megwrites: Shakespeared! Don't be afraid to talk Elizabethan, or Kimberlian, or Meredithian! (shakespeared!)
[personal profile] megwrites
I haven't posted here in a while, and honestly, it's because I haven't had much to say but I've had a lot that needed to get done.

But never fear, I will always find something to say eventually.

Today, I was reading my f-list and I came across this post about epic openings from [personal profile] green_knight, where two opening paragraphs from two epic fantasy novels had been posted and compared.

What I found so fascinating was that based on just those two paragraphs, the conclusions and analysis drawn were totally different between the two of us. You can read [personal profile] green_knight's conclusion at the post, but suffice it to say, in that analysis the first paragraph is considered to be superior to the second.

Which is totally different from what I read.


The sky held only a wisp of cloud as two riders splashed over the thin tributaries of the Wyne River. One was a tall, slim woman in her early twenties; her buff-coloured tunic hitched up over her knees, her long, black hair worn loose and streaming behind her in the wind. The other was a man her age, tall, but heavyset and muscular, dressed in a similar tunic, but with his own, much paler hair braided in two long plaits behind him to keep it from his eyes. They rode sturdy mountain ponies, bred for long treks over rough ground rather than for speed, and rode without speaking, the woman's attention never leaving the distant hills until they drew up beside a larger stream. Then they paused and allowed their mounts to bend their heads and drink.


The woman struggled through the knee-deep snow, the bundle of dead wood she had tied to her back almost as great a burden as the weight of the child she carried in her belly. Her breath rasped in her throat before frosting heavily in the bitterly cold southerly wind. She was short and strong, her legs and shoulders finely muscled by twenty-eight years of hard-won survival in her harsh homeland. But she had always had the help and company of her people to aid her. Now she was alone, and this, her third child, she would have to bear without assistance.

Getting down to the nub of analysis, paragraph one in my opinion as a reader is far weaker. It's the kind of thing that regularly makes me put down books and never come back. Honestly, it bored me. In just 138 words, it bored the crap out of me.

By the middle, I thought, "Okay, they have tunics and hair. Damn not given."

Nothing in that paragraph gives me a reason to care why these two riders are, well, riding. Because that's all I find out. Two riders are riding. I don't know why, what the stakes are, who the riders are.

The second paragraph, on the other hand, gives me a reason to give a damn very quickly. First, the woman is struggling and she's pregnant. This gives me, at least, some stakes and high ones. Telling me that she's fought for all twenty-eight years is yet more info and reason to care, to wonder why she's had to struggle.

Now I know that I'm dealing with a survivor who's ability to survive is being pushed, especially by the impending birth of this child. And she's alone. Giving birth alone (by circumstance, not by choice, so far as I know from this paragraph) is something that strikes me as scary and dangerous, even to an experienced mother. I immediately want to know why she's in this isolated, desperate, cold state. Telling me that this is her third child also makes me wonder where the other two are and what has become of them.

In short: my Give a Damn has been tripped. I want to read on, at least to figure out what the conflict is and why this woman has found herself in this situation and what her strategy for dealing with it is. Maybe I'll find the conflict boring or silly or overblown. Maybe it won't be for me. But I'll at least finish the page, maybe the chapter.

With the other paragraph, I have no investment in the two characters as human beings. I have no investment in any knowledge of them as individuals or their context as people.

And yet, that first paragraph came from a published book. And at least one other person read it and liked it better than the second one. Is [personal profile] green_knight just not as sophisticated a reader as I am?

No, definitely not.

I think it has a lot to do with reading styles and with what does/doesn't work in a book (for me, at least). The above scene reads to me as something that would be really rather perfect in a screenplay and that, if it were filmed, would be very interesting. As a movie, I'd give it a go.

Why? Because on screen you can jam pack several hundred tidbits of vital information encoded in obvious visuals, thus giving viewers insight and clues about what's going on.

On screen, hair styles and clothing and types of horses and scenery and weather are big deals. They set scene, they tell the viewer where in time and space (roughly) to locate these people and their culture. Clothing is a very huge cultural marker, but "buff-colored tunic" is vague in text and unhelpful. Lots of societies have had tunics or tunic-like clothing, so it tells me shit all about these folks in the end, as do the braids). I see the word 'Wyne' so that tells me vague-Euro fantasy, which is pretty much most epic fantasy, so that's triple boring for me. Because Euro-fantasy has to work really, really hard for me even to stop and read the title of the book.

Furthermore, with a filmed story, you'll have the actors to tell us, without a word said, about the internal thoughts of their characters with facial expressions and body language. We'll be able to see if these two characters are on a desperate, dire mission or a relatively easy (if long) journey. That line about the woman looking off into the hills means nothing in text. Woop-dee-do, I say. Is she anticipating going there, is she dreading it, is she just hoping when she gets there she can get a decent beer and a shag? Is she afraid the hills will move like the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who if she so much as blinks? (BTW, that would make a terrific story. Moving hills!)

