How fiction starts: an analysis of 1200+ sff books

When I make my writing analysis posts, I usually pick random sentences but beginnings may be an even better choice. They are probably the most edited, if not overthought, parts of a book, and it’s also where writers show off their skill or (if they fail at it) their weaknesses. And if you want to see how writing changes through time, the first sentence may actually be all you need to read. And for those who have huge submission piles to plow through, the first two sentences is all you need to read for the first culling.

If you have followed me for some time, you already know my dislike of contemporary writing fads and techniques and my belief that you can see its decline in quality just in the formal aspect of writing. Strange syntax, (too) deep POVs, -ing participles galore, unnecessary descriptions, showing where telling would be perfectly fine and, finally, no personal style and no distinctive narrator—just piles and piles of descriptions, one after the other, like a transcription of a video recording. And, sure, it’s fine and all to talk about these things in the abstract and using a few examples from time to time, but it’s better to have some solid evidence to back you up. So here it is.

I have read the beginnings (usually just the first sentence) of 1212 books (novel-sized with a few novellas and short stories here and there,) from the first books of “modern” fantasy and sci-fi (1910s) to last year’s Hugo & Nebula winners, and classified their starting sentence (or paragraph) in two broad categories: whether they are descriptive or narrative, and of what type. These are the categories and what they mean:

Description (other): A description that I couldn’t classify in any other place, usually because it uses an uncommon sense (hearing or taste,) because it’s many descriptions at the same time or jumps from one to the other quickly, occasionally because it’s a description of someone’s thoughts, or because it’s a ‘WTF did I just read’ kind of description (or a word salad—quite common in contemporary writers.)

Example: “The air was laden with the heavy scent of decay.”

Description (Light & Weather): If you haven’t read a lot of fiction, especially fantasy, this may seem strange, but starting a book with how the sun shines or how the light from some source reflects somewhere is a standard trope for some reason. Weather phenomena (e.g. dark and stormy nights) go here too.

Example: “The sun beat down bright and hot on the rock pile that crowned the high pasture.”

Description (Land & Space): The description of a place. It could be a room, a valley, a planet, etc. What matters is not that some place is mentioned, for it would be odd if a narration could happen in no place at all, but that the focus is on the detailed description of the place, usually through some point of view. “In a galaxy far, far away” is certainly a place, but it’s not a description of said galaxy.

Description (character): How a character looks. His or her hair, the way they dress, etc. If the description is psychological, that usually fits narration better since it’s the narrator summing up someone’s character. I have also included descriptions of some unique inanimate objects but with personality and importance (e.g. some spaceships) but there aren’t many of these.

Description (action scene): Bullets whizzing, arms flying around, blood spurting, bodies tumbling, people running, etc. Self-explanatory, but keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be violent action scenes though. People fleeing from some monster (or a deluge) might classify as an action scene if the focus is on the fast-paced description of the action.

Description (activity): Just some activity or behavior. Someone does something, usually quite trivial but not necessarily so. The character sits down, presses some buttons, walks to some place, cooks dinners, checks his email, opens a door or, quite simply, is somewhere, existing.

Narration categories are not as detailed because I already anticipated that they would be fewer—and they are harder to classify anyway. There’s Narration, First-Person narration, and Argumentation. Finally, there’s also Dialogue.

First-person is included in Narration because it’s really uncommon for a text in the first-person to start describing something without a proper set-up (usually, but not always, who is speaking or about what is he going to speak.) It happened only twice, I think, and I classified those oddities as Descriptions. For that reason, the disappearance of the strong Narrator in modern fiction cannot be explained just by a dislike of first-person narrators. If that were the case, these would migrate to standard, third-person Narrator, not Descriptions.

At first I included Dialogue as part of the larger Narration group, along with First-person and Argumentation, but I have moved it separately as its own thing although in the numbers I’ll show you, Dialogue is added to Description to calculate totals. That’s because, in a sense, it’s description of someone’s speech and starting with a dialogue is a modern thing and I will be comparing classic vs. modern trends.

