Next to the book’s cover and the back-cover blurb, the beginning of the novel is the most important part of the book. The first paragraph, the first page, decide whether the person reading the book will invest their time and money to read your story, or walk away.
When writing the beginning of your book, keep in mind that the reader has plenty of choices — you have only one: as the author, you must convince this potential reader to continue reading. In that single page, you need to prove that you are the greatest author there ever was, that your story is the best, and that the reader’s life would be poorer if he/she does not read your book.
When writing an Epic Fantasy novel, this task is even harder, because you cannot rely on the reader’s understanding of your world, while explaining the workings of your world may prove tedious.
This may be why many of the fantasy authors have opted to write Urban Fantasy — where characters live in our world, but there is a hidden magical world within that most of us humans know nothing about. Two of my favorite fantasy series, the Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling and The Infernal Devices/The Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare are Urban Fantasies. This approach is great, because we follow the hero/heroine and learn about the world as he/she makes discoveries. The explanations are given on a need-to-know basis, and are mostly experienced, rather than simply told.
I feel it is more difficult to write a fantasy set in a fantasy world, because what we would find strange or wonderful the characters would take for granted. The author has the responsibility to tell us what’s going on. When “telling” instead of “showing” the potential for boredom is imminent.
Warriors of Virtue Epic YA Fantasy is different from the above examples. I do not know if there is an official classification for such a fantasy, but I think of it as Disney Fantasy — set in a magical world, but the rules of behavior and speech concur with our time/world.
Deciding on the begging for my fantasy series has not been easy. There were three distinct versions, and sixteen+ drafts before I’ve finally settled on one. Read on to discover what decided my final choice. Along the way, you will also learn about the Land of Ardan, and the mysterious workings of my fantasy world.
Writing Warriors of Virtue: The Three Beginnings
One: Disney Classics’ Beginning
I grew up watching Disney animated movies, so when the time came for me to write my book, I borrowed the classic Disney opening — the narrator letting the reader know what’s happening in the first few pages of the book, before the story comes to life.
I like this approach. This approach has not only been used by Disney, but by many authors before Disney, including Shakespeare. This approach works with my inner sense of order.
I began Warriors of Virtue Epic YA Fantasy Series by telling the reader how the Land of Ardan came to exist and the bit of history that leads to where our story begins. The gist of the first Prologue:
There was a great war between magical species and non-magical species of Earth. Magical species were losing. Mistress Nature appeared and led the survivors to the Land of Ardan, a land she created deep beneath the Alps. There she set a few humans as rulers, to everyone’s surprise. The land flourished for a time, but wars eventually erupted. The worst war was led by a Dragon-Lord determined to destroy every human in Ardan. Fortunately, he was imprisoned. Our story begins.
The trouble with this approach was pointed out to me by one of my writing teachers. Though I do not mind the narrator approach, apparently, the modern audience does. “Show don’t tell!” has been shouted at me from the moment I began taking creative writing lessons.
I do see their point. Though the narrator approach is still acceptable when telling the story around a camp fire, the readers want to be dragged into the story, like tiny specters hovering over hero’s shoulder, or walking in a hero’s body. It is more exciting to experience something happening, rather than being told of a great experience by someone else.
The trouble is, that I still needed to explain my world. How can I do this, while keeping the reader involved?
Two: The Live Narrarator
My second attempt at writing the beginning, I decided to use The Princess Bride approach. In the movie, we meet the characters, who are reading the story, before we get into the actual story.
In the second beginning, a little girl on Avalon, reads from a magical book. She knows she is not supposed to read the book, but she can’t help it. She reads a warrior’s first-person account of the Last Battle before her mother catches her. Her mother is furious with her, because what she’s been reading is The Golden Book of Eternity, a book of memories — everything that has ever happened — and if the book or memory was damaged that timeline would have been destroyed. However, the mother forgives her daughter who keeps begging to know more of the world and about the warrior. The mother tells her that warrior’s story is not for little girls, but she tells her the creation of the Land of Ardan and then begins our story — the story more appropriate for children.
