It’s writing craft time!
Beginnings are critical, because if you don’t nail them, no one’s going to flip to the next page in your story. The goal of a good beginning: make the reader curious about what will happen next. Sound simple?
But how do you do that? I think every opening should do at least one of these things (but usually more):
- Ask a question
- Introduce an interesting character
- Create a compelling setting
- Set the tone of the story
- Hint at future conflict
- Establish what’s the norm, and what’s different right now
When I set out to write this novel, I really didn’t know how to write a compelling opening scene so I decided to try writing all the beginnings I could possibly imagine (9), and I learned a lot in the process. Let’s have a look at a few of them…
P.S. Some names changed between drafts, but it shouldn’t be too difficult figuring out.
My fingers slip on the knot of rope, I can’t keep my attention on the tent, and the canvas roof sags. My eyes slip down to the city of my birth. At-Ama gleams in the last lingering light of the sun, the diamond of Bato-Ko, the city of glass.
“Narra! Concentrate.” Kuran winds her rope around a metal nail, securing it to the dirt. It’s usually the other way around. She’s too excited to be distracted. The sooner we’re done setting up camp, the sooner we can see the city.
Mama always tries to avoid Bato-Ko, despite Kuran’s pleading, but she can’t, not during the choosing. I was six the last time the Rajah of Bato-Ko was chosen. Even now, 10 years later, I am too young to be chosen, but I don’t care, the city beacons like a lighthouse on a cliff. Glass roofs and walls, reflecting the sun like a second ocean, showing the barest hints of orange and purple, of the sun’s last promises before it’s descent to the underworld.
I feel it in my bones, and it draws the both of us together in the quiet. I am like my mother in some ways. My heart hurts when I look upon the glass city, and I don’t know why. Did her tears pour into me, when I was a baby? Who can know? I have never lost anyone. Everyone I love is here. I’m too young to have ever been in love, And yet…
“Done.” The tent is lopsided, but I can fix it later, and Mama will not notice. Kuran’s excitement is contagious. I need an answer to the beating of my heart, and wonder if I will find it there, or if these are only the echos of another life I have lived upon this stone shore. Circles upon circles. Lives upon lives.
Mama looks up from cart, that carries our whole life in it. I know the contents by heart. One iron pot, five plates, and spoons, and forks, three knives. Tools for repairing our dolls, the folded, stage for the puppet theatre. Blankets, clothes, cups. Mama’s drum. Every one of our puppets is like an old friend, traveled with. My chest deflates a little, because her expression is not what I expect. I forgot that she has a whole history here, one that I do not share.
“Find the nearest fountain, Narra.” Her voice is still strong, unbroken, but she cannot hide her eyes. Perhaps the city reminds Mama of my father, whom I never met. Perhaps his ghost lingers around corners where lovers words were once whispered, or upon the threshold of the old Jal house, where I Kuran and I were born. Rebirth brings surety that they will meet again, but it does not ease the loneliness now, the needing now. She looks away from the city. “And avoid the Baylan. And keep your sister out of trouble.”
“We will be fine, Mama. It’s Bato-Ko. There’s no crime here and we’re Tigangi. This is our home. There’s nowhere safer for us on this continent.” Kuran’s eyes are too full of the city to notice mama’s discontent. She grabs my arm and links hers through it, dragging me along, too tired of waiting. Patience is not her strong suit. I grab the leather water skin with my free hand and sling it over my neck, take one last glance at Mama, but her eyes are fixed on our cart, our small world.
What’s happening here? I established the setting, and a few characters. There’s a hint that they shouldn’t be there.
Why didn’t I choose it? It’s not setting the right expectations. It’s too slow, and there is little conflict, because they’re just setting up their camp. This is not a slow book. It also doesn’t establish that there is magic in this world, or that Narra is different because of her curse.
I don’t even know if Mama is still alive, but I have to believe it.
My fingers slip on the knot of rope, I can’t keep my attention on the tent, and the canvas roof sags. My eyes slip down the valley to the city of my birth. Bato-Ko gleams in the last lingering light of the sun, the glass roofs and walls, of the city’s numerous homes, reflecting the sun like a second ocean, showing the barest hints of orange and purple, of the sun’s last promises before it’s descent to the underworld.
Despite months of preparing, the city in its solid reality, catches me off guard. I’ve gone over the plan to save Mama, over and over, a hundred times, but it vanishes the moment I set my eyes on Bato-Ko. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I wonder if the stories are true, that there is so much magic in the streets that even thieves forget to steal and you can lose yourself forever. I can’t let it seduce me.
