The start of any piece of writing is important. It sets the tone and feel for what comes after. Getting the start right is sometimes held up as being a difficult as planning the entire remainer of the work.
So what was considered a good start to a novel fifty years ago?
To a reader of a modern edition of The Lord Of The Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, the actual narrative does not start until you go past a Foreward or two and a lengthy Prologue of several sections. There will likely be a map, and then Chapter 1: “A Long-Expected Party”. But despite the delay, Tolkien leaps straight into it:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special significance, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
To a new reader, there immediately half-a-dozen questions. Who is Mr. Bilbo Baggins? Where is Bag End (and Hobbiton)? How did he get to the oddly worded age of “eleventy-one” and why isn’t it written as “one hundred and eleven”? And why is this age significant? All in one fairly short paragraph of just one sentence. It is, I would say, an excellent start to a story and Tokien capitalizes on it with relish. Within a page we know a little more about Bilbo and that this age is very long lived, even for whatever race he might be. There is also conflict setup with the other people who know him and know of him, including some relatives with a hyphenated name (think of all the baggage that quirk would bring to the reader’s mind!). The scene is clearly and skilfully set for some grand story. It is page-turning stuff.
Those who know the work will know this is all eventually dwarfed by the bigger story. But that takes several chapters to get going and with good reason, as a lot needs explaining. The reader has to first be pulled in to a world that is really not all that dissimilar to their own. But it is different and part of how it is and what parts annoy the natives is part of the journey of discovery. Ancient magics can be brought to light later, once the reader is firmly enmeshed in the world.
Tolkien grabs the reader with questions.
How does a somewhat more modern writer do this? The Belgariad by David Eddings was first published in 1982. Like most fantasy works of that era, there is a map, redolent with wonderful and mysterious names. It is the first thing after the dedication, too. Then there is a short prologue which, unlike Tolkien’s, is a little story in itself and definitely part of the larger work. It’s in a notably different style, though, and not strictly necessary. It’s like an overture to a play, or set-dressing in the theatre’s foyer. Being familiar with this work, I can tell you that everything in it is presented in some fashion in the larger narrative.
After it, there is another map, and the narrative proper starts:
The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.
This is a story that has a definite beginning. And again, the reader is given time and space to accept the world in which he or she is about to embark on. It is more palpable in Eddings work though, as Garion is tacitly reflecting and the reader is merely listening in. But there is also the promise of a story. Where is Faldor’s farm? Who is Faldor anyway? And quite how high does Garion rise in life?
Both authors do their best to engage the reader, to make them want to keep reading, just one more chapter, one more page, one more paragraph…! After offering this tasty morsel about Garion’s journey, Eddings then stays at the beginning, describing the kitchen at Faldor’s farm and what it was like for a very young Garion to grow up in it. The prose drifts between sweet description and light narrative in ever-increasing circles, offering more and more to the reader of a life most would not have but could recognise.
Eddings doesn’t overwhelm the reader with questions. He concentrates on fleshing out this little piece of his world first, although some questions do get asked. It is some time before we quite realize it that the story is underway and by then we are most definitely along for the ride.
What about something even newer? The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson starts with two pages of Acknowledgements, a Table of Contents, a map and then a Prelude. Unlike both Tolkien and Eddings, this Prelude isn’t outside the story (Tolkien’s was information about Hobbits) nor outside the narrative (Eddings’ was a re-telling of some in-universe history). The first paragraph starts like this:
Kalak rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast. The enormous stone beast lay on its side, riblike protusions from its chest broken and cracked. The monstrosity was vaguely skeletal in shape, with unnaturally long limbs that sprouted from granite shoulders. The eyes were deep red spots on the arrowhead face, as if created by a fire burning deep within the stone. They faded.
This is quite a different style, but it still has the same goal of engaging the reader. And there are still questions. Who is Kalak? Why is he on a rocky stony ridge? Is is even alone? Even what is a thunderclast, though that is swiftly answered, but certainly how did it take damage enough to kill it. Sanderson’s description of the dying beast also serves to usher in a sense of awe about who or what could be enough to kill an animal made out of stone.
Unlike Tolkien, Sanderson gives the reader a few more paragraphs before the questions really start mounting. And this isn’t a nice homely start: this is an alien place. It is less than halfway through the Prelude when we’re not even sure the characters speaking are entirely human. And that’s a question definitely not answered in the Prelude.
Sanderson grabs the reader with a sense of the different. The world building is obvious and he wants to show it off as early as possible.
So how does your story start?
No matter how you grab your readers, you need your readers to feel a sense of loss when they put your writing down. They should want to keep reading, even under the bedclothes with a light, if necessary. But you have to grab them first.