Tomorrow’s Authors: John Stum.

Today, the fourth in my series on the fantasy authors of tomorrow. Our guest blogger is John Stum, who will be telling you his views on fantasy, why he writes and also about his current work-in-progress.

  • Russell Proctor

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My name is John Stum and I am currently working on a new novel called Prince Phillip. It is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale with a focus on the young Prince who was destined to break the spell. The book will follow his life, struggles, and lessons as he becomes a man worthy of breaking the curse. I thought it would be fun to look at a character that did not have a whole lot of time dedicated to him but was important to a classic story.

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I grew up on the classic Disney movies as well as the stories of knights and epic battles. It helped frame a lot of my views on what a man was as well as provided me with childhood heroes. Those characters, however, were always presented as fully formed and complete. As an adult, I understand that there is a lot more nuance and grey areas to life, a lot of things that have to happen to shape and form a person. Prince Phillip is my way of examining those factors. It is not necessarily a children’s story I am telling. It’s going to get a little dark and adult. But those stories are always some of my favourites.

 
It ties in with my favourite authors. After I started to crave deeper stories than Disney, I read authors like Anne MacCaffrey and her Dragonriders of Pern, Raymond Feist and his stories in Midkemia, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I still enjoy light-hearted series. The Chronicle of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander is one of my favorites and I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to enjoy Harry Potter or The Hobbit. Those books all influenced me and my decision to get into fantasy writing.

 
Tales of heroes on noble quests with magic and adventure are important for the soul. They inspire thought and creativity. Many genres look at the way the world is, and a lot of them examine it the way the author thinks it should be. These genres are still bound by rules and logical thought. Fantasy throws that all out and looks at the impossible. By stepping out of the realm of reality, fantasy allows us to really see our world and ourselves. It opens us up to impossible things allowing is to truly push the bounds of reality. Fantasy is beautiful like that and one of the reasons why I love it.

 
Of course fantasy does have some baggage to it. It can feel like an old and outdated genre. We live in crazy times, though, full of rapid change. I think audiences want something familiar to cling on to. We are seeing it in Hollywood with how many movies rely on nostalgia to produce feeling and connection. This is where fantasy has an advantage. It is a nostalgic genre, but one capable of producing something new and unique.

 
Already, the trend in fantasy seems to be the number of sub-genres that are coming out. Grimdark, urban fantasy, supernatural, etc. The fantasy umbrella is splintering out to smaller and smaller niches with the rise of self-publishing and the relative ease of indie authors to find their market, at least compared to ten years ago.

 
This does lead to some annoying things about fantasy. The order surrounding fantasy creatures is getting eroded. Vampires and zombies, which may fall more under horror but still share a fantasy link, are no longer morally or existentially terrifying. Anne Rice made her vampires beautiful and desired, but Interview With a Vampire still showed the tragedy and horror of that existence. When lore is not being eroded, it is being clung to with dogmatic obsession. There is the perfect elf that seems to exist only as a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. Fantasy does lend itself more to that problem than other genres.
This is not an indictment of stories like that. I have enjoyed several when they are done right. If the author has found a voice and an audience, then great. I wish them nothing but the best and continued success. I just personally find stories like that sacrifice a lot of potential themes and messages at the expense of these issues.

 
Overall, fantasy is a fun and exciting genre. It offers a lot for potential readers and has many bright horizons ahead of it.

 
You can follow me through most of the normal social media outlets. I am on Twitter @steelstashwrit1, Facebook at www.facebook.com/steelstashwrit1, or my blog at www.steelstashwriting.com. Be sure to like and follow for more information and progress on Prince Phillip or sign up for my quarterly newsletter at http://eepurl.com/diOmdH.

John Stum

 

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Tomorrow’s Authors – Aravind Pradhyumnan

Continuing the series of Tomorrow’s Authors, in which I hand over to guest bloggers, the next generation of fantasy writers. These writers are as yet unpublished, but working hard to bring their own version of this great genre to a reading audience. Today our blogger is Aravind Pradhyumnan.

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Recently, I joined a support group for Fantasy writers. It is heart-warming to find there are entire communities of people who want to help their fellow novice writers. I am a Masters student pursuing Aerospace Engineering far from home, and I took to writing as a hobby. Soon, my penchant for the craft turned the hobby into a fierce passion and helped me get back from a dark place. This I did by creating a fantasy world of my own. If not for the incredible support and advice from fellow writers, I may never have turned my outlines into the first draft of my manuscript. On that note, thank you, Russell, for giving me a rub.

