Book cover of Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling
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Realms of Fantasy

by Bill Johnson

My process in breaking down the opening of a novel is to set out the first lines or lines, followed by some comments of what makes the opening 'work' as a story. I continue this through 1-3 paragraphs, so I'm really focusing on what about an opening page of the novel pulls a reader forward to read a second page. On my main web site, www.storyispromise.com, I do go into greater depth. For example, I break down the first several pages of the Exorcist.

On my YouTube web site, Oregon Writers Speak, David D Levine (Hugo award winner for Tk'tk'tk) and Mike Shepherd (Chris Longknife) speak about their writing, and Patty Wells speaks about Orycon, a science fiction and fantasy convention held in Portland.

The novels I'm starting with are:

Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin
The Lost Colony, an Artemis Fowl novel
The Spell Sword, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Last Unicorn, by Peter Beagle

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Writing the Fantasy Hook

Notes on Page 1 of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones


Whenever a novel or series becomes hugely successful, I like to break down an opening page to convey how the writing and story hooked readers. I teach that some struggling writers are what I call blind imitators. They think they are doing and achieving what a master storytelling like Martin is doing, but when I offer this kind of breakdown and compare it to their opening pages, I'm trying to convey the real differences in the writing.

My goal here will be to break down the 13 pages of the prologue, one page at a time.

In the beginning...

Game of Thrones opens with a map of this world, which is a quick way to orient readers to a new and different world.

Then...

Prologue

And...

     "We should start back," Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. "The wildings are dead."

The unusual name, Gared, is a quick way to suggest this is not contemporary world. The image of the woods growing dark also works as a metaphor to suggest darkness is coming upon this world. Details of a time and place ring true when they convey a subtext.

The line 'The wildings are dead' convey both mystery and questions. What are wildings? How did they die? Why does Gared feel this urgency to turn back?

      "Do the dead frighten you?" Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.

The mocking smile here suggests that Royce is in command of Gared, and also that Royce is arrogant.

     Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”

That a man is old at fifty suggests the violence of this world. This passage also conveys something about the relationship of Gared to Royce (soldier loyal to a royal lineage), and that Gared is a no nonsense man. Martin has moved from a mysterious opening to specific details about the characters that provide one answer, what is Gared to Royce, but also raises more questions, what is this royal family Gared has been in service to? Are they part of this Game of Thrones?

This question, answer, question process demonstrates Martin's ability to both raise questions to draw readers in, and to provide answers that raise more questions that continue that process of engaging, holding, and rewarding the attention of an audience. At some workshops, I'll have new authors read from the first page of a manuscript one sentence at a time to show the lack of questions.

Continuing...

     "Are they dead?" Royce asked softly. "What proof have we?"

This acts out that Royce is more thoughtful than Gared, and also suggests that Gared and Royce probably have differing goals.

Continuing...

     "Will saw them," Gared said. “If he says they are dead, that's proof enough for me.”

     Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.

This brings in the third character in the scene at a dramatic moment, and someplace he'd rather not be, in the middle of this argument.

     "My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman's tit. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, too loud in the twilight forest.

A wet nurse is someone brought in to suckle the young of nobility, again conveying Royce's status. The line about learning from the dead also suggests the difference between Royce and Gared, a thoughtful young leader and a hardened warrior.

The note about his voice being too loud again conveys the menace of the situation. What or whom could be listening?

     "We have a long ride before us," Gared pointed out. "Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling."

What Gared conveys here is that he is willing to argue a point, even with a superior. This also raises the question, what is the destination of their journey?

     Ser Waymar Royce glanced at the sky with disinterest. “It does that every day about this time. Are you unmanned by the dark, Gared?”

Royce openly taunts Gared now. The argument is escalating and raises a question: what will be the outcome of this taunt? How will Gared respond? Can he, if Royce is his lordling?

I'm ending the review here and will continue with the next page.

One feels reading this opening page that it is a step into and deeper into this world. Often when I read manuscripts and ask inexperienced writers why they are making banal choices, I often hear a word I dread. They are 'introducing' their characters. George R. R. Martin is doing something altogether different here. He has set his story into motion with these three men who are being swallowed by an ominous darkness.

One page, one step into this mysterious world.

Novels that lack that clearly defined, carefully crafted forward movement from their opening lines are often static and dramatically inert, no matter how nicely detailed the people and places. That's why most agents don't need to read more than a first paragraph to realize they aren't reading the next George R. R. Martin.

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Starting at the Beginning in the Middle

Notes on Artemis Fowl, The Lost Colony

A book that is part of a series still needs to have a beginning that sets the story in motion. The opening for this novel demonstrates how to set a story into motion while filling in back story for new readers. Because Colony is aimed at young readers, the story mechanics are accessible and transparent, and that makes it a good tool for teaching structure.