Actors would also indicate the relationship between each other, along with clothing and scenery. We'd be able to find out something interesting, perhaps. Are they father and daughter? Okay, a family trip. That's vaguely interesting, I can muster a milli-damn or two for that. Is he her way older husband? I can muster maybe an entire centi-damn for that, just for the skeeve factor alone. Are they the same class, race, clan, group, religion? She has black hair, he has pale. Maybe they're not the same race/ethnicity. That's something. That's a big something.

We'd see the way that the two look at each other, or if they DON'T look at each other and that would tell us a lot. We'd see facial expressions. We'd see either weariness or determination. We'd be able to glean clues directly from the smallest things. Gestures, sidelong glances, conversation (even if we don't hear the dialogue, just SEEING what they look like when they talk is a BIG thing). Do they get along, do they argue, are they largely indifferent and business like?

The fact is, I don't know or have a way to glean any of this here. The first paragraph gives me nothing except that two riders, one with loose hair and one with braided hair, that ride. There's nothing to make me care whether they get there or drop dead and get eaten by their sturdy mountain ponies. Where I'm looking for an excuse to understand, investigate, and care about two human beings presented, I get costuming and scenery, which I don't care about.

Now, I imagine a lot of this isn't so bad if you're one of those people with a brain that can make visual information work for you from a text. My brain cannot do this for all my trying. I have a hard time instantly constructing pictures from words. And indeed, when given such phrases as "buff colored tunic", I have to literally stop and my thought processes while reading were pretty much exactly like this:

"Okay, buff is like, what, nude? tan? beige? ecru? What the fuck is ecru? Isn't ecru green? No, that's chartreuse. Okay, so if it's buff is that just like the cloth or is it animal skin? How would you make a tunic out of animal skin, that wouldn't cover very much. Or am I thinking of a toga? Is a toga the same thing as a tunic? What does a tunic even look like, are we talking like one of those long medieval-y things or what? Maybe I should google it..."

At which point I've wasted mental time and energy on this useless piece of information. I still am not sure how to visualize these two riders. Really, I'm not.

Whereas, the second paragraph describes only those physical details that give me information that doesn't need to be processed. My brain inserts it's own images. "Knee deep snow". I can pretty quickly look down, see where my knees are and imagine snow up to there. In fact, I don't have to. It's a common phrase and measurement (at least in the dialect of English I speak natively). Insta info. No processing needed. And that tells me it's cold, it's winter, and the weather sucks. Again, insta info, no processing. "Bundle of dead wood". My brain plugs in the first, most convenient stock image of firewood it's got laying around. "Child in her belly". Another image my brain can quickly access.

I don't have to struggle to stop and form these things into useless pictures, because even if you JUST gave me these three phrases alone, I'd get a pretty damn accurate picture. I'd get a picture of a pregnant woman, in a very cold place, trying to survive (I assume that's what the dead wood is for). Each of those pieces of visual information has told me something.

"Knee deep snow" tells me what she's facing, "bundle of dead wood" tells me what her task is and what she's doing about the snow, "child in her belly" tells me some backstory, the stakes, and something humanizing about her. I care a little bit now. Because damn, it's gotta suck being pregnant and freezing cold. Not to mention maybe dangerous. The part of me that is able to give a damn about people even if they're total strangers has now gone, "oh dear, I hope she gets somewhere warm and they're both all right." And just to find out if she at least gets indoors, I want to

And bonus, my brain got to plug in the information in a way that didn't make me stop to calculate and construct a meaningless visual.

That said, the second paragraph isn't perfect. It leaves a lot to be desired as far as giving me context - answering questions about where, when, how, why. It also does one thing I hate, hate, hate more than anything which is saying "the woman" or "the man" in lieu of at least giving me the character's name or some useful moniker. If this is the main character, giving me a name straight off is the best thing a writer can do.

I know this is likely because the author of paragraph #2 is trying to set a visual, show a scene that's supposed to play out cinematically in my head. But we've established that my brain does not do the picture show thing. So even when the cinema fails, there information to fall back on that still gives me a story to follow, something the auditory/non-visual part of my brain can appreciate.

So what's the take away?

As a writer, I take away from this little experiment the importance of layering information and the styles of portraying it to the reader - because for every one of me that doesn't like or care about visuals too much, there's a reader with a brain that loves and craves them.