 
I would like to say I am the next phenomenon sweeping through the Fantasy genre, and the household name of the next decade. But my name is hard to pronounce, and I am but an aspiring author.

 
But that’s enough about me, let me tell you about my work-in-progress, which has the working title Black Rose Bloodmage.

 
I do not have a cover art or any illustration to give a taste of my work yet. But I do have a song by Opeth in mind that captures the brutal beauty of world I’ve imagined. Listen to it reader and hear what I hear, see what I see. Opeth: “Bleak”.

 
Adrya is a country with a bloody history. Due to the nature of magic, there was tremendous bloodshed and the world saw the decline of powerful creatures that roamed the wild. Men killed one another. This was characteristic of the Magethic Era.

 
However, an ambitious man, Adrian, took the crown along with a coterie of powerful mages at the time, and heralded in the New Era. The country grew more stable as all unaffiliated mages were systematically eradicated. Prosperity was ushered into the years that followed under the rule of the immortal King. However, Enthaumy – the magic system, became forbidden knowledge and was henceforth only shared among a few members of the peacekeeping Justiciary.

 
By the year NE 88, a rogue mage, Gathvel has risen to the upper echelons of the Black Rose Guild. He remains in hiding both from the Crown, as well as his own past. But his life changes when he adopts a nine-year-old girl. After a botched assassination mission, Norman, an Inspector of the Justiciary catches Gathvel’s scent.

 
The first book of a hopeful trilogy deals with this hunt – who will emerge from this ordeal alive? I aim to explore themes of friendship, bonds, and how even men set in their ways can change.

How this project came to be:
Originally I set out to create a magic system that seemed realistic and had a tangible, measurable cost, with world-changing ramifications. I used my Engineering education to help legitimise the workings of the magic system I came to call Anthaumy. As it grew and developed in front of my eyes, they branched into rather specific fields of “science” of Enthaumy and Alchemy.

 
Along with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Second Law of Anmodynamics came to be revered in Adrya. Mages were scholars after all. The law states that the Antopy of Miridian always increases, but its saturation remains infinite. I understand this sounds like gibberish, but the book will ensure it makes sense.

 
So as you can see, I spent the bulk of my time creating the magic system and it led me to create a world for it to exist. Over the course of a year, I had created a country with a rich culture and history, a functioning economy, and quirks specific to this world.
My first attempt at creating a plot set in this world however, was a travesty as terrible as the events of the Magethic Era. It was a piss-poor story, that incorporated all elements of the world I created, but the plot itself held no water. I was disappointed, and all but abandoned the project.

 
Enter Brandon Sanderson. Figuratively speaking. The man has lectures on creative writing that breathed a new life into the fading embers of the passion for my tales set in Adrya. In a matter of weeks I had characters and conflicts that produced elements of the plot I described. I streamlined the magic system and the cut out elements of the world that I felt were unnecessary.

 
I found that I was a heavy outliner and in few more months, I managed to create a solid outline to base my manuscript on. With more advice and encouragement from fellow writers, I finally set pen to paper. Now I am 9000 words into my first draft, and I just wrote my first fight scene. Enthaumy was finally on paper and it read better than I hoped. I know exactly where the book is headed and by my ambitious estimate, I should have a completed first draft by March.

The struggles along the way:
Time has proven to be my best friend, as well as my worst enemy. Writing can seem like a chore sometime and there always may seem like something else is just a little more pressing. Getting past that resistance to start typing into the laptop has been the biggest hurdle I personally face.

 
But this is where the support groups on Facebook help. Good people are all around and they provide motivation to resume writing, whether they realise it or not. And once I’ve entered that headspace, it becomes easier to write and harder to stop.

 
Other times, I’m convinced what I’m writing is digital dogshit, but then accomplished authors tell us that is normal and even they feel similarly at times. When you’re in agreement with Joe Abercrombie, it is likely that you may be on the right track. This hasn’t been a debilitating struggle for me though and I’m confident to a degree that my writing isn’t all that terrible. And hey, that’s not so dreadful, right?

My influences:
It’s hard to point to an author as an influence. I think I just read the right books at the right time which encouraged me to develop my own magic system. These were the popular debut works of authors from the last decade – Pat Rothfus, Scott Lynch, and Lord Grimdark himself, Joe Abercrombie.

 
I like to think I have learnt from each of these authors, and I might have to actually build a shrine for Brandon Sanderson. What I’m writing may be considered Dark/Hard Fantasy and I certainly will not be pursuing my passion if not for these authors.

