Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Once Upon a Time: aim true with your fantasy opener

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Apr• 27•22

Children understand that ‘once upon a time’ refers not only – not even primarily – to the past, but to the impalpable regions of the present, the deeper places inside us where princes and dragons, wizards and talking birds, impassable roads, impossible tasks, and happy endings have always existed, alive and bursting with psychic power.” ~ Stephen Mitchell

Every spring I proclaim how the Pacific Northwest is a fairyland with its massive pale pink blooms, impossibly green hues, perfumed, soft air, and wildly changeable skies. And as usual, the region has once again delivered. Amid this splendor I’ve been editing an epic fantasy novel so the challenges this genre presents writers have been on my mind. From the first must-be-transporting words to the shattering conclusion, readers demand layers of fantastical invention. It all begins with a captivating opening salvo.

“Once upon a time” or “A long, long time ago” makes a promise to your readers. Open these pages and you’ve been wrested from your 21st century sphere. You are about to enter a kind of dream world, encounter wonderment, and find age-old conflicts wearing fantastical guises.

While fantasy is untethered from our current world, as in real life, dont make promises you cannot keep. You’ve got to deliver an adventure so potent it invades the reader’s senses and alters his or her heartrate. Your adventure needs a diverse cast, a clash of titans, and the wondrous–dragons soaring overhead, ancient spells and curses, night walkers, or battles fought over lands or pride or brute necessity. Fantasies can be a retelling of real kingdoms or political intrigue or  greedy conquerors.  Yet the human element, the pains we all know such as betrayal, cruelty, loss, grief, abandonment are always in play.

Opening sentences are everything. They start the whole transporting apparatus to assure readers they’ve landed in a faraway time and place. Amid a world of richly embroidered textures, sights, tastes, smells, and sounds all while entanglements with a fascinating cast of characters are underway. A world that has a carefully built history, scenes unfolding in distinct reality replete with atmosphere, tension and mood.

Here’s what your opening is delivering:

  • Characters tossed off balance somehow by a force outside themselves.
  • A nettling question emerges that demands answers.
  • Something is amiss. The opening act creates a threat. Humans are biologically programed to respond to threat, but will go along for the ride anyway. Because, after all, the  threat is long ago and far away.
  • Introduce story people we’ll never meet in the real world. Story people we just can’t quit. People we can follow up close.  So close we can hear their laughter or scorn, smell the stink from their terror, or experience what has lit their fierce desires.
  • Readers need to care about who is threatened. Some aspect of the main characters need to be identifiable, possibly pitiful, worrying, or vexing. Has life already handed your protagonist near-starving rations or brutality? Or has a royal family member longed to escape to an ordinary life?
  • No matter if dreaded, or later regretted, a choice must be made. {Excuse the almost-rhyme.”}

“Perfect words in perfect places”

Which brings us to oh-so important first lines with those perfect words. Let’s forget about first person or third person for now. Let’s start in the midst of a powerful moment.  Don’t be afraid to startle the reader, but always create a mood and perhaps a  stirring dread. As in these examples:

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is famous for wizards.” Ursula K. Leguinn, A Wizard of Earthsea

“Logen plunged through the forest, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his chest. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.” Joe Ambercrombie, The Blade Itself

“The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do.” Hugh Howey, Wool

“Sometimes, I fear I’m not the hero everyone thinks I am.” Brandon Sandborne, Mistborn: The Final Empire

“It was a felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. It wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the  Waystone ever  these days, times being what they were.” Patrick Rothmuss, The Name of the Wind 

“When Lilia was four years old, her mother filled a shallow dish with her blood and fed it to the boars that patrolled the thorned fence.” Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire

Something is surely amiss, right? I’m especially struck by the opening of The Blade Itself because I’ve hiked many a wet forest living here in the Pacific Northwest. But not barefoot. Never barefoot. And what is a felling night? Feeding a child’s blood to boars? Shiver. Make that an icy shiver.

I need to know more, don’t you?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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