“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
“Through the shredded black clouds a fire moved like a dying star, falling back to earth —
the earth, that is, of the Discworld —
— but unlike any star had ever done before, it sometimes managed to steer its fall, sometimes rising, sometimes twisting, but inevitably heading down.
Snow flowed briefly on the mountain slopes, when it crackled overhead.
Under it, the land itself started to fall away. The fire was reflected off walls of flue ice as the light dropped into the beginnings of a canyon and thundered now through its twists and turns.” – Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum
“The noise was ended now. The smoke drifted like thin, gray wisps of fog above the tortured earth and the shattered fences and the peach trees that had been whittled into toothpicks by the cannon fire. For a moment silence, if not peace, fell upon those few square miles of ground where just a while before men had screamed and torn at one another in the frenzy of old hate and had contended in an ancient striving and then fallen apart, exhausted.” – Clifford Simak, Way Station.
“In the year A.D. 400, the Emperor Yuan held his throne by the Great Wall of China, and the land was green with rain, redying itself towards the harvest, at peace, the people in his dominion neither too happy nor too sad.” – Ray Bradbury, The Flying Machine.
Look at those openings above. They’re obviously not “these people” because except for the first — and it’s not exactly people — there are no people to be “these”.
Is there action? Well, sort of. I mean things are happening. But if those are the main characters of your novel they’re kind of weird, consisting of a hole in the ground, a light in the sky, noise and apparently the Emperor Yuan.
Of course these are atmospheric beginnings.
Atmospheric beginnings are hard to do. It’s easy to get lost in writing about things in general, but will they capture the reader? And while you — well, okay, I — can go on forever about the beautiful landscape, the wretched times, the strange events in the neighborhood, what good is that if your reader yawns and gently closes the book and goes to sleep?
To carry off an atmospheric beginning, too, you need impeccable wording, coherent, clear, and well… intriguing. If that’s what your book calls for, a touch of the poetic doesn’t hurt either. And the true fact of the matter is that while some of us were born with chips of the blarney stone in our fingers (yeah, it’s painful, why?) and spin off words that are beautiful in and of themselves by default, even those of us who do that (It’s no great brag, it’s the most common gift of writers, and the one worth least, as it carries a trap within it) don’t necessarily apply it to any purpose, and beautiful words for no reason are cloying, like a surfeit of sweetness in a cake.
So am I saying don’t do it?
Hell no. Look at those openings above. Don’t they just about drag you into the story?
So, there are reasons to write an atmospheric beginning. I’ve discovered three.
One – When there is stuff about your background you need to convey, and the character won’t necessarily be thinking about it.
Two – When your people/characters will appear incredibly mundane in their first appearance, and you want to convey the magic/science/history behind the seemingly ordinary events.
Three – Both of the above combined.
Tolkien’s is sort of one, because, well, he needs to convey there is such a thing as a hobbit, and how better to do it than prosaically telling us about hobbit holes?
Pratchett’s is two. We need to know something strange and special happened.
Bradbury is one – he’s situating us in place and time and taking advantage of his advantage, i.e. that while words might be the most common gift of any writer, Bradbury had it to an uncommon degree and could write rings around us with half of his vocabulary tied behind his back.
Simak’s is three – he is (hopefully you guys don’t mind minor spoilers) introducing his character’s background in the civil war and at the same time bringing in one of the themes of the story: war. Humans fight. Other intelligent creatures will probably fight also.
I use atmospheric beginnings for my Shifter Series with Baen, because if I didn’t the opening scenes would seem to be hardly science fiction/fantasy at all. (It’s a long story, but it’s science fiction disguised as urban fantasy and even I didn’t know it till book 3.) So I often start with a Colorado weather report told in the most interesting terms possible (of course, our weather is interesting) then segue to something supernatural/odd. Take Draw One In the Dark (Free in the Baen Free Library!)
The July night sprawled, warm and deep blue over Goldport, Colorado. In the distance the mountains were little more than suspicions of deeper darkness, a jagged outline where no stars appeared.
Most of Goldport was equally dark, from its slumbering suburbs to the blind silence of its downtown shops. Only the streetlights shone, at intervals, piercing the velvet blackness like so many stars.
At the edge of the western suburbs that climbed—square block after square block—into the lower slopes of the Rockies, the neon sign outside a Chinese restaurant flickered. Three Luck Dragon flared, faded, then flared again, and finally turned off completely.
A hand with nails that were, perhaps, just a little too long turned over a sign that hung on the window, so that the word “closed” faced the parking lot.
After a while, a sound broke the silence. A flapping, noise, as though of sheets unfurling in the silent night. Or perhaps of large wings beating.
(You see what I mean about the limits of my own wording ability compared to the masters?) This scene ends in a gathering of dragons.
The next scene, the beginning of the book proper, with the characters proper, is almost painfully prosaic:
Kyrie was worried about Tom. Which was strange, because Tom was not one of her friends. Nor would she have thought she could care less if he stopped showing up at work altogether.
But now he was late and she was worried. . . .
She tapped her foot impatiently, both at his lateness and her worry, as she stared out at the window of the Athens, the Greek diner on Fairfax Avenue where she’d worked for the last year. Her wavy hair, dyed in multicolored layers, gave the effect of a tapestry. It went well with her honey-dark skin, her exotic features, and the bright red feather earring dangling from her ear, but it looked oddly out of place with the much-washed full-length red apron with “Athens” blazoned in green across the chest.
Outside everything appeared normal—the winding serpentine road between tall brick buildings, the darkened facade of the used CD store across the street, the occasional lone passing car.
She looked away, disgusted, from the windows splashed with bright, hand-scrawled advertisements for specials—souvlaki and fries—$3.99, clam chowder—99¢, Fresh Rice Pudding—and at the large plastic clock high on the wall.
Having done it and for a durn good reason, I can give you my rules for an atmospheric beginning. Remember these are my rules for myself. You guys much shift according to your lights. There are no immutable rules in writing fiction, only those that are immutable for a particular writer. That said, yours might bear some resemblance to mine.
1- Because it’s expensive in polish and care, use sparingly.
2- If you must use it, keep it brief and segue into something more interesting (often one of the other hooks) as soon as possible. So above, I segue into “these people” with people coming out of their houses, summoned by a dragon, before I drop into the seemingly mundane protagonist’s life.
3- If you’re doing all that work, make it do double work: imbue it with a special feel that you want for the novel, even if you’re not going to keep the wording at that level; fill it with the theme of the novel that you want to draw attention to; have it reveal a facet of the character’s personality that won’t otherwise be obvious.
And that’s it. Only you can decide if you need atmospherics!
Next and last post: a general guide on what opening to use for what type of novel.