How to Begin an SF/F Novel

I’ve been thinking about one of the golden rules that all writers are taught: grab your reader with the first line. It’s good advice, but (like so many golden rules in writing) can be followed badly. Writing a dull opening is bad – but so is writing a opening that yells at the reader for attention but does nothing to set up the novel as a whole. Writing the ideal first line is a craft in itself, and it can be interesting to see how different writers have tackled the challenge.

With this post I decided to look at the openings to a selection of fairly recent SF/F novels – specifically the first sentence or, if that’s too short, the first two sentences. For a little variety, I’ve gone with the novel finalists for two very different awards: the literary-leaning Hugos and the down-and-dirty Splatterpunk Awards.

Let’s start with this year’s Hugo finalists…

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

In Teixcalaan, these things are ceaseless: star-charts and disembarkments.

Well, we can infer from this that the story involves space travel, and the name “Teixcalaan” suggests a Mesoamerican influence – which, in turn, implies an alternate history. Beyond these hints, though, there’s very little to set the scene, let alone get the story started. (Still, A Memory Called Empire nonetheless won the award – a sign that the first line might not be so important after all?)

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.

This is a different matter altogether. Sophisticated? Maybe not. Fitting? Absolutely. We’re plunged straight into a weird death-focused world, we get a bit of cheeky humour with the reference to dirty magazines, and we learn that Gideon Nav is something of a rebel. Setting, tone and character all splatted right on the canvas with three big dollops, ready for the finer strokes to be added in due course.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Bianca walks towards me, under too much sky. The white-hot twilight makes a halo out of loose strands of her fine black hair.

There’s not a large amount happening here, but the two short sentences get a strong picture across. It’s a picture that raises questions, too: why is the twilight bright white? What is implied by “too much sky”? Combined with the immediate action – two characters meeting – this makes a strong opening in just twenty-three words.

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

They dragged the insurgent out of the ruins of Saint Petersburg. Ash danced in the sky.

Okay, so we’ve been dropped into the middle of a conflict. The second sentence, which is oddly picturesque, clashes with the subject matter and hints that there’s something unusual about the conflict. A quietly effective lead-in.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

When I was seven, I found a door. I suspect I should capitalize that word, so you understand I’m not talking about your garden-or-common-variety door that leads reliably to a white-tiled kitchen or a bedroom closet.

This is a tidy and succinct way to get things going. The basic information being conveyed – that the main character found a door, and it was a special door – has obvious attention-grabbing potential (where would a special door lead?) while the conversational wording tells us a little about the first-person narrator. There’s also a hint of a life story in here: the narrator’s words are not those of a seven-year-old, so clearly years have passed since she found that Door. Right from the get-go, we are told that this will be a story about new worlds and about growing up, with an analytical approach to fantasy conventions.

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

There is so much blood.
Roger didn’t know there was this much blood in the human body.

I was tempted to quote the entire first chapter of this novel, as Middlegame takes the grab-the-reader-from-the-start maxim to heart: the opening is a deliberately disorienting in medias res affair that plunges you into the middle of bloody mayhem. But sticking to my rules, I’ll restrain myself to the first two sentences. These are unsubtle, but do the job: first the visceral shock of the blood, then the unexpected perspective (note that Roger seems concerned less with the other person having bled out, but by the amount of blood that came out in the process).

Now, on to the Splatterpunk Award novels…

Lakehouse Infernal by Christine Morgan

And then all Hell broke loose.
Such a common cliché. Trite. Overused. A lazy shortcut. Not to mention, highly inaccurate.

This opening does little to suggest just how bonkers the story will become, but it does serve to whet the appetite. The novel’s drily comical tone is established, and all the while the reader will be questioning exactly what happened when “all Hell broke loose.”

Killer Lake by W. D. Gagliani and David Benton

The celebrants filed into the damp chamber. Hoods up, hiding most of their features in shadow, and bodies naked under the sheet black robes, their hands held sputtering black candles.

This does a good job of setting the scene, although it lacks action and urgency – a more to-the-point opening might have mentioned a captive ready for sacrifice, for example.

Reception by Kenzie Jennings

My memories come in linked fragments out of sequence, like anyone else’s I guess.

Short, sharp and intriguing. We know that the main character is going to begin narrating their memories, and their choice of delivery in this first line – with its short comment about the nature of memory – helps to get us intrigued about who they are, so that we actively look forward to reading their memories. Its simple but it’s quite effective.

Carnivorous Lunar Activities by Max Booth III

Ted was thinking about killing his wife when his cell phone rang.

This is something of a bait-and-switch. Ted’s homicidal desires turn out to play a small role in the story, so the attention-grabbing first line is a touch misleading. On the other hand, it sums up the novel’s dry, dark humour.

Merciless by Bryan Smith

The countryside in East Tennessee was beautiful in October. With Halloween right around the corner, yellow and burnt-orange leaves made the trees shrouding the winding roads of mountain country look festive and spooky.

This is a pretty word-picture, and establishes a nice, mellow mood which we all know will soon be torn to pieces. The downside is that there’s nothing particularly original in it: this is exactly how we’d expect a calm-before-the-storm scene in a horror novel to be established.

They Kill by Tim Waggoner

A tall, lean man known only as Corliss – to those who knew of him at all – walked down the middle of County Road 25A, roughly three miles outside the Ohio town of Bishop Hill.

As an opening to this particular novel, the above line is entirely appropriate: the story is about mundane reality being gradually unravelled by the character of Corliss, so there’s sense in opening with a line that establishes that mundane reality. As a way of grabbing the reader’s attention, though, it’s lacking – about the only point of intrigue is the hint that Corliss has some sort of mystery about him, apparently lacking even a first name.

Toxic Love by Kristopher Triana

There were skull fragments lodged in the wall.
When the guy had fired the shotgun into his mouth, he’d been lying in a twin bed with no headboard, leaving only a teddy bear between the top of his head and the wall.

I can’t really fault this opening: it starts with graphic gruesomeness to catch attention, and when elaborating upon it, makes this gore seem oddly routine. Given that the novel’s protagonist is a workman who cleans up death scenes, this is appropriate.

Looking over these six openings, it’s clear that the most common tactics are to sketch out something gruesome, or silly, or occasionally pretty (of course, the fact that I’ve chosen a horror award to look at is going to raise the proportion of gruesome). These are entirely valuable tricks to use – but special credit should go to The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Gideon the Ninth, each of which go a step further by giving us a microcosm of the whole story in their openings. I’m also rather fond of the beginning to The City in the Middle of the Night, which creates a fetchingly ethereal atmosphere without needing to tell us about the setting directly.

One thought on “How to Begin an SF/F Novel”

  1. Great analysis, both of the concept of first lines and all of the examples. I’ve changed the first line of my novel sooo many times trying to be witty and striking, but mostly I think I just came off as confusing. I also really want to read The Ten Thousand Doors of January now!


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