“Narra! Concentrate.” Kuran winds her rope around a metal nail, securing the tent to the dirt. It’s usually the other way around. She’s too excited to be distracted. The sooner we’re done setting up camp, the sooner we can see the city. The sooner I test out whether those old maps I have looked over were of any use.
I catch a scurry of movement beside our wagon, and it is not our cousin’s underfoot, or uncle Ravin stealing touches of the bolts of silk that we must sell. I touch my hand to my lips, and slip around the back of our small encampment, and jump lightly up onto the painted wooden wheel, of the wagon and pull myself onto its low black roof. The thieves are fiddling with the lock. We are a tempting thing, this far on the outskirts of the city, but Auntie Merta refuses to go any closer.
The thieves, two of them, are young boys, as thin and wild haired as I might look, if they looked up. No one ever looks up. I cough, and peer down at them, and they finally see me. They look hungrier than I could have guessed. I flash three polished throwing darts in my left hand. I almost feel sorry for them. Almost. We are hungry too.
“Which one will it be?” I ask, pointing to each sharp tip. “This one has a spell that will make your nose bleed for a week. This one will make your tongue grow moss. This last one will give you the pox.”
I see one of them has a knife, and I toss a dart, close enough to skim the leather of his mud crusted boots. Even Bato-Ko, the diamond of Tigang has mud, and thieves like any other city, I think with a small wry smile. I feel petty, looking for reasons to hate the city that took my mother and father from me.
One of them is freckled despite his dark skin. He hesitates.
“Look, leave now, and I will spare you a lot of trouble.” I slip my darts back into the crimson sash at my waist, and reach instead for my scarf. I unwind it, still smiling, because I know my smile does my features no favors. And I let them see the dark blotches upon my skin, below my collar bone. These boys are Amani, and they know what it means.
“Monster.” Freckles spits, but it is only a veiled threat, meaning nothing. They are already backing up, and I crouch casually upon the roof of the wagon, feeling the wind upon my bare skin, for just a moment. Another moment, and I am running out of time. But the Choosing has not yet begun. I have a little time left, I tell myself, though there are a hundred things I need to do, to prepare. I swallow back the frantic beating of my heart, louder now that I am so close to my goal.
The boys are running by the time I jump down from the roof. Kuran does not look amused, tangled in the ropes of our collapsed tent.
“I hope those boys have nightmares of you,” she huffs. “Now, we’ll never see the parade. Why did I even bother hurrying. I could have taken my time with Auntie and the others.”
I look over the hunch of a ridge, and spy the rest of our family lumbering towards us in the distance. Three more carts, red lacquered wheels spinning.
What’s happening here? This one is the same tent scene as before, BUT because the first was slow, I tried adding in some conflict: the boys Kuran and Narra chase away. It hints at Narra’s curse, a conflict with Auntie, and that mom is missing / possibly dead.
Why didn’t I choose it? There are a whole lot of characters here that don’t actually matter in the story. It still doesn’t hint at what this story is about. Again, I don’t establish that there is magic in this world.
Home stretches out before us, unfamiliar.
My body thrums and I cannot tell if it is echoing the distant drums, or the patter of feet on Bato-Ko’s wide cobbled streets, or the magic woven into the branches of the living trees around our hasty camp, that I feel in my bones.
This is not the home we Tigangi invoke when the weather turns to ice and we curse this rocky bit of land we made a country, not that home thick with palm fronds that we glimpse in memories that bubble up in dreams of past lives. This is Bato-Ko, place of my birth, and it is time for the Sundo.
My fingers slip on the knot of rope, I can’t keep my attention on the tent, and the canvas roof sags. My eyes slip down the valley to the city. Bato-Ko gleams in the last lingering light of the sun, the glass roofs and walls, of the city’s numerous homes, reflecting the sun like a second ocean, showing the barest hints of orange and purple, of the sun’s last promises before it’s descent to the underworld.
Despite months of preparing the city’s solid reality catches me off guard. I’ve gone over the plan to save Mama, over and over, a hundred times, but it vanishes the moment I set my eyes on Bato-Ko. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I wonder if the stories are true, that there is so much magic in the streets that even thieves forget to steal, and you can lose yourself forever.
And for a moment, I am not the cursed girl, just Narra, grinning in the wind, but I remember my plan and the joy turns to a hollow feeling. I think my chest might echo like an iron pot if I were to tap against it.
The last time I saw ma, I promised I would never come here.
“Narra! Concentrate.” Kuran winds her rope around a metal nail, securing the tent to the dirt. It’s usually the other way around, but she’s too excited to be distracted. The sooner we’re done setting up camp, the sooner we can see the city. The sooner I test out whether those old maps I have looked over were of any use.
