A writer always wants their readers to be saying “and what happens next?!?” TV writers have known about this for decades. It is called the cliff-hanger. A drama series with a cold-opening (i.e. a scene before the opening credits) will have a cliff-hanger of some sort. It will ask questions without giving answers. It invites the viewer to keep watching if only to scratch that itch of not knowing why.
This trick of not telling the audience something can also be used in a different way. The popular website TV Tropes has a term called The Noodle Incident. This originated in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes and referred to an incident where Calvin got into so much trouble at school he refuses to talk about it. And they had to call the emergency services. Bill Waterson wisely left it unexplained, because in the readers’ minds “it would undoubtedly be more outrageous”, as he put it. The trope is similar: it refers to an incident that is off-stage or off-camera that the characters know about and refer to, but do not explain to the audience. We get to see how characters are defined by their reaction to this piece of unreported backstory.
David Eddings is on record as saying that when he designed the world of The Belgariad, he chose a pagan pantheon because it was more interesting than a christian one (“pagan” just means non-christian, by the way). By that, I imagine he meant he preferred a multitude of gods in his world rather than one single one. For the sort of fantasy world he built, one god was just not going to work.
But that’s not necessarily true.
Us human beings like marking the passage of time and the repetition of time-based cycles. Mostly this is because our world moves in such cycles: we have sun-earth days, moon-earth months and earth-sun years. And most of the time, for your characters in your writing, these will also exist. But sometimes our Gregorian Calendar doesn’t work in a setting that isn’t Earth as we know it. After all, in a world where there has never been a Pope nor a Catholic Church nor a Roman Empire, why should their calender look exactly like ours? And why would it?
Book One of The Belgariad: a gateway to wonderful new worlds that don’t have Hogwarts or Muggles.
There is no doubt that J. K. Rowling‘s book series is definitely a wonderful phenomenon: the number of children (and adults!) who now know the value of reading a book has increased, for instance. And the whole “fantasy” genre now has substantially more visibility in the mind of the average person-in-the-street. And that’s without remembering that Twilight is fantasy. And so is Pirates Of The Carribean. And so is Star Wars.
Stories that invoke or are set in fantastical worlds have been with us for centuries. And the rise of the novel in more recent ones has been inextricably linked to Fantasy as a genre.
So I am somewhat annoyed to see that high-school students when faced with a fantasy element in their daily lives (such as me wearing a cloak on the train) fall back on Harry Potter to call it out.
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?