Argumentation is when the narrator isn’t stating facts but arguing for or against them, puzzling over something he is going to explain, perhaps being philosophical, trying to prove a point, persuading the reader (or an imaginary person) and so on. “It is said that…”, “Love may be the answer to many problems but…”, “You might think that…” could be examples of argumentative beginnings.

I also include what sometimes is described as Exposition as Narration. The Narrator exposes facts, tells things, not bound by any character’s POV. If you are still puzzling over the distinction between Narration/Exposition and Description (and there are some borderline cases, but not many,) the first sentence of the Lord of the Rings, for example, would be a good example of Narration:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

The narrator just states the facts in the way he chooses. And when he then says “Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return,” he does the same.

So with the explanations out of our way, I’m going to give you the numbers now. I have divided the many novels according to their era, style, and, for the modern ones, their setting since I have analyzed a truckload of those tie-ins books. I’ll start by contemporary science fiction and fantasy and then go backward in time until I reach the oldest works.

For the mass market entertainment, I chose 5 massive sff settings that have spawned a very large work of tie-in novels. Nobody pretends they are masterworks, but some are/were very popular and many people get their first taste of genre fiction thanks to these books, so it’s important. The settings are: Battletech, Dragonlance, Starwars (the famous Expanded Universe,) Forgotten Realms, and Warhammer (both 40K and old-world, but mostly the first.)

These fictional universes have managed to inspire a ridiculous amount of novels, so I naturally didn’t read the first lines of all of them, but close enough. These are my numbers:

A note: These novels usually have prologues, introductions, forewords, epilogues, and whatnot. These are rarely necessary and if their style is very different (like an introductory letter or diary entry in first-person narrator in a book written in the third person) I have ignored them. Otherwise, I used the first sentence of the prologue as the first sentence of the book.

BattleTech:

  • Description (other) 5
  • Weather & Light 9
  • Land & Space 7
  • Character 2
  • Action Scene 10
  • Activity 13
  • Narration 6
  • First-Person 1
  • Argumentation 0
  • Dialogue 11
  • Total 64 (57 vs. 7)

As you can see, there are actually more books starting with descriptions of Weather & Light (mostly wind and smoke) than traditional narrative beginnings. There’s also a lot of action-scene beginnings but that’s understandable for a setting about giant mechas blowing each other up.

Dragonlance:

  • Description (other) 21
  • Weather & Light 21
  • Land & Space 24
  • Character 17
  • Action Scene 7
  • Activity 19
  • Narration 25
  • First-person 1
  • Argumentation 2
  • Dialogue 9
  • Total 146 (118 vs. 28)

The same pattern holds here but now is mostly descriptions of places (forests,) sunrises, and that kind of trivial stuff. Keep in mind that these are descriptions, in the very first sentence, so you don’t actually know where you are, why that description matters, or even if it’s relevant to the story (it usually isn’t.)

StarWars:

  • Description (other) 30
  • Weather & Light 24
  • Land & Space 24
  • Character 12
  • Action Scene 9
  • Activity 32
  • Narration 27
  • First-person 2
  • Argumentation 1
  • Dialogue 29
  • Total 190 (160 vs. 30)

More or less the same but with more Dialogue beginnings. Dialogue as a starting point doesn’t feel very fantasy-like since it sounds (and is) like a modern convention not fit for knights and elves prancing around. What fantasy writers forget, however, is that starting with a detailed description of some place or activity is also a modern convention.

Forgotten Realms:

  • Description (other) 29
  • Weather & Light 22
  • Land & Space 23
  • Character 16
  • Action Scene 18
  • Activity 20
  • Narration 19
  • First-person 3
  • Argumentation 3
  • Dialogue 27
  • Total (154 vs. 26)

Pretty much the same but less Narration and more Action Scenes.