Fantasy – Its importance and what it means to me:
The human mind is fascinating. We can see with our eyes closed. We can see even without them, in fact. With our mind’s eyes we see into the past and more importantly, into the future. I heard a psychologist lecture that it was this ability to peer into the future that made us the intelligent species that we are today.

 
But this also opened other doors for our mind’s eye. We can look at things that aren’t, we can see things that could be, and we can even see things that couldn’t be. Our mind can create entire worlds where we are gods. We take literary fiction above and beyond its limits, and this is why Fantasy and Science Fiction are here to stay.

 
We humans started out as hunter-gatherers. Adventure and exploration is a part of us. So no wonder we as readers and writers want to explore new worlds and possibilities, and there are few things comparable to being immersed into a fantastic world. People say fantasy is a means to escape reality– yes, that can be the case. But to me it is a means to explore beyond reality.

 
As a reader, this is what I want. As an author, I hope to provide others the same. And if you give me your time, I have a story to tell. Follow me on twitter at @pradhyumnan503.

– Aravind Pradhyumnan

 

The Horror of Children’s Stories

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This is repost from an earlier one. It’s still relevant though.

Picture this: a little girl has just thrown a bucket water over a Witch. What happens next is quite disturbing.

With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again.”

Now let’s get this straight… a little girl calmly melts an old woman, sweeps the gooey slime she has become out of the door like so much swill, and then calmly cleans her shoe like this sort of thing happened every day.

You might think the extract is taken from the latest gore-filled treat from Permuted Press, but it’s actually from L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. A children’s book. Of course, if you are only familiar with the 1939 Judy Garland film, you may remember the witch-melting scene was a little more wholesome. Certainly in the movie Dorothy didn’t have to clean up the disgusting sewage of what used to be a human being like she was doing a simple household chore. And in the movie version Dorothy felt pretty upset about the whole thing as well, even though the witch was evil and had tried to kill her.

Take another story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Now there are no violent scenes in that timeless classic, surely? Admittedly the Queen of Hearts threatens everyone with having their heads chopped off, but no one is unfortunate to actually have it done. But most of the violence of the Alice books is more subtle. According to Hugh Haughton in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Carroll’s books (1998), there is an underlying theme of eating and being eaten in the book. The characters are in more danger of being consumed by other characters than anything the Queen of Hearts might threaten. Alice eats and drinks various substances and changes size; the baby oysters are consumed by the Walrus and the Carpenter; the Hatter is obsessed by tea and bread and butter. There is also, of course, more overt violence: the Duchess physically abuses her baby son, the March Hare and the Hatter try to drown the Dormouse in tea, and the terrifying Giant Crow threatens Alice in the forest.

It doesn’t end with those books. In Peter Pan by J.M Barrie, the fairy Tinker Bell is a right bitch. Her first act on seeing Wendy is to get Tootles to shoot her with an arrow in an attempt to kill her. He almost succeeds. Tootles is so distraught he asks Peter to kill him.

Now, the point is that these are probably not events most people recall when remembering these tales. But they are there in the original books.

There have, of course, been many criticisms of traditional fairy tales as being too violent. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and so forth contain considerable murder and mayhem. The difference between them and the more modern stories I’ve referred to is that these stories are folk tales, handed down over many years and added to, extended and changed over generations before being recorded by people like the Brothers Grimm. They were not written specifically for children. The adventures of Alice, Dorothy and Peter Pan were.

So what do we make if this? Are these stories in their original forms just too violent? I say “in their original forms” because each of those I mentioned has been “toned down” when made into films. Disney and Warner Brothers made a point of changing things so the stories were more wholesome for tender readers (or, in their case, viewers). Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch, but feels bad about it at least. Admittedly, modern versions of Alice (I refer specifically to the recent Tim Burton CGI extravaganza) may take liberties with the plot in which they do present a more dangerous version of Wonderland than the Disney version. But this is a modern trend, I submit, and I’ll mention it again later.

My point is (and I’ve taken a while making it) is that there is a wealth of trauma available to writers in children’s tales. Quite often where you wouldn’t expect it. In The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad not only steals a motor vehicle, he is actually in involved in numerous car accidents and is thrown in prison as a result. And I’m sure most of us remember the Narnia series by C. S Lewis, which tells of children not only fighting in wars but killing their adversaries with barely a nod at any feelings of guilt afterwards.

