The latest genre in my series of first chapter dissections is Fantasy. As with the other books I’ve analysed (here), I will attempt to work out how a debut novelist managed to create an opening to his story that successfully pulls readers in.
Raymond E. Feist’s Magician (1982) was hugely successful, and is still considered one of the great fantasy books today. Coming up with a swords and sorcery epic at a time when fantasy of that kind had pretty much been done to death shows there’s always room for more stories, in any genre. It's such a good book that it encourages you to read the many sequels and follow-ups, all of which are terrible.
The storm had broken.
Not only is this a fairly dull opening line, it also references the weather (often considered a cliché). And I don’t think it matters. The idea that you have to hook the reader immediately isn’t really borne out in the books I’ve read, in any genre. I’ve never read the first line of anything and though “Fail!” I don’t believe anyone reads that impatiently (apart from agents).
So the book starts with our hero, young Pug, a kitchen boy at the Duke’s castle, on the beach collecting crabs. There’s some description of what kind of terrain he’s in, a couple of paragraphs. World-building is a major part of fantasy books, but the couple of paragraphs here are fairly normal, un-fantastic stuff.
Pug decides to take a nap, a little indication that he’s a bit of a scallywag. When he wakes he finds the storm that had broken is back with a vengeance, coming in fast over the ocean. He rushes back to the castle, but the tide comes in faster than expected and he twists his ankle and gets drenched.
So far the writing is pacy but nothing spectacular. All the same it reads well, and you are engaged with his struggle (even though it doesn’t seem life threatening) and his concerns about getting told off when he gets back.
The next section though is a very adroit piece of writing that I think would help writers of any genre.
As he hobbles back to the castle, the storm gets worse, and then a wild boar crashes out of the forest and charges him. A woodsman saves him and takes him to the home of the Duke’s magician who lives in a cabin in the woods. But what Feist does here is skilfully weave a number of elements together.
The magician has recently acquired a scrying ball (a crystal ball that allows you to see distant things). When trying it out he saw Pug in trouble. He sent his man to fetch the boy. It was this man who startled a boar sheltering from the storm and it was him who killed the pig when it attacked the boy. He then took the dead boar back with them and they eat it while the magician shows the boy the scrying ball and tells him what I just told you. Pug looks into the ball and is able to see the cook back in the castle, the one he was collecting the crabs for. This tips off the magician to Pug’s natural affinity for magic.
Now, it would have been quite easy to have a story where a random boar attacked Pug, and a passing woodsman saved him, but by linking everything together it is a far more satisfying and meaningful read. Everyone is playing a part and cause and effect lead you neatly from one thing to another.
It is often this aspect of creating a story that newer writers fail to materialise in their writing. Describing a castle or a tree or an army is all well and good, but establishing their role in the story world of the narrative makes them much more interesting and important to the reader.
Yes, this is what happened, but why did it happen? This is what most aspiring writers shy away from, the impudence of taking control of events like a god. But make no mistake, that is the job.
Magician starts off in pretty familiar manner. An orphan boy destined to save the world etc, but it is a remarkably engaging book and a real page turner. I would say the first few pages were nothing special. But by the end of this first chapter it is clear this is the start of a good story. Even though each individual element isn’t all that amazing, the weaving of them is very well done, and makes for a great read.
Check out the other posts in this series in the Chapter One Analyses page. I do detailed breakdowns of opening chapter for various genres (YA, MG, Crime, Sci-fi etc.) using popular debut novels (Hunger Games, Harry potter, Fight Club et al).
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