Reading & Writing: Epic Beginnings

Epic fantasy has been an extremely popular subset of the fantasy genre for many years now, and shows no signs of stopping. Trilogies have been replaced by huge series spanning (for example) 7 books, 9 books, 10 books, and 14 books.

Tolkien did it in under 500,000 words in The Lord of the Rings, but others have decided to tell much longer epics. George R.R. Martin has published just under 1.5 million words in his A Song of Ice and Fire series so far. Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company sits around 2 million words. Steven Erikson told the Malazan Book of the Fallen story in almost 3.5 million words. And Robert Jordan (along with Brandon Sanderson) reached an impressive, and staggering, almost 4.5 million words in the truly epic Wheel of Time.

But ultimately, what all these series have in common is a beginning (and a middle, and an end of course, but I’m focusing on beginnings in this post). It’s “common knowledge” that book buyers will often read the first few paragraphs of a book and make a decision right then whether or not to make a purchase.

In an epic series that spans more than half-dozen (or dozen) large books, that can be quite a commitment based on a few paragraphs. Of course, no one will keep reading a long series if the rest of the first book doesn’t live up to those first few paragraphs, but they are the first hurdle that must be overcome to make a sale.

Below, I’m going to take a short look at each beginning and make a couple of points.

Song of Ice and Fire

From the Prologue in A Game of Thrones

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The Wildlings are dead.”

“Do they frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just a hint of a smile.

Gared did not rise to the bait. He was an old man, past fifty, and he had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”

“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”

“Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead, that’s proof enough for me.”

Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.

“My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, too loud in the twilit forest.

“We have a long ride before us,” Gared pointed out. “Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling.”

This is the text on the first page of the mass market edition of A Game of Thrones. What I find interesting is the focus on the word “dead.” It appears eight times in the first 186 words. I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers when I say that death is pretty common in the lands of this series. Life is cheap, no character is sacrosanct, and death can come for anyone, at any time, without warning.

The second noticeable thing is that this series starts with dialogue, rather than description. You’ll see how it differs in the other series below. As much as there is a great of action in the series, in many cases words end up being far more powerful and more important than any battle to the overall story. This is a story of characters—everything that happens in this series is driven by character needs, desires, and actions.

The Black Company

From Chapter 1: Legate of The Black Company

There were prodigies and protents enough, One-Eye says. We must blame ourselves for misinterpreting them. One-Eye’s handicap in no way impairs his marvelous hindsight.

Lightning from a clear sky smote the Necropolitan Hill. One bolt struck the bronze plaque sealing the tomb of the forvalaka, obliterating half the spell of confinement. It rained stones. Statues bled. Priests at several temples reported sacrificial victims without hearts of livers. One victim escaped after its bowels were opened and was not recaptured. At the Fork Barracks, where the Urban Cohorts were billeted, the image of Teux turned completely around. For nine evenings running, ten black vultures circled the Bastion. Then one evicted the eagle which lived atop the Paper Tower.

Astrologers refused readings, fearing for their lives. A mad soothsayer wandered the streets, proclaiming the imminent end of the world. At the Bastion, the eagle not only departed, the ivy on the outer ramparts withered and gave way to a creeper which appeared black in all but the most intense sunlight.

But that happens every year. Fools can make an omen of anything in retrospect.

Unlike the passage from A Game of Thrones above, this opening just drips with flavour. There is no explanation as to what the Necropolitan Hill is, or Paper Tower, or the forvalaka (though we know it was confined in a tomb by magic). But we know that priests sacrifice victims to their gods, and astrologers and soothsayers try to predict the future. And the references to the military elements (the Bastion, the Urban Cohort) indicate a familiarity with that subject that reveals something about the narrator.

But the most important element of this passage is the foreshadowing. We know something big is about to happen, and the first two sentences tell us that the main character and his companions were unprepared for whatever it was. Disaster is looming, and there are just enough hints about the setting in there to awaken our curiosity and desire to know more.

Malazan Book of the Fallen

From the Prologue to Gardens of the Moon

The stains of rust seemed to map blood seas on the black, pocked surface of Mock’s Vane. A century old, it squatted on the point of an old pike that had been bolted to the outer top of the Hold’s wall. Monstrous and misshapen, it had been cold-hammered into the form of a winged demon, teeth bared in a leering grin, and was tugged and buffeted in squealing protest with every gust of wind.

