Creative writing: Start strong


20 July 2018
Untitled-87390.png Jeff VanderMeer by Kyle Cassidy
Sci-fi and fantasy writer Jeff Vandermeer, Nebula Award winning author of Annihilation, explains how to suck readers in with your opening, and set up the story that follows
Creative writing: Start strong Images


Sci-fi and fantasy writer Jeff Vandermeer, Nebula Award winning author of Annihilation, explains how to suck readers in with your opening, and set up the story that follows

Figuring out the best starting point for your story should be followed up by making sure you’ve included the right material in your beginning, in the right amounts, and with the right emphasis for the story you want to tell. Most stories require some or all of the following basic elements to be present at the beginning:
• A main character or characters, presented from a consistent point of view
• A conflict or problem
• An antagonist (The source of conflict or the problem—a person or, depending on the theme, nature or society, to name just two possibilities; whomever or whatever the main characters are pushing up against, which, put crassly, could be called the “villain” of the piece.)
• A hint or suggestion of a secondary conflict or problem that may form a subplot or additional complication (This is optional, since it may come into focus later in the narrative.)
• A sense of action or motion, no matter how static the opening scene
• A general or specific idea of the setting
• A consistent tone and mood to the language

The economy and sophistication with which you provide these elements, and the style in which you present them, may depend on whether you are writing a short story or a novel. It’s also important to note that an invisible or an ornate style can convey economy and sophistication, while a lush style can be concise. The issue of the number of words required to convey an idea, a character sketch, or other element is less important in fiction than that sentences do more than one thing. For example, you should be able to write a sentence that advances not just characterisation but also setting and conflict, everything in motion at once. Being able to accomplish this is especially important at the beginning of your story, where you often have to convey more information – more context – than in most other places in the narrative.
The type of story or novel also influences the level of precision and immediacy. Some tales allow for a more leisurely introduction of elements; there is nothing particularly nail-biting about the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, because Mr Tolkien is playing an extremely long game. Neither does conciseness mean rushing through, shoving too many elements into such a small space that you, or the reader, lose the necessary clarity. If we start off on a journey toward Mordor without our bearings, tagging along with people we know nothing about and care nothing about, we might decide to go AWOL.
A ‘problem’, meanwhile, can begin as small as a hole in someone’s sock that leads to something more significant or can metastasise immediately as a looming threat to the survival of God, Country, or Talking Penguin. The idea of a ‘sense of motion or action’ relates to the suggestion of a ‘problem’, with the motion or action a possible expression of the problem, although it can also just be the main character physically moving. The point is that motion of any kind draws the eye to look in a particular direction, and the reader assigns some measure of agency or importance to whatever is moving.
The idea of a consistent tone or mood at the opening of a story or novel may seem too abstract, but many a piece of fiction has been ruined by being written in the wrong register. For example, if you start with breathless, emotional words, you run the risk of having nowhere to go in later dramatic scenes. But if you start too unemotionally – or, alternatively, are too frivolous when you mean to be serious – you may not properly convey aspects of the story or the main character’s personality.
Although the number of elements you have to work with to craft your beginning may be finite, they can be combined and expressed in a multitude of ways. Asking yourself a variety of questions can help you to better understand your approach and how it may be interpreted by the reader. Once you have settled on the best possible opening, you should always think about adjusting the balance – like fiddling with the treble, bass, and other settings of a car stereo system to achieve the highest-quality sound. Here are just a few of the possible questions:
• Is the main character, or at least one character, introduced in the very first line? If not, why not, and what is emphasised in the first line in place of character?
• Is the main character fully integrated with other elements: Can we begin to see the character’s opinions about his or her environment and about other characters?
• Are the relationships between characters clearly set out in the opening paragraphs so that there is no potential confusion for the reader? (For example, the character the reader thinks is someone’s son but turns out to be the cousin instead.)
• Have you chosen the right viewpoint character(s)? (Would someone else have more at stake or be more interesting?)
• Have you chosen the right approach to point of view, whether first person, third person, or second person? What happens when you try writing the same opening from, for example, third person instead of first person?
• Is the starting location or general setting appropriate for the story? Will the location or general setting appear again in the story? If not, have you invested words to describe the setting that might be better spent on other elements? (If the location won’t be used again, is it the right location?)
• Is the issue or problem or dilemma facing the main character clear to the reader, to the degree required by this particular story? Have you been either too subtle or too obvious?
• In relation to the context of the scene, does the problem faced by the main character seem unintentionally trivial? (If so, both the penguin and I hope you meant to write comedy.)
• Is the tone of the opening consistent, and does it carry through the rest of the story?
• Does the style fit the characters, setting, and purpose of the story?
• Does the emotional content of the words you have used create the correct context and the correct bond or pact with the reader as to the type of story?
• Does the opening support the ending?

When you add the overlay of the requirements intrinsic to most fantastical fiction (including science fiction), certain other questions come to mind. These questions relate to special constraints or responsibilities, some akin to the challenges faced by writers of historical fiction.
• Do we know where we are? (Earth Prime, Past Earth, Earth, Earth 2.0, not-Earth, Another Planet, Spaceship, Miniaturized-Inside-a-Weiner-Dog, etc.)
• Do we know when we are? (Future, Past, Now, Now-Plus-5-Seconds, etc.)
• If where and when are implied rather than stated, is the implication providing enough information? Is the implication providing the right kind of information?
• If you have stated where and when, have you been too obvious or uneconomical in your approach? Is there a more elegant way to convey this information?
• Do we know if the protagonist is human or not?
• If the protagonist isn’t human, do we already have clues as to how differently this protagonist understands and processes the world from a human protagonist?
• In conveying context, have you provided too much information up front, clogging the narrative?
• Do we have a general idea from the word choice and other contextual clues as to whether we are reading science fiction or fantasy? (There are different, more rigid protocols for science fiction. For example, “hyperdrive” figures prominently in most science-fiction worlds that include spaceships.)
• Does your word choice help convey the differences between your setting and Earth Prime in a seamless fashion?
• Have you included too many made-up or unusual words to try to convey your unique setting, reducing the clarity of your opening? (For example: “Space Captain Talking Penguin quarked the 4G switch on his barkolater with his ghost malanges, and on came the entire starbird system, including the psi-beaker app” might give even a dedicated science-fiction fan pause.)

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In most kinds of contemporary fiction set in the real world, the reader will make certain assumptions based on their own experience. These assumptions decrease the burden on the writer to render certain elements explicit in the text. Even the historical novelist exploring, for example, Venice in the 1600s, will have some expectation that many readers will know at least something about the city. (Readers will also probably have some received ideas about Italy, a sense of it, even if those ideas are based on clichés or stereotypes.) But with most kinds of science fiction and fantasy, you may have to expend more time and energy convincing your readers to “suspend disbelief” – to trick themselves into believing what is on the page is real.


This article is extracted from Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, published in a revised and expanded edition (Abrams Image, £18.99). Find out more and order your copy at
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