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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Story Starters #7: The Fellowship of the Ring

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.

Good morning, everyone, and happy March! This month marks my first anniversary of blogging here at The Story Scientist, and I thought I’d recall where I began, with a book quote analysis of The Fellowship of the Ring. Today, I have rather less of the book to analyze for you all, since the first paragraph is only one sentence, albeit a long one. So let’s analyze!

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This is the version that I have.
  • 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. There’s quite a bit going on in just this one sentence. Firstly, we start with the character of Bilbo Baggins, which makes a good transition into The Lord of the Rings for those who have read The Hobbit. The mention of his “eleventy-first birthday” sets the time of the story as many years after the events of The Hobbit, and the mention of talk and excitement indicates that Bilbo has developed a reputation, which is developed in the next paragraph. And what better way to hook a reader than with talk and excitement? We know something’s going to happen, and setting this sentence as its own entire paragraph gives us a moment to take that in before moving on.

Today’s has been a very short analysis, but really, I love Tolkien (as you may have noticed by my having written two other posts about his books–do check them out if you haven’t read them). And so I leave you until next week.

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Goodbye!

What do you think? Have you read The Fellowship of the Ring? (If not, why on earth–I mean, I highly recommend it.) What do you think of its beginning? Are you hooked by this sentence? Do you have anything to add to my analysis? Tell me in the comments!

Story Starters #5: Ender’s Game

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one. Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”

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Good morning, everyone, and Happy New Year! It’s the first Saturday of 2017, and, as usual, I am here analyzing the first paragraph of a book. I reviewed this particular book, Ender’s Game, last month (last year, really), and I really liked it, so when I was looking around for a story beginning to look at today, I naturally picked this book. Let’s have a look at it, sentence by sentence.

  • “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.” This opening line has a lot of things going for it. Most clearly, the idea of experiencing someone else’s life, watching through his eyes and listening through his ears, is compelling and interesting and hints a little at the futuristic setting, where such things are possible. “I tell you he’s the one” is also an interesting statement; the “chosen one” trope is a major motif throughout this book, so mentioning it in the opening line is good foreshadowing. Finally, I want to mention the parallelism in this sentence. The “I’ve watched . . . I’ve listened . . . I tell” structure gives this line a certain oomph that makes the reader sit up and pay attention. The grammatical phrasing underlines the essential questions raised by this expertly crafted hook.
  • “Or at least as close as we’re going to get.” This sentence doesn’t have as many merits as the opening line, but it does convey some of the desperation of the International Fleet to find someone–anyone–who can defeat the bugger aliens. Mostly, however, I want to discuss here the technique of opening with dialogue. This is the first Story Starters post where I’ve analyzed opening dialogue; I think it can be a great method for getting right into the characters and the world (even though, here, secondary characters are the ones having the dialogue). In Ender’s Game, each chapter is opened with a bit of dialogue from Colonel Graff and someone else, usually Major Anderson; this is used to great effect to gradually reveal things, although it goes into overt telling in the later chapters. Basically, opening with dialogue is a good technique as long as it isn’t contrived and doesn’t tell too much (which should be general rules for dialogue anywhere in a book).

That’s it for me today!

What do you think? Have you ever read Ender’s Game? What do you think of its opening line as a hook? Have you ever read a book that used similar grammatical structure to emphasize a point? If you’re a writer, have you ever tried that technique? What other books have you read that open with dialogue? Tell me in the comments!