The winds were contrary the day columns of smoke rose over the Mouse Quarter of Malaz City. The Vane’s silence announced the sudden falling-off of the sea breeze that came clambering over the ragged walls of Mock’s Hold, then it creaked back into life as the hot, spark-scattered and smoke-filled breath of the Mouse Quarter reached across the city to sweep the promontory’s heights.

Ganoes Stabro Paran of the House of Paran stood on tiptoe to see over the merlon. Behind him rose Mock’s Hold, once capital of the Empire but now, since the mainland had been conquered, relegated once more to a Fist’s holding. To his left rose the pike and its wayward trophy.

The opening passage here really focuses on a sense of history, of the vast roll of years that precedes the beginning of the story. The “stains of rust,” the “century old” pike, the “ragged walls of Mock’s Hold,” and the fact that the city was “once capital of the Empire” all combine to show the reader that this place has been here a rather long time.

Of course, the weight of ancient history is a major theme in the series, and events from eons before have a direct impact on the current situation in the books.

This section also introduces one of the main characters of the series, someone who becomes quite important to events later on. While he is only a boy in this scene, it shortly becomes obvious that he is observant, intelligent, and driven.

The following paragraphs after these three add a heavy dose of military elements, and the unease which seems to permeate the population of the empire. This is a civilization on edge, and it won’t take much to push it over the tipping point into chaos.

The Wheel of Time

From the Prologue to The Eye of the World

The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals, which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet. The dead lay everywhere, men and women and children, struck down in attempted flight by the lightings that had flashed down every corridor, or seized by the fires that had stalked them, or sunken into stone of the palace, the stones that had flowed and sought, almost alive, before stillness came again. In odd counterpoint, colorful tapestries and paintings, masterworks all, hung undisturbed except where bulging walls had pushed them awry. Finely carved furnishings, inlaid with ivory and gold, stood untouched except where rippling floors had toppled them. The mind twisting had struck at the core, ignoring peripheral things. Lews Therin Telamon wandered the palace, deftly keeping his balance when the earth heaved.

“Ilyena! My love, where are you?” The edge of his pale gray cloak trailed through blood as he stepped across the body of a woman, her golden-haired beauty marred by the horror of her last moments, her still-open eyes frozen in disbelief.

“Where are you, my wife? Where is everyone hiding?” His eyes caught his own reflection in a mirror hanging askew from bubbled marble. His clothes had been regal once, in gray and scarlet and gold; now the finely-woven cloth, brought by merchants from across the World Sea , was torn and dirty, thick with the same dust that covered his hair and skin. For a moment he fingered the symbol on his cloak, a circle half white and half black, the colors separated by a sinuous line. It meant something, that symbol. But the embroidered circle could not hold his attention long. He gazed at his own image with as much wonder. A tall man just into his middle years, handsome once, but now with hair already more white than brown and a face lined by strain and worry, dark eyes that had seen too much. Lews Therin began to chuckle, then threw back his head; his laughter echoed down the lifeless halls.

This opening is focused on two things. First, there is destruction wrought by some kind of magical power. And it’s not indiscriminate—innocent people have been killed while inanimate objects have been left alone. This is targeted destruction, designed to slay the living only.

Second, the passage highlights the madness of the character Lews Therin Telamon. He seems unaware of the dead bodies around him. He’s lost, looking for his wife amidst the death around him, but caught by his own reflection. He laughs without purpose, obviously unhinged.

Of course, madness is a key element in the series, as the main character, Rand al’Thor must try to hold onto his own sanity as he learns to harness the magical power that is his destiny.

What do these passages do?

In all of these cases, the first few paragraphs give the reader a real sense of at least one of the core themes of the series. These aren’t standalone scenes—they reflect what the reader will experience if he or she continues to read. In some cases, the individuals introduced in the first few paragraphs do not survive the Prologue or first chapter, but they still set the tone for the books to come.

This is something for writers who want to produce epic stories to understand—an early scene must show the reader something important that reflects the themes of the book. Sometimes a writer will try for clever, hoping to hook the reader with an opening passage that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the story. But when the tone shifts, when the story starts going, the reader may end up feeling unsatisfied, as if the opening was a bait & switch.

In a seminar I attended at GenCon a few years ago, the writer Michael Stackpole said “The beginning must ultimately reflect how the book is going to end.” That means, as a writer, you need to finish the book before you can go back and make sure the beginning is right for the story you actually wrote.

I think these passages I’ve highlighted above show why these series have become so popular. Readers know what they are getting from the opening pages, and the writers deliver.

What other series have great openings that really hook you as a reader? What openings felt completely disjointed from the rest of the book? Share your opinions in the comments below.


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