, but that might be slightly too strong) the editor was right, and Heinlein’s text is inferior. Which is why I have lots of copies of the original, since I know that, as they wear out, I can’t replace them with the better text. I don’t know exactly where the cutoff point was, but, by looking at the first paragraph, you can tell which version you have.

    So let’s compare the two versions — the expanded version is already there in the main posting.


    Were they truly intelligent? By themselves, that is? I don’t know and I don’t know how we can ever find out.

    If they were not truly intelligent, I hope I never live to see us tangle with anything at all like them, which is intelligent. I know who will lose. Me. You. The so-called human race.

    So the editor deleted the sentence about lab man/operator — it was unnecessary, since we’ll find out from the story. And then the rant about the Soviets was deleted as being unnecessary, since it also plays no part in the plot. And then the part about the animals was deleted, since it’s a spoiler for something that will have an essential big reveal much later in the book, and the reader should get the impact of the reveal then, instead of having it get spoiled here).


    For me it started much too early on July 12, ’07, with my phone shrilling in a frequency guaranteed to peel off the skull. The sort of phone my Section uses is not standard; the audio relay was buried surgically under the skin back of my left ear–bone conduction. I felt around my person, trying to find the thing to shut it off, then recalled that I had left it in my jacket across the room. “All right,” I growled. “I hear you. Shut off that damned noise.”

    “Emergency,” a voice said in my ear. “Report in person.”

    I told him what to do with his emergency.

    “Report to the Old Man,” the voice persisted, “at once.”

    That was different. “Moving,” I acknowledged and sat up with a jerk that hurt my eyeballs. I went into the bath, injected a quarter grain of “Gyro” in my arm, then let the vibro shake me apart for three minutes while the drug put me back together. I stepped out a new man, or at least a good mock-up of one, and got my jacket.

    So the blonde who had nothing to do with the plot or characterization gets removed, which lets the sentence about the phone get moved back up, since he doesn’t need to have to explain about things to the blonde, but we do need to know about the phone. And note that the stuff about leaving the blonde also gets removed. And the 72 hour pass gets removed — we don’t need to know why he’s unhappy about being told to report back, since that’s a perfectly normal thing.


    I entered our section offices through a washroom booth in MacArthur Station. You won’t find our offices in the phone lists. In fact, it does not exist. All is illusion. Another route is through a little hole-in-the-wall shop with a sign reading RARE STAMPS & COINS. Don’t try that route either—they’ll try to sell you a Tu’penny Black.

    Don’t try any route. I told you we didn’t exist, didn’t I?

    What got removed here was only the sentence, “Probably I don’t exist either.” — which is belaboring a point that was made already. It doesn’t hurt anything to have it there (unlike some of the other stuff added), but it doesn’t add anything, either, so why have it?

    Heinlein was a brilliant writer, and The Puppet Masters is one of his best. But his editor removed things that didn’t belong, and the opening was better for it. And I feel regret for people who only have read the unedited/expanded version; in my opinion (and it’s very much my opinion, and not something other than one reader’s opinion) the originally published version was a much stronger book.

  9. “It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”

    The language drew me in.

    “… It was the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die.”

  10. “Magia, city of Magicians, was located just East of West, a little North of South and just over the boundary of time…” (done from memory. But it starts atmospheric but then goes into ‘these people’ with a man who’s just a little bit magic, and his talking dog.) From “The Man who Was Magic” by Paul Galico.

    And the one I did last week: “There once was a boy named Eustace Clarance Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Is a ‘these people’ with a bit of ‘Ah… what?’ in there because you REALLY want to know what the poor kid did to DESERVE such a name.

    1. Same series, although I’d argue that they’re atmospheric more than “these people,” because they give the feeling of a fairy tale: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.”
      Or (definitely atmospheric), and IMO the best example in the series:
      “The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some , an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was _a_ beginning.
      “Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rives, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow.”

  11. From “The Last Camel Died at Noon” (slightly edited for space):

    “Hands on hips, brows lowering, Emerson stood gazing fixedly at the recumbent ruminant. A sympathetic friend (if camels have such, which is doubtful) might have taken comfort in the fact that scarcely a ripple of agitated sand surrounded the place of its demise. Like the others in the caravan of which it was the last, it had simply stopped, sunk to its knees, and passed on, peacefully and quietly. (Conditions, I might add, that are uncharacteristic of camels alive or moribund.)

    “These conditions are also uncharacteristic of Emerson. To the readers who have encountered my distinguished husband, in the flesh or in the pages of my earlier works, it will come as no surprise that he reacted to the camel’s death as if the animal had committed suicide for the sole purpose of inconveniencing him….

    ” ‘Curse it, Amelia, I told you this was a harebrained scheme!’