Warhammer:

  • Description (other) 22
  • Weather & Light 11
  • Land & Space 20
  • Character 9
  • Action scene 14
  • Activity 7
  • Narration 15
  • First-person 11
  • Argumentation 3
  • Dialogue 20
  • Total 132 (103 vs. 29)

Same stuff. If you are wondering what’s with that spike in First Person narrators, half of that is due to the adventures of Ciaphas Cain, which also happen to be some of the best books in that setting and the closest to the original Warhammer 40k style before it got flanderized by its own grimdark.

Now, to give you a bit of context, I’m going to show you my results for 90 books from the Appendix N. For those who don’t know what that is, Appendix N is a list of authors and books that one of the Dungeons & Dragons creators, Gary Gygax, recommended as sources of inspiration for gaming ideas and also as a list of material that inspired the game. You can read the list here.

It’s a long list, with way more than 90 books in it (a few I chose are anthologies of short stories,) but I believe it’s a representative sample of all the authors in there. Keep in mind that these authors come from an older era and most works were published between 1920 and 1960 and include a wide variety of genres and styles. However, they were the best of the fantasy genre before the unexpected Tolkien success (he, begrudgingly I image, was also added to the list) and, therefore, D&D and modern fantasy (which sometimes reads like an RPG session,) wouldn’t exist without them. Notice that, in theory, the books in the previous five fictional universes are the literary descendants of these Appendix N authors (at least the D&D books, Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms, should.) In practice, they are not, and their style and feel are quite different.

Many of these authors started publishing in the pulps but they were always a very specific subset of pulpsters. In any event, here’s how they started their stories:

Appendix N:

  • Description (other) 8
  • Weather & Light 10
  • Land & Space 11
  • Character 5
  • Action Scene 0
  • Activity 10
  • Narration 23
  • First-person 16
  • Argumentation 0
  • Dialogue 7
  • Total 90 (51 vs. 39)

Although non-narrative beginnings still win, not it’s a more balanced match. In fact, if you just look at descriptive vs. non-descriptive, including Dialogue in the non, the non-descriptive win for the first time.

And for being the literary inspiration of Sword & Sorcery, there is not a single action scene there (at least not in the stories I randomly read anyway.) This is not an anomaly, by the way, since the farther in time you go, the less important Descriptions are and fewer Activity and Action Scenes you will find.

Because a lot of Appendix N authors were pulp writers, I have also picked up some stories from that era. But unlike the former, where it is possible to get a representative sample, that’s not possible with the pulps in general. There were hundreds of pulp magazines and few of them have been preserved, and that means my sample may be representative… but only of that which has survived (mostly some famous sci-fi magazines, a few Weird Tales, a few detective pulps, etc.) I chose magazines at random and then read the first lines of the story, which is usually novella-sized, not short-story-sized:

Pulps:

  • Description (other) 14
  • Weather & Light 8
  • Land & Space 7
  • Character 8
  • Action Scene 3
  • Activity 24
  • Narration 21
  • First-person 16
  • Argumentation 6
  • Dialogue 22
  • Total 129 (86 vs. 43)

Many of these stories used Dialogue almost descriptively, to start the story with a bang (e.g. “It’s a trap!” “The criminal has escaped!”, etc.) Here is also when you start finding a lot of Activity beginnings, a sign of amateurish writing, I believe, since those were usually the seemingly least interesting stories.

Compared to the previous group, these stories here felt less “literary” but I was surprised by the lack of Actions Scenes and the great number of stories that followed quite traditional narrative styles (and we are talking about pulp yarns here.) First-person narrators, which have either fallen out of fashion or are now grossly misused, were also very popular back then.

To get an idea of how more respectable (or fashionable anyway) writers start their books, here are the numbers for the winners of the Hugo and Nebula Best Novel Awards (1953-2018.)