I pause a moment, and close my eyes, feel the wind upon my bare skin, for just a moment. I am running out of time, but the Sundo has not yet begun. I have a little time left, I tell myself, though there are a hundred things I need to do, to prepare. I swallow back the frantic beating of my heart, louder now that I am so close to my goal.
But I wrap my silk scarf to hide the marks of the curse I was born with: flat black splotches that spread across my neck like spilled ink.
I don’t even know if Mama is still alive, but I have to believe it.
I look over the hunch of a ridge, and spy the rest of our family lumbering towards us in the distance. Three more carts, red lacquered wheels spinning
What’s happening here? Now we’re getting closer. This does the worldbuilding up front: establishes that magic exists, describes the city, lets us know Narra plans to save her mom (somehow), and that she’s broken a promise to her by coming here. It also sets the tone of the story. I was looking for Narra’s voice in the first 2 beginnings and only finally really get it here.
Why didn’t I choose it? While it is poetic, the Sundo is probably the most important part of the book and it should have a bit more explanation. I ended up saving those lovely descriptions to sprinkle in later on in the story.
My body thrums. I cannot tell if it’s the reverberation of distant drums, or the magic woven into the green canopy of leaves above the market square, that I feel in my bones.
Home stretches out before me, unfamiliar.
This is not the home we Tigangi invoke when the weather turns to ice and we curse the rocky bit of land we made a country. Not the home thick with rustling palm fronds that that we glimpse in dreams of past lives. This is Bato-Ko, place of my birth, and it is time for the Sundo.
The streets echo with music. The air is thick with the intoxicating scent of scattered flowers. In a little over a week, Tigang will crown a new ruler.
But all Auntie Halna sees is money. Parties every night, mean new clothes for everyone.
I grasp at a swathe of slippery silver silk, and resist the urge to swear. The fabric squirms like a slippery fish, threatening to slip out of my cotton gloves and onto the cobbled street, as if it longs for stains, ruin, and for Auntie to punish me. It would be easier to work without gloves, but Auntie would scream if I touched the smooth cloth with my bare hands.
The silk is more valuable than a cursed girl.
I look away from the customer standing at our market stall, and into the city. The glass walls of Bato-Ko’s buildings reflect the ocean to the West, and the sun above, glittering like diamonds that peek out between the leafy trees that shade its pathways. I wonder if the stories are true, that there is so much magic in its streets of At-Ama that even thieves forget to steal and you can lose yourself forever.
The last time I saw Ma, I promised her I would never come here.
“We wear gloves to treat these fine cloths with the care they deserve,” Auntie lies to our customer, and I turn away as if slapped, because she pitches her words for me to hear.
Auntie tosses bolts of fabric into the back of our wagons, unfolded and creased. My sister Kuran and I spend days ironing every time we come to a new town and our arms have the burns to show for it.
No, we all wear gloves, because it would look strange if I were the only one wearing them. Auntie glances at me every few moments, observing my motions. I wrap a bit of grosgrain ribbon around the shining package, and I let a finger of silk fall across my forearm like a caress.
I smile behind Auntie’s back, because she doesn’t catch my defiance. The gloves are stupid, because we Tigangi believe that curses do not affect things, only people. Still, Auntie takes no chances with me. Every morning I watch her drink hot sauce with garlic to cleanse her body of negative energy, braid her hair into patterns of protection, and wear beaded bracelets of Rivan blue to ward off evil. Her superstitions come from everywhere and nowhere. To her, I am an unfortunate burden, to be treated like a wild dog that might not be tame.
But I don’t hate her. Some days I think she’s right to be afraid of me, because even I am frightened. I press a hand to my heart. It beats so fiercely I feel as if something is trying to hammer its way out of my chest.
“Do you have any pineapple cloth?”
I jump back two inches. The old lady appeared so quietly that I didn’t notice her, and even Auntie has not looked our way yet. Despite my fright there is nothing fearsome about her. Soft greying curls frame a kind brown face, that’s prone to smiling. She’s the sort of woman I imagine my grandmother might be like.
“Only a little,” I say, and clasp my hands together in front of me. “We purchased this from a Tigangi family living in Turium. The embroidery is very fine.”
The cloth is stiff to the touch and nearly transparent.
“Few people still know how to make this.” Grandma traces the cloth so reverently with her fingers, that I am suddenly envious that I cannot do so. “And the embroidery is very delicate. It must have taken months to finish.”