    ” ‘Yes, Emerson, you did,’ I replied. ‘In precisely those words, if I am not mistaken. If you will cast your mind back to our first discussion of this enterprise, you may remember that I was in full agreement with you.’ …

    ” ‘Then what the devil are we doing here?’ Emerson bellowed.”


    I’d call it a “Cool story, Bro” opening. I want to keep reading, because I want the answer to Emerson’s question: what ARE they doing out here in the middle of the desert, and how are they going to survive?

    I’d also say that this beginning is effective for me because of the combination with the title and the rest of the series. In most books in the series, the title is an allusion to some Ancient Egyptian text: i.e. “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” is a phase from an Egyptian poem and is a metaphor for the dangers that must be faced for love, no actual crocodiles appear in the book. That’s not the case for this book, however, as the beginning makes clear: the last camel really is dead, our heroes really are many days’ journey from the Nile, and the situation is just about as dire as can be.

  12. I usually write from the middle outward, and the beginning is often the last bit finished. With my first book I kept having to back up and back up until with the 3rd spate in reverse I hit the actual initiating scene, but still wasn’t happy with how it kicked off. And it finally came to me that I needed to back up five seconds more, and got this opening line:

    The Skai came at him out of the dark, lance blade glowing red as blood.

    NOW I’m happy with it.

    What kind of opening: Who is this guy, and why is he trying to kill me??

    [And years later I realised it’s actually a flashback, tho since the writer didn’t know this, the reader isn’t expected to either.]

  13. [b]
    “Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars — Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
    — The Nemedian Chronicles.

    Ok, it’s not my VERY favorite. But it’s an excellent example of a type I’m fond of.

    Another good one of a sightly different skew by the same author, but still in the atmospheric category:
    Into the west, unknown of man,
    Ships have sailed since the world began.
    Read, if you dare, what Skelos wrote,
    With dead hands fumbling his silken coat;
    And follow the ships through the wind-blown wrack
    Follow the ships that come not back.

    1. Great way to intro the world and main character in one paragraph without it being info-dumpy.

      And some people actually dismiss Robert E Howard as a hack.

  14. The extraordinary events of that summer of 1144 may properly be said to have begun the previous year, in a tangle of threads both ecclesiastical and secular, a net in which any number of diverse people became enmeshed….

    And my best guess is … I don’t know. Not Something Happened because we are not in the middle… Not people because we don’t know any … I think Uh, What has to be more immediate action… Okay I’ll settle for Cool Story, Bro but if I flunk I won’t be surprised.

  15. “Patrick combusted today.”

    This is one of those WTF openings.

    Several things combined to make this eye-catching. First, the casualness of the narrator’s report makes it seem like this is something that happens a lot. Second, the intransitive form makes it seems that Patrick did this himself or that it just happened. Third, the odd word “combusted” as opposed to “burned up” makes it sound like something extraordinary is going on.

    This was from a story someone submitted to an online critique group some years ago, and I doubt it ever saw print, but I’ve never seen another opening line that grabbed me like this one did.

  16. “He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.

    There was some justification for Kim – he had kicked Lala Dinanath’s boy off the trunnions – since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white – a poor white of the very poorest.” (_Kim_ by Rudyard Kipling)

    A little “huh” at the setting, a little “who is this?” and a little “OK, what’s up here” because Kim doesn’t exactly fit the setting, or does he?

  17. “But if he thought the woman was being murdered____”
    “My dear Charles,” said the young man with the monocle, “it doesn’t do for people, especially doctors, to go about ‘thinking’ things. They may get into frightful trouble.”

    Uh What? With a touch of These People! and even a bit Atmospheric, now that it’s old enough to be quaint.

    Dorothy Sayers _Unnatural Death_

  18. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone forty eight days now without taking a fish” – The Old Man & The Sea by Ernest Hemmingway.

    Introduce character. Introduce character’s problem = perfection.

  19. Hmm … I think that the opening to Sunset and Steel Rails is a good “Uh…wot?” opening:
    “Under the dour painted gaze of her great-grandfather, Lycurgus Saltinstall Vining, Sophia Brewer’s life ended on a mild and sunny spring afternoon, on a day when the tulips were in bloom in the Public Gardens, down the hill from Richard Brewer’s fine Beacon Street mansion. The tall windows of the study stood open to the fresh spring breeze, barely stirring the curtains and bouquets of yellow tulips and blue hyacinths, which filled the tall blue and white Chinese export vases placed just so on the parlor mantel, and on the table.”

    Sets the atmosphere, hints at the situation, and — her life ends?

    Well, yes, it does – the normal life of a pampered Victorian lady…

  20. PS — Saw some nice historical romance style covers on the Russian sites. They had the romantic couple in some posh background, in the upper 2/3 of the cover, and then a romantic posh landscape in the bottom 2/3, with the author and title at the bottom of the top area, and at the top of the bottom area, respectively.