Writers might well find ideas in these tales. And that’s a good thing. While I’m not condoning the exposure of children to violence, death and horror, it certainly can entertain the adult reader and inspire the adult writer.

Back when these stories were written, I submit the world was a more violent place. There was no such thing as being an adolescent. One went from the caterpillar stage of childhood to the butterfly stage of adulthood without any inconvenient chrysalis stage of adolescence in between. People grew up earlier. Children’s books were violent because life was violent. It still is these days, but we don’t like to admit it and try to protect our children from its excesses. An example of this is the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the Duchess throws her baby boy to Alice (who only just manages to catch him) after singing a song about how beating a child was a justifiable punishment for it sneezing. This would hardly have raised an eyebrow back in 1865. Children were beaten. The world was perhaps no better or worse than it is today, but violence was condoned more and seen as an acceptable solution to social and domestic problems. Carroll was using violence as nonsense, and perhaps as a comment on the philosophy of child-rearing at the time: the air in the Duchess’s house was full of pepper, the baby sneezed as a result, and so the Duchess beat him. Problem solved.

We would not condone such a practice today, even as nonsense, which is why this incident has not, my knowledge, been incorporated into any film adaptations of Alice so far ( I don’t include the Burton film there, as it is so far removed from the original story as to be a separate entity).

Burton’s film does, however, seek to make an adult vision of Wonderland (with a bit of Looking-Glass Land added into it). And that is how the horror of children’s stories can be used to good effect. Tales like Frank Beddor’s The Looking-Glass Wars is a classic use of a classic to create something new and insightful.

So horror is there in children’s stories. If you sit and read the originals and wonder why they all seem so different to what you thought they were about, or what you remembered when you read them as a kid, then I hope you can take a whole new delight in these children’s stories for grown-ups. And, as a writer, that they inspire you in your own tales of horror and fantasy.

Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a cliché is (a) a hackneyed phrase or opinion or (b) a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person. I used to have a dictionary of clichés, I think also published by Oxford. The precise purpose of such a reference source eluded me. Perhaps it was so people could check they were not using clichés in their writing or speech.

Because, of course, we must avoid using clichés. In this post I’m not so much concerned with the first definition above. We all recognise these things for what they are pretty quickly:

Not in a million years…

For all intents and purposes…

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

As heavy as lead…

Millions of these things are espoused daily and eliminating them isn’t too hard with a careful edit. But today I want to discuss the other definition, which is far more insidious in writing and film. The situational cliché. The story that goes along predictable lines and ends the same way lots of other stories have in the past.

There are lots of these too. I mentioned one years ago when I reviewed a film, Hansel and Gretel. There it was what I called the “too cool to look” hero walk. You know the one. The hero has just beaten the bad guy and lit the fuse for an explosion. As the bomb detonates in the background the hero is seen walking towards the camera, dead-pan expression on his face or maybe lighting a cigarette, not bothering to glance over his shoulder as the explosion blows the final shreds of the villain away. It’s meant to show that the hero is ultra-cool, so cool in fact he can ignore an event that would have everyone else ducking for cover or at least turning around to look at*. So cool he doesn’t need to run.

It’s been done a lot. It’s a cliché. It’s the sort of thing writers need to avoid.

I myself had a recent problem with a cliché ending to a series I’m writing at the moment. My cliché was “the hero sacrifices herself to save the world but isn’t really dead and comes back when everyone least expects it and manages to destroy the bad guy…” I wanted to avoid it and it took a while to do so.

The Star Trek film franchise did this a lot. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is killedHe’s back in the next movie, not really being dead at all of course…well, sort of but not really. Even the Enterprise has been destroyed a number of times but there is always a new one just being completed the crew can transfer to. Handy, that.

There are book series out there that have cliché endings. Lots of them. The Harry Potter series for instance. Harry gets killed and brought back to life because he’s not really dead…well, he is, but not really. In his book Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, Jim Adam states that J. K. Rowling uses the cliché of the Christ-like sacrifice to save mankind (or in her case Wizard-kind). The hero needs to die, to sacrifice his or her own life, in order to save the lives of others.

That’s been done too.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christ-like sacrifice, except that it’s been done. A lot.

And this was the problem I had. It took a while to solve it, required me to consult with my editor, and is going to necessitate a heavy re-write of the last part of my final book in the series, but at least I am happier with the ending.

Cliché is an easy trap to fall into. Movies, especially the plethora of prequels and sequels they engender, are full of them. Books, too. A good writer should be careful to spot them as they arise and deal with them before it’s too late.

Damn! Before it’s too late… A cliché!

