A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

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saraflower
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A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by saraflower » November 12th, 2010, 11:39 pm

Is it too cliche to have a battle at the beginning of a fantasy story? I wrote a fighting scene in mine before I found out that a lot of people do this. *Sigh* I have read that some agents say they have seen too much of this in fantasy. Is it worth it to begin the story sometime before the battle takes place so that I can better introduce some of the key characters? Hmmm...maybe that is something to consider.

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HillaryJ
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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by HillaryJ » November 13th, 2010, 1:09 am

If this is a Work In Progress, forget you ever heard this advice and just keep writing. When you get to the end, after throwing yourself a Huzzah! A Book of Mine Own! Party (these last about eight minutes, then it's time to catch up on showering and reading the mail), go back and look at the scene. If that's where your characters and narrative need to start, then so be it. If you can start two chapters further in, or the day before the battle, then do that.

My personal preference is to complete the book (Huzzah!shower/pay bills/feed dependents), go back and smile at my clever scene, then cut about half of it and either replace it with something worthwhile or move forward to the actual beating heart of the story.
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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by Margo » November 13th, 2010, 3:18 am

The most common reason for the caution against this is the lack of emotional attachment to character when opening with a threat before character and stakes have been established. For instance, if I don't know much (or anything) about the character, and I don't know what's at stake with the outcome, I'm less likely to find the scene engaging. Personally, I find this to be true. If I recall correctly, agent Kristin Nelson mentioned this in one of her recent posts on her Pub Rants blog.
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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by sbs_mjc1 » November 13th, 2010, 7:32 am

I'm going to be the voice of dissent and say that a battle scene can work as an opening. I think you have to be very much in the character's viewpoint and intensely involved in their thoughts and emotional reactions, since this scene is also your reader's first time "meeting" the character. That said, how someone responds to a life-and-death situation can reveal character like nothing else, so I say go for it.
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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by polymath » November 13th, 2010, 9:31 am

A battle scene is a conflagration, a conflict of epic scope. a battle is often an after effect of many causes. It puts a heavy burden of backstory on a tale as a beginning. What causes the battle? Will the causal influences need to be detailed later in the tale and therefore the tale have a nonlinear timeline? Interleaving backstory In the heat of a battle can be a challenge. Maybe the causes of the battle aren't important to the larger tale if the battle is a First Cause.

Margo and sbs_mjc1 have already remarked on character development challenges for an opening battle scene. Battle scenes are often late crises--tragic crises or final crises--or outcomes, uncommonly inciting crises. Although In a sense mysteries begin with a battle scene. If murder isn't a battle, then I don't know what else it could be, albeit microcosmic.

I'd consider a battle scene opening as the inciting complication of the tale. The cause that propels a protagonist into action. For instances, a veteran warrior disillusioned with war by the battle or retired prematurely by the battle, the aftermath of the battle sets in train a series of events leading toward a complication's outcome, circumstances that happen during the battle cause the protagonist a complication, like an injury, a demonic possession, a close friend lost and retribution is called for, a newfound friend, ally, or love interest, an awakening of an uber spirit or a great mythical being that causes everyone to flee the battle scene only to have to deal with the spirit or being later, and so on. The necessity of a reader surrogate for close narrative distance might mean a minor warrior or camp follower is called to heroic greatness by a battle. I see a nearly infinite number of possibilities from an opening battle scene.

The challenge in my estimation is the battle is a beginning of the action to come. Homer's Odyssey is one aftermath of the Trojan war. It's Odysseus' ten-year homeward journey thwarted at every turn by gods displeased with his conduct during the war, especially Poseidon.
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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by Down the well » November 13th, 2010, 10:29 am

HillaryJ wrote:My personal preference is to complete the book (Huzzah!shower/pay bills/feed dependents), go back and smile at my clever scene, then cut about half of it and either replace it with something worthwhile or move forward to the actual beating heart of the story.
Yeah, this is so true. When writing the first draft just start your novel wherever you have to. There's a ninety percent chance (based on no actual research -- just a hunch) you'll rewrite the opening anyway after you've fleshed out your story and characters more. Maybe you need to start with the battle scene and maybe not, but I think you'll know better once things are done.

BTW, after rewriting my opening five or a hundred times, I ended up starting in the aftermath of a smallish battle. It wasn't the action of the fight that mattered but rather what the result of the fight was. It's what sets my novel in motion, so that's where I started.

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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by saraflower » November 13th, 2010, 11:02 am

HillaryJ wrote:If this is a Work In Progress, forget you ever heard this advice and just keep writing. When you get to the end, after throwing yourself a Huzzah! A Book of Mine Own! Party (these last about eight minutes, then it's time to catch up on showering and reading the mail), go back and look at the scene. If that's where your characters and narrative need to start, then so be it. If you can start two chapters further in, or the day before the battle, then do that.