    They’re actually part of an epic fantasy line with a lot of romance in it. Still, I think it fits the genre more for historical romance, unless you have an obvious elf or mage or something.

  21. Just about any published book can supply a favorite hook;
    because, if the openings were no good, the writers did not do as they should.

    A really lame opening most likely wouldn’t have made it publication in the Dusty Tome Universe, for the editorial reasons noted above under “Puppet Master” (all good points; but it looks to me that Heinlein may have had some episodes in mind that were also cut to shorten the work, back in the day when the norm was not 900 pages for volume 1).

    My candidates are not sf or fantasy, although with some reworking they could have been.
    However, given our remove from the historical eras involved, one might argue that they are at least “alternative universe” sorts of things.
    They are of category 4: These People.
    I certainly found them interesting enough to read on, and they got more interesting as the book progressed.

    The first, I suspect, is well-known to a lot of you. The first sentence saves the subsequent exposition from any taint of the mundane mediocrity typical of Modern Romance novels (the earlier meaning of “romance” was more typical of what we would call Adventure, with High Chivalric Romance partaking of Fantasy).
    The reader is also warned by the author’s tone that some levity will ensue, which it does.

    * *
    He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.
    And that was all his patrimony. His very paternity was obscure, although the village of Gavrillac had long since dispelled the cloud of mystery that hung about it. Those simple Brittany folk were not so simple as to be deceived by a pretended relationship which did not even possess the virtue of originality.

    — Rafael Sabatini, “Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution”

    * * *
    The second is perhaps not so familiar, so allow me to introduce you.

    “Lymond is back.”
    It was known soon after the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere with an illicit cargo and a man she should not have carried.
    “Lymond is in Scotland.
    It was said by busy men preparing for war against England, with contempt, with disgust; with a side-slipping look at one of their number. “I hear the Lord Culter’s young brother is back.” Only sometimes a woman’s voice would say it with a different note, and then laugh a little.

    — Dorothy Dunnett, “The Game of Kings”

    If you don’t know Francis Crawford of Lymond yet, this series puts “Game of Thrones” in the shade for range and depth of both plot and character, yet can be given unblushingly to your younger kin and friends (I started in Junior High, so didn’t quite understand everything, but that didn’t slow me down).


    Venetia by Georgette Heyer

    “But you’re enchanting!” he exclaimed.

    She put out her hands quickly, to hold him off. “No!”

    He caught her wrists, and swept them behind her, clipping them in the small of her back, and so holding her chest to chest. Her heart beat fast; she felt breathless, but not afraid.

    “Yes!” he said, still mocking. “You should have run away, my golden girl, while you had the chance to do it!”

    “I know I should, and I can’t think why I did not,” she replied, incurably candid.

    “I could hazard a guess.”

    She shook her head. “No. Not if you mean it was because I wanted you to kiss me again, for I don’t. I can’t prevent you, for my strength is so much less than yours. You needn’t even fear to be called to account for it. My brother is a schoolboy, and – very lame. Perhaps you already know that?”

    “No, and I’m obliged to you for telling me! I need have no scruples, I see.”

    She looked up at him searchingly, trying to read his mind, for although he jeered she thought his voice had a bitter edge. Then as she stared into his eyes she saw them smiling yet fierce, and a line of Bryon’s flashed into her head: There was a laughing devil in his sneer. “Oh, do let me go!” she begged. “I’ve suddenly had the most diverting thought! Oh, dear! Poor Oswald!”

    He was quite taken aback, as much by the genuine amusement in her face as by what she had said, and he let her go.

  23. “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

    Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

    In terms of the openings you mention, I’d call this a mix of Those People and Atmospheric. (Okay, so there is more of the Atmosphere in the next few paragraphs. Chandler invokes a sense of place with an economy of words that can be breathtaking. His LA is a magical and terrible place.)

    But there is Philip Marlowe. The care he takes to describe his clothing makes the reader imagine him taking the same care to choose his outfit. The fact that he specifies being neat, clean, shaved, and sober tells us that he isn’t always. He’s a private detective, and he is going to see a rich client. He’s intimidated by his potential client and worried about making a good impression. He doesn’t have to spell it out, the way he describes himself tells us he’s insecure.

    That’s what hooks me in an opening. Give me someone to care about, something that the person wants, and a reason to suspect that the character won’t get it, and I’m hooked. Chandler does this and he does it without taking about feelings once.

  24. The best opening I’ve come up with yet was a “those people.”

    “If I was Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, I’d start this here story with something sad and philosophical about watching the rain fall. Only thing is, it wasn’t raining.”

    It helped that it was a radio play, so the cheerful tone and Southern accent were more pronounced. It a)so heloed that it was the second in a series, so I didn’t have to telegraph that this detective story was also science fiction.

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