My editing brain is already tearing apart that first paragraph, thinking of how a word or two here and there could change so much and keep a reader like me reading. First, naming both characters, because names are information for free, and stating their relationship. Not just saying "the man", but (I don't have the rest of the book, so I'm making this up) Bob, her uncle or Ted, her way older husband or Joe, her bodyguard. A description of the facial expression, as simple as a "sad frown" or "bright smile" or "a tired sigh" could tell me about how the female character feels about her destination. All of this instantly tells me info and interests me in the characters, but don't disrupt the visual.

Which is why if you've got more than one level going, you can please a wider audience, you can attract and keep readers like [personal profile] green_knight and me, both. Because trust me, as an author, you want ALL the readers.

Date: 2011-01-17 10:17 pm (UTC)
crossedwires: appa licks zuko. it's how he shows his affection (appa approves of zuko)
From: [personal profile] crossedwires
It's the kind of thing that regularly makes me put down books and never come back. Honestly, it bored me. In just 138 words, it bored the crap out of me.

Same here. Plus, I'm thinking it's a book where the ponies will be transportation and nothing else, which is not an incentive to continue reading for me.

But, having re-read the paragraph, now I'm wondering if they're wearing pants. (The riders, I mean, not the ponies!)
Edited (pronouns!) Date: 2011-01-17 10:18 pm (UTC)

Date: 2011-01-17 11:09 pm (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
See, I would pick up a book based on the second paragraph, but I don't read much "epic" fantasy--I would be picking it up based on the assumption that the woman is the protagonist (or at least a major character), while [personal profile] green_knight assumed for hir experience with the genre that the woman is not going to have a role in a novel with a male protagonist, and probably exists solely to orphan the hero by dying tragically. Which would put me off. So there's obviously some role that knowledge of genre conventions is playing here as well.

The first paragraph is just boring. That kind of opening is fine in a movie, but "scenic openings" almost never work in a book, and the setting has to be very striking and non-generic for them to work. (Also, people with long hair who don't pull it back while riding/fighting/whatever trip my yeah-right-o-meter. Presumably the woman likes spitting hair out of her mouth and wiping it out of her eyes every time it's windy.)

Date: 2011-01-18 07:03 am (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
But on a prose level, leaving aside larger context, the second paragraph at least keeps me at the table long enough to be disgusted. The first has me walking away immediately.

Yup, me too.

Huh, I just read a pretty positive review of Midnight Never Come and was thinking of giving it a try because I'm always looking for tolerable Tudor fiction...may I ask what put you off?

I can't really imagine trying to fight or ride a horse.

Yeah! It seems like a small thing, but it's just so basic that it immediately makes me think the author isn't going to think anything else in the book through very carefully.

Date: 2011-01-18 06:55 pm (UTC)
holyschist: Image of a medieval crocodile from Herodotus, eating a person, with the caption "om nom nom" (Default)
From: [personal profile] holyschist
Yeah, I am not terribly into the parallel faerie court thing, so I'd be reading spite of that.

I like historical fantasy if it's done well, and sometimes I prefer it because I'm willing to cut more slack on the history and it's so hard to find historical fiction that doesn't take wild liberties. It is a genre I love more in theory than reality.

Date: 2011-01-17 11:28 pm (UTC)
inkstone: Samurai Deeper Kyo's Yuya sighing over a book, caption: reading is money (reading)
From: [personal profile] inkstone
I definitely prefer the second paragraph but I also know the first paragraph is probably what's more expected in your standard epic fantasy novel a la GRRM or David Anthony Durham.

Date: 2011-01-18 01:45 am (UTC)
owlectomy: A panda with its face in a book (yonda-panda)
From: [personal profile] owlectomy
Both of those openings fail for me. But then, I'm so picky about epic fantasy that I don't think a single epic fantasy has lasted on my bookshelf through all the book-culls. (Secondary-world fantasy, yes; nothing that is primarily about saving the world, though.)

#1 doesn't give me anything interesting, straight-off. A book doesn't have to give me action straight-off, but I want something odd or charming or startling, even if it's just in the voice or the style. The narrative throughline is solid. Just in terms of the style, it's good enough at pulling you from A to B to C. But when you're done you just have two people riding ponies. I want this to get interesting fast.

#2 gives you a compelling situation right away, but something about it felt off to me, and it clicked into place when I learned that the protagonist is the woman's orphaned child. The narrative is scattershot, and it's scattershot because it's trying to throw stuff at you to make you feel sorry for this person, who isn't a human being in her own right, but just a device to evoke a feeling of pity, and a womb for the real protagonist. I have a real distaste for openings that try to provoke you into unearned emotions; it's like the blind date who wants to tell you all about their ex and their terrible family. And I do think there's a bit of whiplash in going so quickly from grounded sensory stuff to abstract thinking about the past.

Openings are hard.

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