Writing Beginnings


I started a new novel last week… Book 5 in my Derivatives of Displacement series, tentatively titled, A Cat a List. It has been a bit of a revelation. I am loving it, and suddenly my creativity is back. After struggling for so long with my adult romantic thriller, I realized that I don’t want to spend my time immersed in the real world. I spend enough time in the real world when I’m in the real world. When I’m writing, I’d rather immerse myself in a world of magic, where anything is possible, where I can try to recreate that moment when as a child, you realize that the book you are reading is going to be very good indeed, and it is going to take you on a grand adventure that you are not going to want to end.

Given that I am at the beginning of that novel, I began to wonder, what are the essential characteristics of the beginning of a fantasy novel for children (and for adults because I still love children’s fantasy novels)? Beginnings matter. It is your promise to the reader of what is to come. You want the reader immersed in the narrative dream immediately. The beginning of a fantasy novel is particularly important. What tells the reader they are in for a grand adventure? What was it about the fantasy series I loved as a child that caught me right from the beginning?

Out of curiosity, I went to my favorite fantasy series, Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, A Wrinkle in Time Quintet by Madeline L’Engle and the Oz series by L. Frank Baum, and read the first few pages of each book in the series… well not the Oz series, because there are far too many books, but you get my drift.

They are all different, but there is a sense of sameness too.

Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Oz books generally start with a short bit of omniscient narration to introduce the story before sliding in to the action, although Rowling varies this up depending on where she is in the series. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in particular does a fair bit of omniscient stage setting before we find ourselves mostly in Harry’s point of view, although there is always a sense of the narrator. The books in His Dark Materials, The Dark is Rising, and A Wrinkle in Time Quintet generally start in media res, or in the middle of the action, with the first sentence often being a line of dialogue, except A Wrinkle in Time itself, which begins ironically with “It was a dark and stormy night.” In books that start in media res, the reader is plunked right into the scene and exposition and stage setting is filled in gradually.

The beginnings of these novels establish the atmosphere of the books and series.

Most of the series establish a vague sense of threat in the first few pages, but also a sense of childlike excitement, innocence and curiosity in the face of that threat. For example, Mr Dursley’s day and the interactions between Dumbledore and McGonagall set Harry Potter up to be more light-hearted than the opening of His Dark Materials, and the Wrinkle in Time Quintet, which are more brooding and explore adult themes more thoroughly. There is a preponderance of aunts and uncles in all of the books who are brought in in the opening pages. Parents only appear in some of the Chronicles of Narnia, Dark is Rising books, and Wrinkle in Time books, and are generally quite distracted by their own issues. Even if they are not orphaned, or think the are orphaned, as in the case of Harry, Lyra and Dorothy, children are often sent to stay with aunts and uncles. This all makes sense—wouldn’t want any helicopter parents ruining the fun. Aunts and uncles are apparently far more likely to turn a blind eye while the children dash off to another world. In addition, half of these series focus around siblings—Narnia, Dark is Rising and Wrinkle in Time, whereas the other ones focus a single main character. Only Harry Potter and His Dark Materials maintain the same main character throughout the series. There is also an animal, either a pet in the case of A Wrinkle in Time, Over Sea, Under Stone, and The Wizard of Oz, or a magical animal creature of some sort in the case of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Golden Compass, introduced within the first page or two.

I began looking for the narrative hook in each novel and series.

A hook is a structural element in the first chapter of a novel intended to capture or “hook” the reader’s attention so that he or she will keep on reading. The hook must capture the reader’s attention and make them wonder what is going to happen. Some suggest that ideally the hook should be the opening sentence. Action is often utilized as a hook, but settings, characters or even thematic statements can also be utilized as hooks. Rowling sort of hooks you in her first sentence in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by opening with “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”, which tells you of course that the Dursleys are not normal. She continues to pull the reader within the next few paragraphs describing the peculiar events of Mr Dursley’s day and the clear implication that something ‘big’ had happened. The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman begins with the sentence, “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” You know immediately that they are up to something they should not be doing and even better, that Lyra has something called a daemon.

Interestingly, the first lines of the second Harry Potter book, and the fifth Chronicles of Narnia book are considered to be the best in each series. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets opens with the line “Not for the first time, a fight had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.” The line is effective in part because the reader now knows exactly where number four, Privet Drive is, and what it means and who is likely fighting. That familiarity of knowledge is comforting, and draws the reader back into the series. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader begins with “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” I confess, my initial reaction was disappointment—was this book not to be about Susan, Peter, Edmund and Lucy, but I had to know what Eustace could have done to almost deserve such a name? The second book in the Wrinkle in Time Quintet, A Wind in the Door definitely has the best opening line “There are dragons’ in the twins’ vegetable garden.” This line again plays on the familiarity that the reader already has with the series—we know who the twins are, and we can guess the likely speaker of the line almost immediately.

In addition to your hook, the beginning of your novel often contains an inciting incident.

The inciting incident is the thing that disrupts the character’s every day existence and eventually leads them to the doorway of no return (or the first plot point), where they become fully vested in the adventure. I was surprised to discover that Lucy is through the wardrobe and into Narnia and Dorothy has landed in Oz within the first two to three pages of the novel. The inciting incident and hook are sometimes interchangeable and and because the inciting incident does not always happen in the first chapter, it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint. For example, is the inciting incident in The Golden Compass, the inciting incident is when Lyra sneaks into a room she should not be in at Oxford and sees the Master putting powder in the drink he is about to serve to her uncle, and then while hiding in a wardrobe learns about “dust”? In A Wrinkle in Time, is it when Charles Wallace announcing that he had met Mrs Whatsit, or is that moment a continuation of the hook, and the inciting incident happens in chapter two when Meg meets Mrs Whatsit and realizes that the real world is not at all what she thought it was? K.M. Weiland offers an excellent breakdown of the potential differences between the hook and inciting incident.

You must knock over the first domino.

The bottom line is that the first few pages of your children’s fantasy novel (or any novel), must capture the reader’s imagination and knock over the first domino or the first few dominos in your line of dominos that is your plot. Your beginning must also establish the atmosphere of your novel – is it going to be first person POV or omniscient, is it about one child or a group of children, do they have a pet J, what is the setting, is it going to be dark or light-hearted, or both. Most of all, is it going to be fun? Subsequent books in a series must reintroduce the characters to the reader, if they are the same, and establish that immediate sense of familiarity and comfort, or immediately make the reader care about new characters, if they are different (a far more challenging task).


I also have ARCs to give away!

I also have exciting news. Chronicle Worlds: Tails of the Dystopia, containing a short story that I wrote about a dog, that is set in the world of, and could serve as an alternate beginning for my novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation will be released on November 7. anthology I have five Advanced Reader Copies to give away. Those copies will go to the first five people who email me at jlelliswriting@gmail.com and tell me whether you want a mobi or epub version. In exchange, we request that you leave a review on Amazon on launch day. You will love the amazing stories by the authors in this collection. Even more important, the anthology benefits Pets for Vets, an organization that finds and trains companion animals for veterans. I will also be sending out a reminder about the ARCs to my reading list soon, but don’t delay. If you want an ARC, email me now!