Hugo and Nebula:

  • Description (other) 10
  • Weather & Light 6
  • Land & Space 14
  • Character 0
  • Action Scene 0
  • Activity 9
  • Narration 24
  • First-person 11
  • Argumentation 7
  • Dialogue 13
  • Total 94 (52 vs. 42)

That didn’t surprise me because, as a general rule, better writers know you usually have to start with exposition or narration. The numbers are quite similar to those from the Appendix N group.

If you have been reading my blog for some time, you’ll also know I have a low opinion of recent Hugo winners, at least in the short story department, but the same applies to novels because you can see their quality, just by their very first sentences, taking a massive nosedive around 2012. Still, that’s just a few years so it’s not significant or very relevant for the entire run.

I have two more groups to analyze. The first is famous and influential writers (all of them post-1950s) that haven’t appeared in any other category but probably should if you want to talk about contemporary fantasy and science fiction. They are all bestsellers and famous, many even among the general public. Now, of course, this list could be endless, but I chose these:

Joe Abercrombie, Asimov, Clive Barker, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Robin Hobb, Robert Jordan, Stephen King, Scott Lynch, George R. R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, J. K. Rowling, Brandon Sanderson, and Robert Silverberg.

Some of these won Hugos or Nebulas, so I have picked their books that didn’t to avoid overlap.

Modern sff writers:

  • Description (other) 9
  • Weather & Light 9
  • Land & Space 11
  • Character 2
  • Action Scene 3
  • Activity 23
  • Narration 21
  • First-person 8
  • Argumentation 7
  • Dialogue 12
  • Total 106 (70 vs. 36)

We go back to Descriptions having the upper hand, and you can blame the post 80s authors (or post-Tolkien and post-D&D for fantasy writers) for that. Still, since there’s some arbitrarity in the books (if not the authors) chosen, I wouldn’t focus much over the specific numbers.

Finally, and this one is the most important group, classic authors. As far as Fantasy (at least of the sword & sorcery variety) goes, the books from the Appendix N are pretty much their ancient, classic works. However, those authors weren’t supernatural geniuses who came up with their stuff out of nowhere. There has always been a long tradition of fantasy tales, mythology, ghost stories, speculative fiction, and adventure yarns, and that’s what will go here.

This list includes both ancient, anonymous works as well as more modern writers that are, however, considered classic (there are two repeating authors from the Appendix N list here, Dunsany and Lovecraft.) Naturally, I had to be a bit arbitrary but I have chosen famous, relatively well-known writers in the genres of Adventure, Fantasy/Fairy Tales, Horror/Supernatural/Ghost stories, and Science Fiction:

Anonymous (Beowulf, Epic of Gilgamesh, Iliad, Odyssey) J. M. Barrie, Frank L. Baum, Ambrose Bierce, Hans Christian Andersen, Algernon Blackwood, Lewis Carrol, Francis M. Crawford, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, Sheridan le Fanu, Brothers Grimm, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Aldous Huxley, W. W. Jacobs, Montague R. James, Vernon Lee, C. S. Lewis, H. P. Lovecraft, George MacDonald, Thomas Malory, Arthur Manchen, Poe, John Ruskin, Mary Shelley, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells:

Classic writers:

  • Description (other) 2
  • Weather & Light 2
  • Land & Space 7
  • Character 6
  • Action Scene 0
  • Activity 4
  • Narration 22
  • First-person 20
  • Argumentation 5
  • Dialogue 5
  • Total 73 (26 vs. 47)

This is pretty much self-explanatory. Notice that unlike the general pulps (but more like the Appendix N books) their abundance of non-descriptive beginnings doesn’t rely on Dialogue. Also, I should point out that if it were not for the Gothic/supernatural writers and their habit of starting a story with the description of some decrepit building, the Land & Space category would be smaller.