I nod. Kuran is the better salesman, but she’s busy feeding Auntie’s youngest child, Keah, a snack with a small wooden spoon. Orange colored puree is splattered all over Kuran’s tunic, but she doesn’t notice. My sister is too busy singing a song to distract the baby.
“How much?” Grandma asks, her fingers still tracing the fabric gently, though her gaze followed mine to Kuran. Her lips purse, thoughtfully.
My sister’s waves of her black hair spill around her in a wild mess that only makes her look more beautiful. My features are not as welcoming, or open as my sister’s, but my fingers are long and nimble like hers. We all have the same deep brown skin, and dark eyes, but while her eyes make Kuran look kind, and they make me look angry. And she has a voice, what a voice.
“For how many lengths?”
“All of it,” she says. “My family is very traditional.”
Grandma wears linen pants and a short tunic, and they are dyed a deep purple. The cut and design are simple, but I can tell that it was sewn by a deft hand, with stitches so tiny they are nearly invisible. This is a woman with money, though Auntie might not have noticed, too dazzled by Amani peacocks in bold stripes and patterns.
“Two rods,” I say. It’s twice as much as the cloth is worth, and I expect her to bargain, but without a word, she reaches into a purse and fetches two silver rods. She holds them out to me. I am so shocked that hesitate to take them. Perhaps even I assessed the woman wrong from the start. She presses the coins into my gloved hand when I do not reach for them.
“I am sorry, I have not introduced myself. Please call me Grandma Oshar.” She says, and holds out her hand for me to take.
I hesitate, but I have my gloves on, so I press the back of her hand to my forehead out of respect. “Narra,” I reply.
“May Omu’s light shine upon you,” Oshar gives me her blessing. Some old ladies come to chat with us, because they are lonely, or because they just like to talk, and I don’t mind them, but I don’t think either of those reasons apply to Oshar. Her eyes take in everything, including Auntie’s dismissive glances in my direction.
“Your sister has a beautiful voice. Do you know many songs? I am looking for entertainment for a party I will have tomorrow. I am bereft of music. I know it’s rather last minute.” She pauses and smiles brightly. “I will pay of course.”
I think I turn red in the face, but Kuran can hear a compliment from leagues away. Within moments she’s at my side and beaming. “I know all the epics, Grandma.” She takes Oshar’s hand and presses it to her forehead without hesitation. She looks no less regal for the carrots splashed on her tunic.
“Tomorrow, both of you come to the Toff residence at sundown.” Oshar beams at both of us, and pats Kuran’s hand as though she is a long lost granddaughter.
“I’m sorry Grandma, I don’t sing,” I say.
“Then you are simply my guest,” she insists.
I nod, because there’s no polite way to refuse.
When Oshar is gone, Auntie wags a finger at us. “You may go, Kuran, but Narra, you shall plead sick. I will not allow you to ruin our business. If they were to glimpse your birthmarks, think of all the people that would avoid us.”
Auntie never lets me forget what I am. That I am meant to be suffered, not pitied. That only bad luck follows wherever I go. I knot my silk scarf to hide the signs of my curse: flat black birthmarks that spread across my neck like spilled ink.
I do not protest, but Kuran’s fists are already balled.
What’s happening here? I tried to start with action/character instead of setting. I also set up Narra’s usual routine in the market place, the importance of Narra’s curse, and conflict with her aunt.
Why didn’t I choose it? Selling fabric isn’t very engaging. Oshar is important, but not a central character. This doesn’t introduce the main conflict of the story. This scene doesn’t need to be the first one in the book and if you’ve read the first few chapters, you can see that I moved the fabric selling scene later on.
Home stretches out before me, unfamiliar.
This is not the home we Amani invoke when the weather turns to ice and we curse the rocky bit of land we made a country. Not the home thick with rustling palm fronds that that we glimpse in dreams of past lives. This is Bato-Ko, place of my birth, and it is almost time for the Choosing.
The streets echo with music. The air is thick with promise and the heady scent of scattered flowers. In a little over two weeks, Aman will crown a new ruler. In three days people will start dying.
Already, young men and women not much older than I are massing outside the gates of Bato-Ko’s glass fortress. I pass them – these shifty eyed, lost looking, bright eyed, confident – soon to be bodies. There are more volunteers than I expected. Once, to enter the competition might have been considered an honour, but my mother long disabused my sister and I of any notions of joining.
“Leave it to the desperate and the foolish,” she said. “You are neither of those things.”
I do not stare long, because the walls of the fortress burn my eyes like a second sun, reflecting the late light of the afternoon.