Chapter Title: Blast to the Past

This is a clever play on the line, blast from the past. This suggests a story that will go back in time.

Barcelona, Spain

This is a quick, fast way to establish a location. When I read some unpublished novel manuscripts, I have no sense of where the story is happening.

The first line...

Happy was not a word often used to describe Artemis Fowl's bodyguard.

Saying what kind of person the bodyguard isn't is a way to suggest what kind of person he is.

Jolly and contented were also words that were rarely applied to him or to people in his immediate vicinity.

Note the clever way this suggests the impact of this bodyguard on others. We're getting the message he's a larger than life, rough-looking man. Without saying that.

Butler did not get to be one of the most dangerous men in the world by chatting with anyone who happened to stroll past, unless that chat concerned exit routes and concealed weapons.

This passage not only suggests how dangerous Butler is, but the likelihood of violence happening around him. He's a dramatic character. Like Bud in L.A. Confidential, we can anticipate what will happen if someone acts out around Butler.

Note also that this last sentences gives a name to Butler. The author has moved from the general to the specific. A problem in some manuscripts I read is that an introduction of a character will go from general to specific and back to general.

Continuing...

On this particular afternoon, Butler and Artemis were in Spain, and the bodyguard's Eurasian features were even more taciturn than normal.

Now we get some brief description of Butler and a question, why was his appearance more 'taciturn' than normal? We can expect an answer shortly. That begins that process of question, answer, question that draws readers in and deeper into a story's world.

His young charge was, as usual, making Butler's job more complicated than it needed to be.

This raises a question of why? And it says something about the relationship between Butler and his charge.

Artemis insisted that they stand on the sidewalk of Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia for over an hour in the afternoon sun, with only a few slender trees to provide them with cover from the heat or possible enemies.

An introduction to the 'young charge' here, a move from the general to specific about the location, and a question, why does Artemis insist on this location if they are in danger from enemies?

This was the fourth unexplained trip to foreign locations in as many months. First Edinburgh, then Death Valley in the American West, followed by an extremely arduous trek to doubly landlocked Uzbekistan. And now Barcelona. All to wait for a mysterious visitor, who had not as yet made an appearance.

This suggests back story, while also raising more questions; why didn't the visitor show at these locations? Who is the visitor? Why is meeting the visitor so important?

They made an odd couple on the busy pathway. A huge, muscular man: forties, Hugo Boss suit, shaven head. And a slight teenager: pale, raven-haired, with large piercing blue eyes.

Here we move from the general to the specific about these characters. First we're drawn in to be curious about these two, then we get the specifics about what they look like. Some writers struggle because they start with details about characters ahead of drawing in readers to want those details.

This isn't to say that describing characters can't be a way to begin a story, just that the intent should be to set a story into motion and raise and answer questions that draw readers in.

The story now continues with a dialog between Artemis and Butler that conveys their relationship and something about the expected visitor. Artemis relates that the visitor will only appear for a second.

Very interesting. We get a kind of answer about the visitor that just raises another question.

Artemis refers to a 'rift' in time that he expected the visitor to appear from. Again an answer with another question embedded.

The exchange continues with Artemis mentioning that going through puberty is leading him to be distracted by any pretty young woman in the vicinity. Something he believes he can control, which would make him 'the first' to do so.

And here, the author steps in.

And it was true. No other teenager had kidnapped a fairy, rescued their father from a Russian Mafiya, and helped put down a goblin revolution by the tender age of fourteen.

More back story to bring new readers about to speed about the exploits of Artemis and the plot lines of previous books.

Then, as Artemis and Butler prepare to leave...

A shape formed in the air. From nothing came a cluster of sparks and the smell of sulfur. Inside the cluster, a gray-green thing appeared, with golden eyes, chunky scales, and great horned ears.

This is the anticipated visitor, who as soon as it appears, disappears with Artemis.

Artemis and the demon pass through several times and dimensions, and Artemis knows he'll never be able to return home ... except Butler has keep a grip on Artemis and he has a charm on his wrist, which enables him to pull Artemis back to the present time and place.

But Artemis notices that two of his fingers have changed places in his dimensional travels, which raises the question:

What will happen now?

End of chapter.

We know something more about the visitor, but not the reason of the visit. That will be for another chapter.

What this novel demonstrates is how a story can be set in motion while also leavening in back story. I've read openings to novels where a writer couldn't get through a first sentence without trying to stop the storytelling and starting the lecture about past events.

The goal is always the same: set a story in motion in a way that your audience WANTS to know more about your characters and events. Fail at that, and all that information is just weights that sink your sentences into an impassable swamp.

The Lost Colony is an example of how it can be done.

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The Spell Sword is a novel in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series. The novel begins with an intriquing first sentence:

He had followed a dream, and it had brought him here to die.

Some of the questions, who is he, what is his dream, where is he that he faces death?