I said this was the last group but I have come up with something else to summarize the results. This is the % of stories in each group that begin with Narrative/Exposition (Narrative + First Person + Argumentation) Note that I have added the first five groups into a single one, Tie-in Works

  • Tie-in Works: 16.7% (119)
  • Appendix N: 43% (39)
  • Pulps: 33% (39)
  • Hugo & Nebula: 44.7% (42)
  • Modern Writers: 34% (36)
  • Classic Writers: 64% (47)

Or, ordered chronologically:

  • Classic Writers: 64% (47)
  • Appendix N: 43% (39) and Pulps: 33% (49)
  • Hugo & Nebula: 44.7% (42)
  • Modern Writers: 34% (36)
  • Tie-in Works: 16.7% (119)

When I sometimes say you can tell contemporary writes from classic ones just by their very first line, I mean it.

Of course, these numbers hide as much as they explain, and there are many things I noticed as I was quickly reading through them. The most important one is that the older the book, the better its beginning is. And not because of any unique hook or secret literary technique but because they start how most stories should start, by narrating and exposing the relevant facts so you know what is going on or where you are. This should be common sense, but apparently, it isn’t.

Related to that, I was indeed “hooked” to pretty much all the books in the classic category, while I was completely indifferent to 90% of the tie-ins and a good chunk of the modern writers.

When I say the descriptions are irrelevant, I mean exactly that because the numbers don’t tell you that even when older authors describe, it’s usually relevant. Conversely, when modern authors Narrate, it’s surprisingly uninteresting. For example, I classified this short story from Clark Ashton Smith (he only wrote short stories,) The Abomination of Yondo, as Land & Space:

The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns.

That’s a hell of a description. Anyway, notice that the narrative voice is clearly different from modern writers (yet he was, in fact, quite modern,) it’s almost Narration (and I almost classified it as such,) because it’s the narrator who states these facts. He is not retelling some character’s “deep” pov. Nobody is right now seeing that dust of corroding planets or suffering the winds from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom.

You can see the change not only in style across time or groups (and quality,) but sometimes even within the same author. For example, compare the, let’s say, beginning of the first Harry Potter book, with it’s somewhat old-fashioned, bed-time-story feel to it:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

With the seventh book, with its predominantly modern, stale style of writing:

The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane.

That’s uh… fascinating stuff. Remember, this is the first line of your story: there are two men on a street. That’s all you know. It gets worse, though:

For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chest; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

**Yawning furiously**

I know this is the seventh book, and all the readers will know about magic and shit by now, but notice the common way the existence of “wands” carried by cloaked figures is presented—like they are cell phones or guns. Then they start talking about stuff no new reader would understand or care about.

Rowling even seems to have the need to stop the dialogue as soon as it starts to tell us a critical bit of information: their cloaks flapped around their ankles as they walked. That’s important! I didn’t know cloaks did that!

My point is, the beginning of the first book is great and has a strong voice and by the exaggerated way the Dursleys are described as normal, you know something very abnormal is going to happen, so you care. You can imagine a parent reading this story to a child. I can’t say the same for the last book, where it’s the inverse, for the abnormal has become trite and normal, and the narrator has been murdered and exists only as a corpse to dish out detailed, but not very relevant descriptions and no story at all, thank you very much: the lane was moonlit, their cloaks flapped, the wands were aimed at their chests, they walked… but briskly! Etc. But the narrative has not advanced a single step.

And remember, that is how the book starts— I wouldn’t mind all that later on, but at this stage, you still know nothing about these people or why you should care about their moonlit reunions and their “wands” or what they do with them in back-alleys. Unfortunately, that’s how most fiction is written nowadays.

3 thoughts on “How fiction starts: an analysis of 1200+ sff books

  1. I try to open a story with what is important to the main character. I often do this by describing the setting, but my description will focus on what the main character would notice.

    For example, if I open a story in a diner I will mention different details in the opening sentences depending on if I’m writing about a waitress who is waiting for her shift to be over, a man meeting his blind date, or a gunman who has come in to rob the place.

    Like

  2. Mary

    Opening sentences are useful for analysis because they do not have the weight of every sentence before them — which can weigh a sentence down, or give the punch of a freight train.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.