Story Starters #10: A Wizard of Earthsea

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.  From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made.

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Good morning, everyone! Happy Monday and welcome to December! For this first Monday of the month, I am as usual analyzing the first paragraph of a novel. A Wizard of Earthsea is an excellent classic young adult fantasy by Ursula K. Le Guin (see my review for more!), which I highly recommend. Having been originally released in 1968, however, its opening isn’t quite as gripping as other’s we’ve looked at. Let’s break this down sentence-by-sentence.

  • The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts is peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. So this might not be the most immediately engaging opening line ever written (personally, I prefer openings that start right off with character action or dialogue), but it still catches the interest, which, as K.M. Weiland writes, is required for a hook. Why? Well, I think the answer is in two things: genre and phrasing. Genre, because as a fantasy novel should, this describes an interesting setting far outside the average experience, which helps to catch interest. Phrasing, because of the short-long-short phrase structure within the sentence (look at where the commas are). There’s a graphic I’ve seen floating around the Internet about how varying sentence length and structure reduces boredom in the reader, and I think it applies here to phrases within the sentence as well. In fact, if you want to go really far, you could say it echoes the three-act structure typical of writing in general. No matter how far you go with it, the phrasing does keep reader interest, in a slightly intangible and intriguing way. And of course, the mention of wizards doesn’t hurt; it helps reinforce what we expect from the title.
  • From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Ah, back to my later point on the previous sentence, here’s a longer sentence to support that shorter hook. The hook can’t reveal everything at once, so this second sentence is here backing it up. By now we can gather that there’s going to be an omniscient narrator, not uncommon in older works, and that this narrator is currently setting the scene, giving us the historical context before we actually get to our character. Of course, it’s dangerous to do too much of this, which is called “infodumping;” we want to save tidbits for later reveals, both in the cases of backstory and worldbuilding. In this case, though, it’s appropriate; we have just learned a little about Gont, and now we learn a little more, and that there’s a whole Archipelago out there of which Gont is only a part. And the wizard theme is reinforced once again, which leads into our next sentence.
  • Of these some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage.
    Aha, our character makes an appearance (if only through the narrator talking about him)! And now that we have some background, we think, “Of course the greatest wizard came from Gont. Gont is known for wizards. Doesn’t everyone know that?” It makes sense with the information we’ve already been given. And the shorter sentence holds our attention better than if we’d been given another behemoth like the second sentence, which is good for introducing the main character. Oh, and dragons–don’t you want to keep reading now?
  • His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made. Wow, this guy really is important–they made songs about him! Oh, but we realize now that this story is about something the songs don’t tell about, which heightens our interest, because even if said songs are fictional, we like having exclusive information. This sentence completes the hook started in the first sentence.

Overall, this paragraph led in very nicely from setting scene and historical context to the context of our character, which in the next paragraph, will become a sort of biography of his early life. Although not necessarily something used in today’s fiction, this “funneling in” technique works well for A Wizard of Earthsea.

That’s it for me today! Have you read A Wizard of Earthsea? If not, I’d love to know: did this post make you more interested in it? What do you think of setting the scene in your opening? Any further analysis that I may have missed? Tell me in the comments!

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