Opening Sentences and Style

What makes a great opening? Let's learn from Daniel Abraham.

Is this not a great cover? It exudes adventure.

Is this not a great cover? It exudes adventure.

For today’s post I wanted put two of Daniel Abraham’s works side by side and talk a bit about style and openings.

I want to start with Leviathan Wakes. I have been waiting to talk about this book! Besides an extremely cool title, it has so many things that I love: space ships, mysteries, detectives, secret subversive organizations, and space battles. I love Miller and his hat. I love the dynamics between Holden and his crew. The tension between Earth, Mars, and the Belt is so…real.

Hopefully I’ll get to talk about it more as we go along. This one is a tad different, because it's published under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey, which is a co-authorship of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. But let’s not be sticklers and exclude it. What’s exciting about this book is that it has been turned into a TV show called The Expanse! (Which means that I have topical images to share.)

To dive right in, I was struck by the opening line of Leviathan Wakes. A lot of writers struggle with their opening sentence, and I think there are some things to learn by taking a closer look. Here is the opening line of Leviathan Wakes:

The Scopuli had been taken eight days ago, and Julie Mao was finally ready to be shot.

This is a great first line for a couple of reasons. It hooks the reader with all of the unanswered questions. Who took over the Scopuli? Why is Julie Mao ready to be shot? Who is Julie Mao?

It’s also brief and uncluttered. Notice that the modifier “finally.” There are no other adjectives or adverbs. It is true that the first verb is passive and the second is a “be” verb. But if we turned the first verb into an active verb, it would reveal who took the Scopuli! And that’s part of what draws the reader into the story, wanting to know who is behind everything. (You already want to know who took over the Scopuli, don’t you? You have to read most of it to find out.) Besides building the reader’s interest and building suspense, this method serves another purpose: it gently draws the reader into the story without subjecting them to an info dump. 

I'll take a second to talk about info dumps. If you’ve spent any time studying the craft of writing, you may have come across this term. An info dump is a section of text that tries to give the reader a bunch of information all in one go. This usually happens when the writer needs a reader to understand the background of something, whether it’s a character, setting, or history of the location. Or many other things. Here’s an example of info dump that I made up:

In year of the Great Gog, when the swarms of hexen beasts had stricken the land, and the Sons of Might had disappeared from the earth….

Okay, woah. You’re already bored and lost, right? A writer might be tempted to think that this will draw the reader in by wondering what all these things are. What is a Great Gog? It can start out that way, and your reader will go along for a while, but eventually their minds will be overwhelmed with all the terms and information that you’re throwing at them. It’s best to include just one new, unfamiliar thing in your opening line. Your reader will catch up eventually.

Going back to Leviathan Wakes, notice how few unfamiliar things are introduced. We learn the name of the ship, the Scopuli. From context and the italics, we know that it’s a ship. Since it’s obvious from the cover art and the genre, we know that it must be a space ship, but other than that, we don’t know much about it. We also meet Julie Mao, but we just know her name. And that’s it. Everything else is familiar territory: the ship is taken over by forces unknown, and Julie reaches the point that she is ready to be shot, a feeling that we may not be familiar with personally but can at least imagine. These things are anchors for a reader. It's easy to process new characters, ideas, or situations when there is also something familiar to hold on to. With this mix of known and unknown, we are ready to move forward into the story.

To abruptly transition, let’s now look at the opening passage of one of Daniel Abraham’s short story, “A Hunter in Arin-Qin” from the collection Leviathan Wept and Other Stories.

At first, when the lights of my home still glimmered in the darkness behind me, the cold only chilled. Then, pressing through the snow with the effort of the chase keeping me warm, the cold bit.

It's possible to say that this is the polar opposite of Leviathan Wakes. These two opening sentences are layered with phrases and adjectives and filled with imagery. Consider the use of "glimmered" instead of "shone." You can envision the difference, right? The sun "shines," direct and bright. But this light "glimmers," hinting at a subdued, warm light. It implies a flickering caused by falling snow. Consider also the progression of the character's experience of the cold: it first "chilled" and then it "bit."

Ready to hunt some monsters in the fading light of day? Perhaps not.

Ready to hunt some monsters in the fading light of day? Perhaps not.

The style of this opening is one hundred percent different from the opening of Leviathan Wakes. But it also one hundred percent works. I actually read this story while waiting at the optometrist's office. By the end of page two, I was immersed in the story and completely detached from my surroundings, primarily due to the way that the language draws you in to the story and setting. 

“A Hunter in Arin-Qin” is an atmospheric story. The setting is vivid through the eyes of the main character. We see, feel, and hear as the she sees, feels, and hears. This is not to say that this doesn't happen in Leviathan Wakes, but here the physical world is palpable in a way that is completely different. The character and the setting, however, call for it. The main character is a hunter in a primitive culture. For her, death can come at any time, from the deadly monsters that she hunts or from the forces of nature, such as the snow in the above excerpt. She must be attuned to her surroundings in order to survive.

The style of Leviathan Wakes, in contrast, lends itself well to the type of story being told. It is much more action oriented. On an asteroid or moon, nature must be simulated or artificially recreated; it is a world of metal and recycled air. In a setting filled with high powered space ships and firearms, it is fitting that the writing style evoke a sense of immediacy that carries the action of the story.

In each of these examples, it's clear that word selection and style impact your reader's experience of your story. Don't be afraid to change the way that you write. Having a flexible style means that you can adapt it to best suit your characters, setting, tone, etc.

I hope that this has helped you think about your own opening sentences and ways you can trim, add, or change words to give them greater impact.

Happy writing, Stoners!

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