In his immortal Tao te Ching, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” It could be said, too, that even a hundred-thousand word novel starts with a single . . . letter? Word? Sentence? I’ve thought about what comprises the first step of a novel, and actually started writing this about the first sentence, but quickly changed direction.

It might be fair to say that the first line is essential to a short story, but I sincerely doubt readers begin judging the comparative worth of a full-length novel by a single sentence. That’s not to say that the first line doesn’t matter. The sooner and more thoroughly you can hook your readers in the better. But if you’re setting out on the long journey of writing a novel, you need to start with a paragraph. Let’s start by looking at the first paragraph of three books that appeared on my list of favorite fantasy novels of all time, and three from of my all-time favorite works of science fiction. In no particular order . . .

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

Don’t call me a fairy. We don’t like to be called fairies anymore. Once upon a time, fairy was a perfectly acceptable catchall for a variety of creatures, but now it has taken on too many associations. Etymologically speaking, a fairy is something quite particular, related in kind to the naiads, or water nymphs, and while of the genus, we are sui generis. The word fairy is drawn from fay (Old French fee), which itself comes from the Latin Fata, the goddess of fate. The fay lived in groups called the faerie, between the heavenly and earthly realms.

So what does this first paragraph tell us about The Stolen Child? What’s established here?

Just on the surface, we get that the book is written in first person, which is unusual for contemporary fantasy novels but de rigueur in classics by past masters like Burroughs and Lovecraft. The intelligent, well-read, articulate, straightforward, and opinionated narrator identifies himself as something akin to a fairy—anyway, he isn’t human, or doesn’t think he’s human. And apparently he’s one of a community of such creatures: We don’t like to be called fairies anymore.

From the first paragraph we get that The Stolen Child is, at least at first (and as we discussed on the subject of cover copy, initial assumptions can be turned on their heads by the end of the book), a novel about a community on the fringe of reality. That should mesh nicely with the information we’ve already received from the cover copy (and reviews, etc.) that we’ve bought a book about a boy kidnapped by hobgoblins and replaced by a changeling.

Not bad for 98 words.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

Here, in only 36 words, Ms. Clarke establishes this enormous work’s setting, and hints that there is a sort of magic peculiar to England. She judges the study of English magic as “dull,” or at least that “some years go” it was dull. As was true in the first paragraph of The Stolen Child, no characters are named and there is no dialog. Still, from these three dozen words we can tell that we’ve begun to read a book about a historical England in which magic is real. I may be jumping to the conclusion that it’s historical, but I get that vibe from the fact that she told us this was “some years ago” and that the magicians are reading papers. The urban fantasy version would have had them blogging. And again, from the cover copy, reviews and suchlike, we know we’ve bought a book about a personal feud between powerful wizards, so immediately have the anticipation that English magic isn’t going to be dull for much longer.

I won’t whine about the word upon appearing twice in the same sentence. She’s English. Maybe they get to do that Over There.

Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott

My fingers are like spiders drifting over memories in my webbed brain. The husks of the dead gaze up at me, and my teeth sink in and I speak their ghosts. But it’s all mixed up in my head. I can’t separate lines from lines, or people from people. Everything is in this web, Esumi. Even you. Even me. Slowly the meat falls from the bones until only sunken cheeks and empty space between the filaments remind me that a person was there, in my head. The ghosts all fade the same way. They fade together. Your face fades into the face of my husband and the dying screams of my daughter. Esumi, your face is Seth’s face, and the face of the golem.

These 124 words grabbed me right away and said in no uncertain terms that this was not your garden variety fantasy novel. Though the editor in me (I acquired this book for the painfully short-lived imprint Wizards of the Coast Discoveries) was skeptical that this previously unpublished author could maintain the risky choice of second person, present tense, much less the highly metaphorical language of the unreliable narrator, it kept me reading, and floored me when I found that he could chew every bit of what he’d bitten off with these choices.

Factually, we know that the narrator is a woman (she refers to her husband, still a reasonable assumption that this is a hetero relationship), and she’s speaking to or writing to someone named Esumi. We know she had a daughter who died, there’s mention of mythological creatures both metaphorical (ghosts) and maybe actual (golem).

From this one paragraph it might be reasonable to assume that Last Dragon is a book about the unreliability of painful memories, and indeed I think the heart of the book is the near-futility of efforts to reconcile past and present, and live with a series of difficult choices. But most of all the paragraph sets a tone, and a rhythm to the language that is this book’s peculiar genius…

Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. This is actually one of the most helpful posts on openings I have ever read. I will be referring to it the future, trust me. Thank you!

  2. Great comparisons! This is an extremely helpful post. I’ll be linking back to you. Thanks!

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