On beginnings

You’ve caught me on a working Saturday, but I needed a break, so I paused to read a chapter of my much-anticipated new copy of Storm Front by Jim Butcher, the first book in the Dresden Files. As you might have heard if you read Meg Cabot’s blog (or, y’know, mine), there’s a new wizard named Harry in town (well, old, actually–the book was first published in 2000), which SciFi has turned into a really awesome TV show. This Harry’s wand is a hockey stick or a drumstick as opposed to unicorn tail hair and … willow, is it? 

And even if you’re not into fantasy, Harry is well worth watching. It’s urban fantasy ala Charles de Lint and Holly Black, with of course its own twists. One reason I love it is the setting: I lived in Chicago for 2
years and I’m an Illinois native, so Chicago is close to my heart. It’s a great setting for an urban fantasy and much different from a New York or other East Coast setting (which also are interesting, just very different in culture and setting).

Well, I didn’t get quite a chapter finished because we also had our landlord pop over for some maintenance stuff, but I read enough that I wanted to share with you snippets from the first pages to show you what I mean by a good beginning, in answer finally to

‘s question from last week.

First, here’s the first three paragraphs:

I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed.
Then he knocked.

I winced. My mail comes through the mail slot unless it’s registered. I get a really limited selection of registered mail, and it’s never good news. I got up out of my office chair and opened the door.
Now, had I read that without having any blurbs, having any idea what the story was about, would I have kept reading? Yes. Why? 

Because I want to know why the mailman laughed. And I wanted to know why the first person narrator winced. I still don’t have any idea (from the context) that this is a fantasy story. It could be the start of a sports story, or a chick lit novel. But the first three paragraphs have set up a situation where something is happening, and the interaction between the two characters is being set up. And Butcher then delivers in the next part of the first page, telling you exactly why you’ll want to read this story.

The new mailman, who looked like a basketball with arms and legs and a sunburned, balding head, was chuckling at the sign on the door glass. He glanced a me and hooked a thumb toward the sign. “You’re kidding, right?”

I read the sign (people change it occasionally), and shook my head. “No, I’m serious. Can I have my mail, please.”

The exchange between the two characters, which is too long for me to share here, then is a clever repartee between the first person narrator–which of course we know is Harry, but coming to this cold you wouldn’t yet–and the mailman about how Harry really is serious–he’s not a psychic, he doesn’t do parties, etc. It culminates in Harry confirming the sign on his door (“Harry Dresden, Wizard”)  is real, and the mailman calling him a nut.

Then, and only then, does the author do the cliche “my name is” introduction–but he tweaks it so that it’s no longer cliche, and notice that he didn’t open with it. 

My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. I’m a wizard. I work out of an office in midtown Chicago. As far as I know, I’m the only openly practicing professional wizard in the country. You can find me in the yellow pag
es, under “Wizards.” Believe it or not, I’m the only one there.
(And then he shows the ad.) Aside: The TV show uses this bit, too, but also only after establishing what kind of show you’re going to see, opening with a scene of Harry seeing a monster in his closet as a kid. (Watch the show! It’s not only a great example of storytelling but also just plain fun to watch!)

So, here’s an example of an author using a cliche to his advantage, and making it his own. One part of how he makes it his own is by setting up a scene where something interesting happens. There’s a bit of mystery to the scene, even if it isn’t a big explosion or somebody dying. So that’s what I mean by action–and that action could be a big explosion or somebody dying, but this kind of action I’m talking about is something that shows me something about the characters. Something that makes me like them, empathize with them, want to know more about them. It could be any number of situations, but whatever it is, it has to keep moving and keep me interested.

So I hope that helps illustrate what I was talking about in that earlier post about boggy beginnings.