There is hardness at the heart of Tigang that makes its beauty sharper. Bato-Ko shouldn’t exist, this green gem tucked between a rocky plateau, the wild-dark ocean, and a ridge of spiny snowcapped mountains. It is beautiful like the sharp edge of a well-forged blade.
I wonder if it might cut me apart.
The last time I saw my mother, I promised her I would never come here.
I falter a moment, counting the months since my mother disappeared. It seems a lifetime of dusty roads, and secrets ago. Auntie Halna tells me nothing, because she doesn’t care. And my sister Kuran does not, because she cares too much. So I must find her on my own.
Wedged beside the fortress, the archives swarm with people. The cavernous building looks like a hill from the outside, cut in half by a huge glass wall that faces the ocean. A thick green turf grows over the vast expanse of its roof, held up by a forest of poles carved into the shapes of silvery birch trees. Between the birch poles extend rows upon rows of books, and Archivists scramble to and fro, wheeling carts of books down the corridors. There are more books here than any one person could ever read in several lifetimes.
I try not to look impressed. Our family has crossed the continent twice, but I have never seen anything like this before.
I wander lost for a while before spotting an old man sitting at a desk, surrounded by stacks of thick tomes. His eyes are edged with red, and beads of sweat cling to his thinning brow. The six painted blue bands on his right arm, mark him a Baylan of the Archivist’s sect.
We’ve encountered the Archivist’s often enough, recording taxes in city centers and collecting tithes for Aman. Ma never seemed overly worried about them, so I take a breath and tug on the yellow sash at my waist.
“Yes?” he asks and I blink, because I didn’t realize I was staring. I think he’s waiting for me to ask for his blessing, but I keep my hands clasped close to my threadbare blue tunic, well aware that this is an insult. It can’t be helped. Better he not like me, than be cursed too.
“Do you have a list of everyone arrested over the past year?”
The old man gestures at a chalkboard upon a long wall. Names neatly names decorate the wall in curving script. The list seems endless.
“Whom are you looking for?” he asks and I notice blue paint on his wrist. A red rash spreads around it and there are small gouges where nails picked at small bumpy scabs. I take a step back with a wrinkled nose. “Only those awaiting trial are listed.”
“Shora Jal.” I give him my mother’s name.
“It sounds, familiar…” His eyes widen a moment, then narrow. I don’t know if he’s lost his train of thought, or found something more interesting to ponder, but he wanders off into the endless stacks, and I turn my attention to the wall.
One third of the way across the long board, I find her name. She’s still alive. I let out a small breath and dare to hope that I might see her again.
When I look over my shoulder, the old Archivist is back at his desk and I eye him again. “What must I do to get her back? May I advocate on her behalf? What was she arrested for?”
“So many questions, child.” He stares down at the great tome he has open, flipping through pages, one after another, tearing some as he turns them recklessly. “Grandmother?” he asks, and I realize he’s taken out one of the genealogies. I’m tempted to peak, because Ma never speaks about her family, but mostly I’m worried he will take too much of my time, and Kuran will be suspicious. She’s warned me about meddling in Ma’s affairs, but I can’t sit back and do nothing.
“Yirin Jal,” I say, but he’s quick and already trailing his oily finger down the page. He slams the book shut before I can read it. “Which of Shora’s daughters are you?” he leans close to my face and his breath is as sweet as if he’s rotting from the inside. I back up, but before I can stop him, he has the tail of my scarf in his hand. He tugs at it so hard that I choke and pull myself away, and the blue silk slips.
Though he says nothing, his hands drop away from me as if I am on fire, and I know that he’s glimpsed the birthmarks upon my neck, the flat black splotches that mark me as a cursed girl. I hastily rewrap the scarf and pace out of the archives as fast as I can manage without looking like I’m running.
I’m numb and cold by the time that I reach the port where I might find Kuran, but my heart stops when I turn around. A gaunt shape darts behind a stall grilling sausages, and I glimpse six painted blue bands on a thin arm. I am being followed.
I should never have come here.
What’s happening here? Narra isn’t just observing the city, but doing something (action). She’s on a mission to save her mom and obviously Alen is acting suspiciously (tension!). This hints at bigger things happening in Narra’s world, and that there’s a conspiracy her mother might be part of.
Why I chose it: This is the opening that eventually became Ch 1 of the book. It’s got action (Narra searching for her mom, running from Alen), and establishes her motivations right away (to save her mom). There’s bits about the Sundo and why it is perilous. Is Narra already in over her head? Absolutely.
The final Ch 1 is a little different after a few rounds of editing, but the main action is still there. The other first chapters were me trying to figure out different ways to set up the story, but I really like how it ended up. Sometimes it takes a few tries, to get things right!