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* It always strikes me as a bit weird: surely the only person not looking at the explosion is the one who set it off. Think about it. The villain blows something up and the police don’t know who to arrest. Try arresting the only person in the street NOT looking at the explosion!

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

Interview by Thomas J. Wolfenden.

Recently I was interviewed by talented author Thomas J. Wolfenden. Thom has penned two great post-apocalyptic books, One Man’s Island and One Man’s War. I’ve read both and recommend them heartily.

Anyway, Thom sent me thirty-nine questions a little while ago asking me about myself and I gave thirty-nine answers. Let’s face it, who doesn’t mind talking about themselves?

So here’s the link to his blog and the interview.

What a Coincidence!

Often when reading stories, I come across what can only be described as a million-to-one shot coincidence. You know the type I mean – a character in the book just happens to come across the secret letter that reveals who the villain is. The person the detective met in a random encounter at the café just happened to be the murderer they were looking for. The magic spell needed to unlock the hidden room was the one the hero accidentally stumbled across in the wizard’s book the day before. And it’s a million to one shot. Of course, there’s no alternative for the poor writer: if those coincidences weren’t there the story wouldn’t happen.

But actually, coincidence happens every single day. To every single person on the planet.

Look more closely at that million-to-one shot. I live in Brisbane, Australia. Population: 2.2 million. For the sake of argument, let’s round that down to 2 million. What are the chances that a million-to-one shot happens on any given day in the balmy, sunny (but cyclone-and-flood-prone) metropolis I love? You guessed it: about 2:1. So each day in Brisbane 2 million-to-one shots happen. Each day.

What about the planet as whole? Earth’s current population is 7.3 billion. Now that means that 7,300 million-to-one coincidences happen each day. Read that again: every day 7,300 people shout, ‘What just happened?’ as they face-palm themselves in disbelief.

So what about coincidences in stories? To what extent does the reader accept that the hero just happens to come across the key that unlocks the safe containing the documents everyone is after? How is it that the detective just happens to see the murderer talking to another witness, which forms the ultimate clue that solves the crime? What, he walked into the restaurant, out of all the restaurants in the city, at that exact convenient moment?

Yeah, right.

The bounds of credulity are often stretched (or ignored) for the sake of the story. In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins is lost in caverns under the Misty Mountains. Blindly groping through the tunnels, his hand just happens to touch the One Ring – the ownership of which will determine the fate of the world for years to come, cause wars and lead to the deaths of thousands – and he picks it and puts it in his pocket. Had this blindingly unlikely chance not happened, none of the ensuing story would have taken place. Tolkien tries to explain away the Ring’s million-to-one shot discovery in The Lord of the Rings:

‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.’

(The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien: Book One, Chapter 2)

But is it enough just to put it down to fate? Of course, the heavily veiled Christianity in Tolkien’s works, which is in no way intrusive, could satisfy the reader, perhaps, that some ‘higher power’ is working through its mortal agents to defeat evil. But let’s face it, in the end it’s just a coincidence that Bilbo finds the One Ring.

And, in the milieu of that story, the coincidence can be ignored. The reader takes it for granted. We turn the page on Gandalf’s dismissive statement above and just accept that now the Ring has been found, all we have to do is worry about what’s going to happen to it.

The film Slumdog Millionaire is based on the premise that the events that occur during the childhood of a competitor in a game show just happen to provide him with the knowledge he needs to answer questions in a TV quiz. Somehow, the questions just happen to relate to events in his life which, by the sheerest good luck, give him the precise bit of knowledge he needs to answer. Coincidence? You bet. Big, fat coincidence stuffing its face with unlikelihood. But it’s a great movie, and we accept its excesses of credulity.

Real life is full of coincidences too. Millions of times a day. But here we are.

So what does the writer do? How far can he or she take that lucky shot?

I’m guilty of it myself in my writing. I would venture to say all writers are faced with this dilemma. Will the reader believe this? I lie in bed at night, tossing and turning as I try to work how such an unlikely chance as I plan to put in my book can actually be believed. Will the supposed ‘suspension of disbelief’ the writer aims for actually carry it off this time? It’s a tough call.

In the end, I think it comes down to careful writing. Surprising the reader at the climax of the story that the hero just happens to be an electronics engineer and can open the locked security door by tinkering with the circuits using the handy tool-kit he just happened to have in his pocket won’t fool anyone. The reader will curse the writer and toss the book away with a vow to never again read anything written by that particular pathetic hack. But, if the writer were to foreshadow somewhere near the start of the book that the hero has a degree in electronics and always carries tools around in order to tinker with various bits and pieces as he goes about his other adventures (in other words, giving him business to flesh out his character) then the fact that he has the appropriate knowledge and equipment at the necessary time is more acceptable.

