April 13, 2015

Crafting Science-Fiction Story Openings

Any good story begins with a good opening line.  Science-fiction stories are no different.  A good opening line in a fictional story will give us:

  • One of the story characters
  • Depict that character in a location or setting
  • Show the character doing something
  • Ideally, include interesting wording or imagery

A science-fiction opening should do all of these things, but should also try to:

  • Show something that is true in your character's world, but not in ours.
  • Foreshadow the ending in a way that, when a reader re-reads your book, he or she will wonder how they didn't seen the ending coming from that opening.
This helps your story two ways.  You engage the reader's mind as quickly as possible.  By incorporating something untrue in our world but true in the world of your story, the reader begins to wonder about and imagine your story world.  This also achieves what Poul Anderson called "the twin pleasures of surprise and rightness".  When the reader finishes your story and later re-reads it, the foreshadowing makes them wonder how they didn't see the ending coming.

You might not be able to achieve all the above goals in your opening sentence, paragraph, or page, but that's the goal to work toward.

Here are examples of some opening lines that achieve many of these goals:

  • "As I approached the front door of The First Bank of Bit o' Heaven, it sensed my presence and swung open with an automatic welcome.  I stepped briskly through and stopped. But I was just far enough inside so that the door was unable to close behind me. While it was sliding shut I took the arc pen from my bag - then spun about just as it had closed completely."

    This opening, from Harry Harrison's A Stainless Steel Rat is Born, shows the main character Jim DiGriz, an intergalactic thief and con-man, in action at a bank.  We hear some interesting phrases such as "Bit o' Heaven", "automatic welcome", and "arc pen" that don't fit in our world.  We may even wonder what an "automatic welcome" or an "arc pen" is.  We may also wonder why the main character uses the arc pen to weld shut the door that might be his escape from the bank he's about to rob.  While nothing here hints at the book's ending, this opening does cover almost all of the other criteria.
  • "The Volante's engines roared as the ship descended towards Cathua, one of three inhabited planets in the Oxed system.  In the flight deck, Hal Spacejock was paying as much attention to the coffee mug balanced amongst the instruments as he was to the approach. He could surivive without watching the landing, but he only had one mug."

    This opening, from Simon Haynes' Hal Spacejock 3: Just Desserts shows us the main character, shows him on his ship heading somewhere, demonstrates how his world is different from ours (we don't fly spaceships), makes us a little curious as to why he's almost more concerned about his coffee mug than landing his spaceship, and hints that this is going to be a humorous or at least offbeat story.  Although not included above, the rest of the opening chapter contains some arguing between Hal and his robot companion Clunk about how badly the ship's business transactions are being handled.  This foreshadows the ending, where Hal offers Clunk some of the (generally non-existent) profits from the ship's activities in exchange for him helping to make the ship more profitable.
  • "Why did I think the bank manager was a super-villain? He didn't particularly look like one. Then again, he wouldn't have been much of a super-villain if he had."

    The opening of Michael A. Stackpole's "superhero noir" story In Hero Years... I'm Dead" shows the main character, a middle-aged superhero coming back to town after being held captive for years, trying to make sense of a disquieting feeling he has.  The sentence places us in a bank, with our hero, who's sizing up this bank manager, and wondering why he reminds the hero of a super-villain.  Since there are no super-villains in our world (at least none of the comic book variety), this lets us know that the normal rules don't apply in this universe.  Superheroes and villains exist here.
You can probably find many more good examples in your reading.

Crafting an opening like this can be relatively simple, but may require you to go back and revise the opening once you've written the ending.  You may want to insert hints as to how the story will end, in order to give readers that "should have seen it coming" thought.  You may want to borrow phrases or ideas from later in the book and insert them in the opening to show how the story world differs from the real world of today, and so on.

This is one reason that author Brady Allen suggests that authors practice writing opening lines, opening paragraphs, and opening pages.  Doing this gives you not only good practice in hitting the points above, but also gives you lots of story prompts you can use when you're looking for something new to write.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments on posts older than 7 days are held for moderation and will not appear immediately.