I loved this beginning, too. I found it highly entertaining, and I could not help but fall in love with the little girl and her mother. I’ve also left a few hints. A clever reader might have been able to deduce who the mother and daughter are. The mother is called Memoria, the girl: Emitá (a time).
This beginning gave me a whole new layer of understanding about the workings of my fantasy world. I imagined a whole new set of characters, with a whole new set of rules. Memoria, Emitá, and Destiná are the three Fates. Emitá ages every day from a little girl to a young woman. When she is in the form of the little girl, she is not aware that she is one of the Fates, and treats Memoria as her mother. At this time, if she reads, or if Memoria reads to her, from The Golden Book of Eternity what she’s reading is currently happening (Emitá is time/Present). This is also the reason my fantasy series is written in the unusual present tense.
When Emitá is in her grownup form, she knows who she is — the Middle Fate. She also takes on her role as the universal catalyst. Her job is to set things in motion. One of her roles is The Lady of the Lake. She is the keeper of Excalibur and gives it to Merlin to set it in the stone for Arthur.
Like Memoria, Destiná has a book, The Silver Book of Possibility. Destiná sees possible futures. When she sees the future that thwarts Chaos in his goal to destroy Everything, she sets Emitá to read from her book and thus create a future thread of memory.
Using this beginning, I bracketed the main story of each book in the series with snippets of the Fates’ story.
The trouble with this beginning, though it was entertaining, is that it took too long to get to the actual story.
Memoria, Destiná, and Emitá will make an appearance in the third book of the series, but they no longer have the scenes of their own in my fantasy. I will miss them, but they had to go.
After many years, I finally found a way to set everything up and thus I’ve created the third and final beginning.
Three: The Vignettes
Do I begin at the beginning of the current story?
I thought about it. I really did. Why should there be any prologue to my book at all? The beginning of the actual story is entertaining enough.
“In the depths of Armalis Forest grows a cottage.”
How can a cottage grow? Personally, I am intrigued. The story begins mysteriously in the cottage of a wizard, who witnesses the impossible, and the tale is set in motion.
Why didn’t I begin my story at the beginning?
If you’ve studied The Hero’s Journey, you know that any story following the pattern (all the stories ever written in the Western World) begins at the beginning with the hero, not knowing he (or she) is the hero, living his ordinary life. Then, something happens to set him into motion and push him on to a path that eventually makes him the hero.
The trouble with these first few steps is that they can be boring, because it takes time to explain what needs to be explained. Writing an Epic Fantasy — a format that has many characters following their own paths, I did not want to rush the beginning. I really wanted to establish who my characters are; I wanted to show their privileged life and that what they thought of as “problems” were not problems at all when compared to the true “problems” they will face on their journey.
The beginning takes time. I’ve done my best to make it as entertaining as possible, but it does not have that immediate heart-pounding action the audience of today seems to take for granted.
If you read books today, more often than not they start at the climax of the story, with the hero in deep trouble running from something, about to die. Then we are taken to the beginning and led on a journey to that heart-pounding moment.
After much deliberation, I decided that I wanted to have that heart-pounding moment, too. However, instead of showing the climax of my story, I decided to show the past. In my previous beginning attempt, Emitá reads the memory of a Warrior of Virtue on the day of the Last Battle.
The memory is written in first-person, so the reader is inside the character as he thinks he is about to die. You cannot get more heart-pounding than that.
I decided to begin with this memory for several reasons. It is packed with passion and action. It introduces a Warrior of Virtue. It introduces our villain. It also introduces a short glimpse of three other characters in the story I want to tell. It introduces the reader to what it means to be a Warrior of Virtue. It introduces the object the heroes need to destroy. Something happens, and the reversal of that something happening is what sets my story in motion.
This prologue is as perfect as I can write.
However, what about the Land of Ardan? What about the creation of this world? Shouldn’t there be something about that as well?
I took the Creation of Ardan I’ve written in the first beginning and rewrote it into a stanza of a hymn. (FYI, I sang in a church choir for years!) Once I did that, I had my beginning.
I wanted my story to feel real, so in writing it, I’m pretending to be an explorer who has been to this land and has had access to Memoria’s The Golden Book of Eternity. As such, I’m translating the events that are happening in the book.
After the poem comes the Prologue.