My personal preference is to complete the book (Huzzah!shower/pay bills/feed dependents), go back and smile at my clever scene, then cut about half of it and either replace it with something worthwhile or move forward to the actual beating heart of the story.
Sounds good! Thank you.
Margo wrote:The most common reason for the caution against this is the lack of emotional attachment to character when opening with a threat before character and stakes have been established. For instance, if I don't know much (or anything) about the character, and I don't know what's at stake with the outcome, I'm less likely to find the scene engaging. Personally, I find this to be true. If I recall correctly, agent Kristin Nelson mentioned this in one of her recent posts on her Pub Rants blog.
Hmmm I think I had read that from her as well. You know, this is actually a good thing, because my MS is a little short. If I add in another two chapters that will connect the reader with my characters better, it would be well worth while. :)

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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by saraflower » November 13th, 2010, 11:10 am

polymath wrote: I'd consider a battle scene opening as the inciting complication of the tale. The cause that propels a protagonist into action. For instances, a veteran warrior disillusioned with war by the battle or retired prematurely by the battle, the aftermath of the battle sets in train a series of events leading toward a complication's outcome, circumstances that happen during the battle cause the protagonist a complication, like an injury, a demonic possession, a close friend lost and retribution is called for, a newfound friend, ally, or love interest, an awakening of an uber spirit or a great mythical being that causes everyone to flee the battle scene only to have to deal with the spirit or being later, and so on. The necessity of a reader surrogate for close narrative distance might mean a minor warrior or camp follower is called to heroic greatness by a battle. I see a nearly infinite number of possibilities from an opening battle scene.
Hmmm and then there are some definite positives to an opening battle scene!
Down the well wrote: Yeah, this is so true. When writing the first draft just start your novel wherever you have to. There's a ninety percent chance (based on no actual research -- just a hunch) you'll rewrite the opening anyway after you've fleshed out your story and characters more. Maybe you need to start with the battle scene and maybe not, but I think you'll know better once things are done.
Thanks Down the well. :)

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HillaryJ
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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by HillaryJ » November 13th, 2010, 11:43 am

This is a good question to pose to beta readers once you've finished...have them read the first chapter or two, and then ask if they were able to connect with the characters in this kind of opening. Why/Why not...would the battle have meant more (would the stakes have seemed higher, the action more urgent) if they "knew" the characters in it...that kind of thing.
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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by Margo » November 13th, 2010, 1:46 pm

sbs_mjc1 wrote:I'm going to be the voice of dissent and say that a battle scene can work as an opening. I think you have to be very much in the character's viewpoint and intensely involved in their thoughts and emotional reactions, since this scene is also your reader's first time "meeting" the character. That said, how someone responds to a life-and-death situation can reveal character like nothing else, so I say go for it.
I don't think we disagree that much. I think the viewpoint treatment and the internal involvement are important if a battle opening is going to work. But I don't think it's enough without an understanding of the stakes. Trying to establish stakes through internal involvement is hard without pushing the telling over the showing. However, as you pointed out, using reaction to a crisis situation is an excellent way to establish character. Like all the other DON'Ts for openings, I think it can be done well. It's just one of the harder techniques to master (IMO) and one that newer writers might want to think hard about.
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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by sierramcconnell » November 13th, 2010, 4:43 pm

I started in a train station, waiting for a train.

And had most of the betas go, "Where's the action scene? We need a fight or something. Like how it is in movies!"

Apparently, this IS what they look for. So then I added a smallish battle with a sandworm. And they liked it.

So it went from, "This is nice but..." to "IT GRABBED ME RIGHT AWAY."

I think, depending on the book\character\story, you sort of need it.
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Re: A battle as the opening scene in a fantasy book

Post by Fenris » November 13th, 2010, 5:18 pm

I fear that after so many similar posts, saying "yeah, you can totally start a book with a battle scene" would be a little redundant.

Still, it's true. However, Margo's right in saying that it tends to be harder to write well than a simple, slow character development. But remember, simplicity and monotony often come hand in hand. Simple can be beautiful, but it can also be boring (and much more easily, too!). I think in this case, sierramcconnell is right--it really does depend on the characters, and what works best for them. Some plots don't support a fight scene right off the bat; I know my WIP doesn't. But if your characters are already deep into a quest for revenge, for example, it might make the story better if you threw them into a skirmish at the beginning and slowly introduced the overall plot through other means. If your character(s) is angry and itching for a fight, they're not going to just sit around and wait for you to catch up. They'd explain what they're doing afterward, not beforehand, so follow the same pattern.

It really all comes down to the characters. Even if the plot supports chaos and strife, what if the MC's a pacifist? They're not going to be involved in a battle right away, in fact they'll avoid them like the plague. Think about your characters, imagine how they would act in the midst of the plot, and then write it that way. In a sense, that'd be character development right there if you did it well.

I hope this helps!
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