So there’s two rules I guess that can help sell coincidence to some degree at least:

1) Don’t underestimate your reader. Readers are smart people, otherwise they wouldn’t be readers. And writers are smart, too, otherwise they wouldn’t be…no, hang on, that doesn’t work. But anyway, don’t stretch things beyond what you, the writer, would accept yourself if you were reading someone else’s story.

2) Use foreshadowing to ‘set up’ the coincidence long before it appears. If the reader can think at the appropriate moment, ‘Of course! The railway station porter saw the villain hiding the diamond in the safe-deposit locker on page 45! That’s how the hero knew where to look! Man, this guy’s a good writer!’ then you have done well.

Coincidence has its place, but it’s a dangerous toy to play with. However, it shouldn’t be something to fear. Just tell a good story and the reader will play the game.

I keep telling myself that, anyway.

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com

Great Opening Lines

 

One of the most important parts of a story, whether it’s a novel or a short, is the first sentence.

The first sentence has a big job to do, and a most important one. Basically, its job is to make the reader read the first paragraph.

And that’s important because the first paragraph’s job is to make the reader read the second.

And, by extrapolation, the first page’s job is to make the reader turn to the second. Once they have done that, the writer has them.

So that first sentence is vital. I’m an English teacher, among other things and I’ve read thousands of essays and stories and assignments from my students over the years. And usually I can tell from the first sentence what the rest of the piece is going to be like. If it’s a good one, I can relax into it and maybe even enjoy the read. If it’s a bad one I reach for a glass of red wine (every teacher’s panacea at mark time) and resign myself to a mediocre effort.

The late great children’s author Madeleine L’Engle started her novel A Wrinkle in Time with the sentence ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That is usually the sentence used as an example of how not to start a story. Which is why the brave Ms L’Engle used it, I guess. She went on to write a very successful series of novels from that bold opening.

So let’s have a look at some great opening lines of great stories, and try to work out just why they hit the mark the way they do.

First up, one of my favourites, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948):

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

 
That phrase “the clocks were striking thirteen” is what makes this a wonderful sentence. Of course, common sense tells us clocks that strike on the hour (that is, sound out a series of chimes, one for each hour) are not twenty-four hour clocks, so none of them normally strike thirteen. The use of that word indicates there is something unusual about these clocks, and that draws the reader in. He or she wants to know not just why the clocks are striking thirteen, but how. Orwell arouses our curiosity in a subtle way and does what every good writer should do: make the reader ask questions. It’s by reading the book that the reader will find the answers.

Another example, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Tolkien did a similar thing to Orwell. He introduced a word that would immediately ask a question. What is a hobbit? We want to know, so we keep reading. In this case, Tolkien almost immediately answers the question and gives us quite a long description of his invented race. But it works, because after that description he dives straight into the story and vindicates our newfound knowledge by putting his hobbit into a situation that demonstrates not only the racial tendencies of hobbits but the ways in which his particular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is different.

Another good line, for different reasons, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-of-door exercise was now out of the question.

Here the author plunges us straight in. We meet at least two people: the narrator and Mrs Reed, and learn a bit about the habits of each. Mrs Reed is particular about when she dines; the narrator seems to dislike the outdoors and finds raw winter weather uncomfortable.

It is a grammatically perfect way of drawing us into the writer’s world. We know it’s Charlotte Bronte, of course, so we can anticipate the sort of story we’re in for. But here we have no “faffing about” that other writer’s of her time might have indulged in. We are into the story.

Here’s an opening from a more modern book, Ben Elton’s Past Mortem:

The victim died as he had lived.

Cruelly.

Only more so.

Three short paragraphs that set up a situation that has us wanting to know more. Is this a murder? And what was it that made the victim’s life cruel? The fact that each paragraph contains a single short sentence or sentence fragment rams home to us the suddenness of the death and the impact of it. It turns out to be a gruesome murder and Elton cuts no corners in getting us straight to it. It’s up there with Charles Dickins’s wonderful opening to A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

The importance of killer opening lines can’t be stressed too much. They have to be strong and intriguing, they must raise questions in the reader’s mind, and they must immediately reflect the style and nature of the story to come. Sometimes it may well be that the first sentence is the last one to be written.