I’ve solved the problem of characters in a fantasy world taking the fantasy world for granted, while the reader has no idea what they’re talking about, by including footnotes — as any explorer translating a text would.
After the Prologue, I have the Title Page.
The quote is a foreshadow and also gives us more about the Warriors of Virtue — the reader knows who created them and why they were created in the first place.
Finally, the story begins.
I feel that by taking time to set my story the way I did, I’ve created the illusion of mythical grandness. Do you agree?
Imagine if I just started my story with the story. Imagine if I just had the Prologue, before getting to the story.
It would not feel as grand, would it?
Another reason I think this beginning works is that it does not take 2 chapters to get to the beginning of the story. (As it did with beginning number two.) It takes 7 pages, and the reader is set up, allowing me to avoid lengthy explanations.
I did not share everything with my reader, but I showed little glimpses, vignettes, that revealed the necessary information.
I believe this beginning works, and I could not have thought of a better one. What are your thoughts?
My Favourite Beginnings
I have shared with you the journey of crafting what I feel is the perfect beginning for Warriors of Virtue Epic YA Fantasy Series. The beginning I wrote works for me. If you are a writer, you will need to decide what beginning works for you. Look at the beginning of your favorite books. Are they good? Why do you think they are good? What do you need to do to make your beginning just as good? Better?
To help you, below are my top three favorite beginnings.
1. The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas
“Just before the start of Summer Half, in April 1883, a very minor event took place at Eton College, that venerable and illustrious English public school for boys. A sixteen-year-old pupil named Archer Fairfax returned from a three-month absence, cause by a fractured femur, to resume his education.
Almost every word in the preceding sentence is false. Archer Fairfax had not suffered a broken limb. He has never before set foot in Eton. His name was not Archer Fairfax. And he was not, in fact, even a he.
This is a story of a girl who fooled a thousand boys, a boy who fooled an entire country, a partnership that would change the fate of realms, and a power to change the greatest tyrant the world had ever known.
So good! I honestly have never read a better beginning in my life. Reading the first paragraph, I’m thinking: “Why should I care?” Then I read the first sentence of the second paragraph — “What a heck?” By the last sentence, I’m convinced this book is going to be fun, epic, and I’m dying to know what happens.
2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
How can something be both? From the beginning of the sentence, I want to know what’s going on. I’m hooked. The conclusion of the sentence show me sarcastic humor that I love. If you’ve never read Charles Dickens, you do not know what you are missing. He is a master writer. I can’t say that A Tale of Two Cities is a work that I loved. Reading the first two thirds of the book, I was wondering why it was on the list of the greatest books ever written. Then I read the last third and have been disturbed to my core. Personally, from the works of his I’ve read, I love David Copperfield. However, if you are going to study the beginnings of books, I think Dickens has the best beginnings in the trade. Read them, and judge for yourself.
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Is it, Jane? Is it? Masterfully done. A single sentence and I’m hooked. The potential for humor is there, and I know this book will revolve around marriage to a man of good fortune. The whole book in a single sentence. If you have not read Jane Austen, you do not know writing. I don’t think she has a bad book to her name. I only wish she lived longer; I wish she wrote more than six books. Persuasion is one of her works that is not as popular, but I think it may be the best written story of the lot.
I hope I managed to illustrate the importance of writing a good beginning for a book. I hope you make time to study the works of great authors of the past, but also pick up top books in your genre that have been released in the past two years. Though there are beginnings that stand the test of time, the audiences of today may demand something different.
I grew up on classics, so initially my own writing style was classic. However, I soon learned that people of today do not require the information of yesterday. For example, I enjoy descriptive books that use clever language to lead me into the story and a world I’ve never experienced. I was surprised to discover that I’m in the minority, but when I thought about it, it does make sense. Think back to the last century, before Internet and global Television programs. If someone said the word “jungle”, how many people would have an image of a jungle in their head? Not many. Not many people of the past have ever seen a jungle. If you say it to the modern audience? Everyone who has ever had TV and has watched nature channels, or has access to Google knows what a jungle looks like.
Write for yourself, but don’t forget to write for your audience. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, if you know yourself and your reader, your book will sell.