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A Great Opening


I read a lot of books and for the opening to stick with me as something that needs to be revisited is a rare thing. When I find one, I love going back, line by line, and figuring out how it works and how it functions. This week we're going to take a look at the opening paragraph of Robert Heinlein' Starship Troopers. It does a lot of things really well, but more than anything it demands that you keep reading.

Writing an opening to a book is hard. You need to grab readers with your very first sentence and then the first paragraph as a whole. It will take revision after revision to get it right. Sometimes you'll agonize over what that first sentence will be and realize you've really been writing chapter three. Or you'll agonize over it and realize that the book doesn't start until chapter two and you need to lose this opening anyway.

But looking at incredibly successful openings to books is a good way for us to learn more about what we should do. Or what's possible that we could do.

So let's look at the opening of Starship Troopers. Not only is it a great opening paragraph, it's a prime example of excellent world-building, too. It's restrained. Yes, Starship Troopers is a futuristic military sci-fi novel, but the beginning is so relatable that you barely notice the exposition. It's practically invisible. It throws the reader into a small concept they don’t need to understand. They easily infer what it means and move on, taking the world-building that's been going on for granted.

Don't believe me? Read it. 
“I always get the shakes before a drop. I’ve had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I really can’t be afraid. The ship’s psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me it isn’t fear, it isn’t anything important--it’s just the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate. I couldn’t say about that; I’ve never been a race horse. But the fact is: I’m scared silly, every time.”
This opening is nothing short of brilliant and exhibits so many great techniques. Firstly, it throws you directly into the world, blazing right by a dozen ideas that give you a clear picture but it doesn't weigh you down with any hard to understand images or words too easy to mispronounce.

It’s so well-designed and well-written that it begs you to keep reading.

Taking it one idea at a time, it's easier to dissect. Looking at it as a whole, the only concept that is foreign to an average reader (especially when this was written) is the idea of a "drop."

The rest of the paragraph is devoted to making us understand how crazy the concept of a drop is. The rest of the paragraph tell us exactly what we can expect. For one thing, we’re led to believe that these drops would ordinarily be frightening as hell if scientists hadn’t dulled that fear out of our protagonist. The paragraph speaks matter-of-factly about our hero being on a ship. If he’s “dropping” out of a ship, we can reasonably assume it’s probably a space ship.  Add the title into the mix and we're practically certain.

Here's an interesting point that you might not have noticed that works on a completely subconscious level for readers: since there is no sense of awe or wonder in the tone of the narrator, we can assume that being on a space ship is commonplace. This is routine.

We can also discern that our hero is incredibly intelligent. 

He knows that what he’s doing, despite the best efforts of science, should be terrifying. He's able to intellectualize this. He’s still afraid, scared silly, even though he shouldn’t be able to. This tells us we’re going to get something that should be absolutely terrifying coming soon in the text, and we have a narrator intelligent enough to make us understand that.

To top it all off, we get a joke about not being a race horse, giving our man a wry sense of humour we instantly take a liking to. 

The image of the racehorse, though, is an incredibly familiar image. We know what they are. We have them in our world and since they have them in this new world we're about to dive into, there are more familiar things about it to come.

This opening is amazing to me. It's only 89 words. That's it. And those 89 words are a marvel of efficiency and economy, communicating so much more than what is written on the text. Heinlein didn’t talk down to his readers or drown them in made-up jargon, and he gave them commonplace cultural touchstones that were easily understood.

This is just one kind of opening, though. There are a thousand great ways to do it. Maybe millions, but I would bet that all of them imply more than they say and each of them give readers something different but familiar to latch on to and keep them reading.

What are your favorite book openings? I'd like to know, sure, but I'd like you to look at them. Go look at your favorite books and try to figure out why the opening works so well for you. What draws you into it? What keeps you moving through the story? What makes it stick with you?

A few others of my favorites? Try this one from Patrick Rothfuss's The Name Of the Wind:
"It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts."
What does that mean? What does it promise? It offers such a tantalizing question for me as the reader, I just have to find out. What three parts? How can there be a three-pronged silence? How will Rothfuss bring me to understanding here?

Or try Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five:
"All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all their names."
Doesn't that just punch you in the gut and make you want to keep reading? Here you have Vonnegut telling you that he actually experienced these absurd things and he's going to impart the ways these things happened to us in the text. How would that not keep you reading?

Or what about the opening to Graham Greene's The End of the Affair?
"A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say 'one chooses' with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who – when he's been seriously noted at all – has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, in sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?"
It's so lyrically written and gives such a definite image and voice to the narrator that I defy someone to not keep reading.

But none of these are alike, and I'd count them all as some of my favorites. This is where all that studying comes in. Why does an opening work? Find out. Explore. Dissect. Study. Think about everything you can discern from an opening paragraph, write it down. See how efficient it is. And then, when it's time for you to turn in your next draft, ask yourself what yours might say to a first-time reader. Will it say enough? Will it do so with the elegant economy of these?

You'll do your best. I know that's all I try to do.

As for my writing, I've been very busy. I wrote a piece about The Man Who Would be King for my Cinema Behind Star Wars column for Starwars.com. It's a great film based on a Rudyard Kipling story and it informs much more of Star Wars than you might guess.

I did two pieces for Howstuffworks, the first is on the 20th anniversary of Pokemon and the other is the next in my Ridiculous History series. This one is about the Molasses Flood of Boston in 1919.

Be sure to just get a subscription to Star Wars Insider as well. I have at least one piece in the next few issues. More details on those as I get them.

As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!
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