Today I’m pondering the different requirements of the beginning of the first book in a series and later books.
Writers are always told to hook the reader on the first page, the first paragraph, or even the first sentence. Some books start straight out with the Initiating Incident, plunging straight into the story.
My favourite example of an Initiating Incident done well is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. Maia is rudely woken from sleep by his unpleasant guardian and taken to meet a courier who announces that his father and older brothers have perished and Maia is now the Emperor of the Elfiands. Another example of this type of beginning is Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik, which opens with the heroine struggling against being captured by bounty hunters.
Frequently, however, the story just doesn’t permit this kind of start. The writer needs to establish the Old Stable World, often showcasing the main character’s unhappiness, before the story jars them out of their stagnating existence. In those cases, in order to still hook the reader, a Bridging Conflict is often employed.
I am a big fan of Patricia Brigg’s urban fantasy series, and she writes very good Bridging Conflicts. Her newest Soul Taken opens with Mercy lying in a mud puddle having been briefly knocked unconscious. The scene has tension because her mate, Adam, is protective and on edge, but there is also a fair bit of humour—she was hit by a gourd during a game of werewolf baseball in a corn maze. We are quickly reoriented into Mercy’s world and relationships and entertained along the way, but the story doesn’t truly start until chapter two or three.
In an episodic series like this one, readers often need these reminders of what happened in the last book, who everyone is and the particulars of the world, so its difficult to start with the Initiating Incident. Readers want to reconnect and remember why they fell in love with these characters.
Of course, not all series are episodic like this. Some are merely one long story arc that has been chopped into parts for better reader consumption. In those cases, book one or two may end with a cliffhanger, thus allowing the next book to open with the reader dropped straight back into the conflict.
Right now, I have a book in my TBR that I’m struggling a little to get into, The Desert Prince by Peter Brett. This is book one of the Nightfall Saga, but in some ways it’s also book six, because it’s a next-generation sequel to The Demon Cycle series. The first chapter has been very much about introducing Olive, the main character, and showing the Old Stable World. There is very little conflict (she’s worried about a test on Herb Lore, that’s it.) I can’t help contrasting this to the first chapter of The Warded Man, book one of the Demon Cycle, which had an electrifying opening that grabbed me by the heartstrings.
A sequel series opening represents unique problem for the author. The Warded Man opened on a world that was plagued by demons, world with a lot of inherent danger, but the heroes of that series solved the problem and created a peaceful world, which is what Olive has grown up in. Her Old World is very different from the Old World of the first series. Now, I have faith that very soon now, a mountain of trouble will fall on Olive, and the excellence of the previous books in the series means that the author has built up a large degree of trust and goodwill that he may now draw upon. I will keep reading. But if I’d never read the Demon Cycle and started The Desert Prince as just the first book in a series by an author I’d never tried before I might well never get past the slow opening.
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