Thursday, September 29, 2016

0 Promising Form and Content Pt 2: The How of Great Openings

In anticipation of our upcoming Red Light/Green Light Contest, which will open on October 20th, we've been spending Thursdays here on AYAP sharing what makes great openings work. Last week we were joined by Joanna Meyer, who shared three of her favorite opening passages, and why she thinks they really work to capture a reader's attention.

This week, we'll be picking up on the theme of an older post, and exploring how great openings make promises about a novel's form and content. All openings that work have one thing in common: they hint at what's to come. A great opening unfolds like a flower, revealing layers of information relating to both a book's plot (CONTENT) and its prose (FORM). Here are a few examples of Young Adult books that had great openings, with a breakdown of how they make promises about form and content. Hopefully this will be of help to you as you polish up your own first pages in preparation for Red Light/Green Light.

Garth Nix

Confession: SABRIEL is one my favorite fantasies of all time. In fact, I love all Garth Nix's Old Kingdom books, but SABRIEL is the first I read and holds a special place in my heart. I'm going to be hard-pressed not to share the whole prologue with you, but I'll limit myself to the first paragraph!

It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough. Noonday sunshine could be seen on the other side of the Wall in Ancelstierre, and not a cloud in sight. Here, there was a clouded sunset, and a steady rain had just begun to fall, coming faster than the tents could be raised.

As you can see, Garth Nix masterfully manages to pack a LOT of information into his opening paragraph. First, we learn a bit about the book's content: we assume the setting is important, and that we'll be hearing more about these two countries, the Old Kingdom and Ancelstierre, and why exactly a Wall divides them. We discover, too, that both time and weather on opposite sides of the Wall operate differently, despite their proximity, and if that doesn't make you curious, I don't know what will! And finally, we're shown a little of what to expect from SABRIEL'S form, or the actual writing itself--it will be beautifully to-the-point, filled with spare, atmospheric descriptions.

Melina Marchetta

I'm going with another fantasy next, and another favorite. FINNIKIN is *that* book for me--the one that finds itself a special place in your heart and becomes so important to you that you have a hard time explaining why (I do know why, and can explain if pressed--ASK ME WHY AND JOIN THE CULT OF FINNIKIN!)

A long time ago, in the spring before the five days of the unspeakable, Finnikin of the Rock dreamed that he was to sacrifice a pound of flesh to save the royal house of Lumatere. 

The dream came to him from the gods on the eve of the Harvest Moon Festival, when the whole of the kingdom slept under the stars in the Field of Celebration. It was Finnikin's favorite night of the year, watching his fellow Lumaterans dance and give thanks for a life of peace and plenty. When the dawn broke and the priest-king sang the Song of Lumatere, the joy in people's souls lit up their world. And what a world it was--made up of those hailing from the Flatlands, the Forest, the Rock, the Mountains, and the River. All protected by a beloved king and queen and their five children, said to be descended from the gods themselves.

So. That first sentence. Immediately we're given a big promise about the content of this book--in some way, it's going to pertain to Finnikin of the Rock and his dream that he'll sacrifice a pound of flesh to save the royal house of Lumatere. We also suspect that something extremely unpleasant--so unpleasant it's referred to as "the unspeakable"--will be what necessitates that sacrifice.

In the next paragraph, we're given a little more information about content and a lot about the book's form. We learn why Finnikin would be willing to sacrifice a pound of flesh for his country and the royal house. Lumatere is evidently a peaceful and close-knit country, with a well-loved ruling family. We also learn that this book's prose is going to be achingly lovely. Marchetta paints such a clear, haunting picture of the camaraderie of the Lumaterans, and the beauty of their community life. Knowing that something "unspeakable" will happen to these people is already upsetting. We're invested in the outcome of their story, and drawn in by Marchetta's gorgeous writing, right from the start.

Laura Ruby

The people of Bone Gap called Finn a lot of things, but none of them was his name. When he was little, they called him Spaceman. Sidetrack. Moonface. You. As he got older, they called him Pretty Boy. Loner. Brother. Dude. 

But whatever they called him, they called him fondly. Despite his odd expressions, his strange distraction, and that annoying way he had of creeping up on a person, they knew him as well as they knew anyone. As well as they knew themselves. They knew him like they knew that Old Charlie Valentine preferred his chickens to his great-grandchildren, and sometimes let them roost in the house. (The chickens, not the children.) The way they knew that the Cordero family had a ghost that liked to rifle through the fridge at night. The way they knew that Priscilla Willis, the beekeeper's homely daughter, had a sting worse than any bee. The way they knew that Bone Gap had gaps just wide enough for people to slide through, or slip away, leaving only their stories behind.

The first promise this opening make is related to content: the book you're about to read, will in part, be about Finn. It will be about his relationship with the people of Bone Gap, as well, which appears to be an odd but affectionate one. As we read on, we're given more promises about the book's content: it's not just Finn who's odd--Bone Gap itself appears to be odd, as well. And it sounds like a rural, isolated sort of place, in which everyone knows everyone else. This opening also promises us that the form of Laura Ruby's writing will be lyrical and measured, providing tantalizing details and meting out information at just the right time.

Above all, we want to read on. We want to know what's going to happen to Finn, and how it is that Bone Gap has gaps "wide enough for people to slide through...leaving only their stories behind."

That concludes this installment of Promising Form and Content. I hope it was of help as you polish your own openings to enter in Red Light/Green Light on October 20th. We're so excited to read your words!

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