Half conscious, he lay on the rocks and thin moss of the mountain crevasse, and in his dazed state it seemed to him that the girl he had seen in that earlier dream stood before him.

This second sentence begins to answer the question, where is he, and sets out that a girl is part of his dream. The answers in the second sentence raise new questions: who is the girl, where is this crevasse.

You ought to be laughing, Andrew Carr said to her imagined face. If it weren't for you I'd be halfway across the galaxy by now.

Not laying here half dead on a frozen lump of dust at the edge of nowhere.

These sentences give the narrator a name, and suggest that somehow this girl interrupted what he felt was his purpose in life. There's also the question of how he ended up in this place.


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Taking Steps -- Setting a Story Into Motion

by Bill Johnson

A review of the opening chapter of The Last Unicorn, by Peter Beagle.

Good stories create a journey a story's audience can share. One aspect of creating a journey is taking a first step. When the first chapter of a novel takes that first step, the storytelling demonstrates an ability to create a story journey. Some writers struggle because a first chapter is not a step forward, but an introduction of characters, settings, and plot. I'm going to use several paragraphs from The Last Unicorn to demonstrate how Peter Beagle created a compelling, engaging first step in a story journey.

The title of the novel raises several questions: why is there only one unicorn left? Will it survive? A good title can raise or suggest a dramatic question that draws in readers.

The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.

This first sentence suggests a story about being all alone in the world, an issue that resonates with many people.

She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

First the introduction of an issue for the unicorn, then a lyrical physical description. Some hunters pass through the unicorn's forest, and from evesdropping the unicorn learns that she is probably the last of her kind. This sets up in her a state of narrative tension, as she wonders if she is indeed the last unicorn, of if the others were waiting for her?

But when she stopped running at last and stood still, listening to crows and a quarrel of squirrels over her head, she wondered. But suppose they are hiding together, somewhere far away? What if they are hiding and waiting for me? From that first moment of doubt, there was no peace for her; from the time she first imagined leaving her forest, she could not stand in one place without wanting to be somewhere else. She trotted up and down beside her pool, restless and unhappy. Unicorns are not meant to make choices. She said no, and yes, and no again, day and night, and for the first time she began to feel the minutes crawling over her like worms. "I will not go. Because men have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean they have all vanished. Even if it were true, I would not go. I live here."

A character is in a state of narrative tension when he or she feels compelled to act, but with compelling reasons not to act, and acting increases the tension. A novel with a main character who is not in a state of narrative tension risks not being dramatically compelling.

Continuing,

Under the moon, the road that run from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead sh took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could.

The unicorn has taken the first step of her journey. She doesn't just make the decision, but takes that step. Many stories have both this physical journey and a journey toward the resolution of an issue of human need, or the illumination and exploration of ideas.

On her journey, the unicorn meets a man who confuses her for a horse.

Sometimes she thought, "If men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be unicorns in the world yet, unknown and glad of it." But she knew beyond both hope and vanity that men had changed, and world with them, because the unicorns were gone. Yet she went on along the hard road, although each day she wished a little more that she had never left her forest.

This raises the stakes in the story, that what's happening is not just about a solidary unicorn, but about the larger world; that if this last unicorn is lost, something fundamental about this world will be lost. Some writers struggle because they don't set up something to be at stake in the larger world of their stories.

And, the narrative tension continues to increase for the unicorn.

The unicorn meets a silly butterfly who sings silly songs, but just before leaving, the butterfly reveals to the unicorn,

"You can find your people if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints. Let nothing dismay you, but don't be half-safe." His wings brushed against the unicorn's skin.

Now the unicorn knows what happened to the other unicorns, but not where to find them. She now has a clue to what happened, but the clue frames larger questions: Where did the Red Bull take the other unicorns, can she find them, can she defeat the Red Bull?

Continuing, a carnival carvan led by Mama Fortuna, a wise woman, happens upon the sleeping unicorn. Knowing what she has found, she has a cage built around the unicorn to trap it. The first chapter ends with the unicorn waking. This sets up a powerful question, will this help or hinder the Unicorn in her quest?

The end of the chapter also suggests that the Magician, who is in conflict with Mama Fortuna, might become an ally of the unicorn.

To get the answer, a reader must turn the page and keep reading.

If Peter Beagle had started with an introduction of the unicorn, an introduction of the old man who mistook her for a horse, an introduction to the butterfly, and Mama Fortuna's carnival, then brought these characters together in the second chapter, that kind of first chapter would have been dramatically static. He choose instead to set the Unicorn on a journey where she meets characters who impact that journey.


The Last Unicorn is a great example of how to introduce and set a story into motion in one chapter.


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I break down other novels, plays, and films at my web site, A Story is a Promise. I teach this method of breaking down stories to help teach the principles of creating a powerful, dramatic novel.