Pub Rants

Opening Pages–Action

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STATUS: Heading to the mountains to ski. It’s supposed to snow. Fresh Powder

What’s playing on the iPod right now? VERTIGO by U2

Because we’ve been talking about openings, what works, what doesn’t, I wanted to show you an example from an author who is the master of action in the opening pages. Nobody does it better than Linnea Sinclair.

I would also recommend reading this author, even if this isn’t your genre, in order to learn about escalating conflict. Beginning writers often suffer from the fact that they don’t have enough conflict to drive their stories forward in a meaningful way.

Linnea is the master conflict, of raising stakes continuously through her novels. In fact, she often teaches a workshop on doing just that.

So let’s take a look at the opening of GABRIEL’S GHOST. Notice how she balances the action with setting (paragraph 1 & 2). Then in paragraph five, she raises the stakes even within this scene. Sprinkled throughout this opening paragraphs are key details on where our main character is (prison planet), who she was (fleet officer), why she is there (the court martial).

Folks, this is top-notch writing. In fact, you have to nail it this well for genre fiction or it just doesn’t work. I’d like to think you need to nail a form of this for literary fiction too—something aspiring literary writers often forget. Learn to write a plot-driven scene. You won’t use it the same way as one does in genre writing but it will teach you solid pacing—something a lot of aspiring literary works lack.

Only fools boast they have no fears. I thought of that as I pulled the blade of my dagger from the Takan guard’s throat, my hand shaking, my heart pounding in my ears, my skin cold from more than just the chill in the air. Light from the setting sun filtered through the tall trees around me. It flickered briefly on the dark gold blood that bubbled from the wound, staining the Taka’s coarse fur. I felt a sliminess between my fingers and saw that same ochre stain on my skin.

“Shit!” I jerked my hand back. My dagger tumbled to the rock-strewn ground. A stupid reaction for someone with my training. It wasn’t as if I’d never killed another sentient being before, but it had been more than five years. And then, at least, it had carried the respectable label of military action.

This time it was pure survival.

It took me a few minutes to find my blade wedged in between the moss-covered rocks. After more than a decade on interstellar patrol ships, my eyes had problems adjusting to variations in natural light. Shades of grays and greens, muddied by Moabar’s twilight sky, merged into seamless shadows. I’d never have found my only weapon if I hadn’t pricked my fingers on the point. Red human blood mingled with Takan gold. I wiped the blade against my pants before letting it mold itself back around my wrist. It flowed into the form of a simple silver bracelet.

“A Grizni dagger, is it?”

I spun into a half-crouch, my right hand grasping the bracelet. Quickly it uncoiled again—almost as quickly as I’d sucked in a harsh, rasping breath. The distinctly masculine voice had come from the thick stand of trees in front of me. But in the few seconds it took me to straighten, he could be anywhere. It looked like tonight’s agenda held a second attempt at rape and murder. Or completion of the first. That would make more sense. Takan violence against humans was rare enough that the guard’s aggression had taken me—almost—by surprise. But if a human prison official had ordered him… that, given Moabar’s reputation, would fit only too well.

I tuned out my own breathing. Instead, I listened to the hushed rustle of the thick forest around me and farther away, the guttural roar of a shuttle departing the prison’s spaceport. I watched for movement. Murky shadows, black-edged yet ill defined, taunted me. I’d have sold my soul then and there for a nightscope and a fully-charged laser pistol.

But I had neither of those. Just a sloppily manipulated court martial and a life sentence without parole. And, of course, a smuggled Grizni dagger that the Takan guard had discovered a bit too late to report.

My newest assailant, unfortunately, was already forewarned.

“Let’s not cause any more trouble, okay?” My voice sounded thin in the encroaching darkness. I wondered what had happened to that ‘tone of command’ Fleet regs had insisted we adopt. It had obviously taken one look at the harsh prison world of Moabar and decided it preferred to reside elsewhere. I didn’t blame it. I only wished I had the same choice.

I drew a deep breath. “If I’m on your grid, I’m leaving. Wasn’t my intention to be here,” I added, feeling that was probably the understatement of the century. “And if he,” I said with a nod to the large body sprawled to my right, “was your partner, then I’m sorry. But I wasn’t in the mood.”

A brittle snap started my heart pounding again. My hand felt as slick against the smooth metal of the dagger as if the Taka’s blood still ran down its surface. The sound was on my right, beyond where the Taka lay. Only a fool would try to take me over the lifeless barrier at my feet.
The first of Moabar’s three moons had risen in the hazy night sky. I glimpsed a flicker of movement, then saw him step out of the shadows just as the clouds cleared away from the moon.

His face was hidden, distorted. But I clearly saw the distinct shape of a short-barreled rifle propped against his shoulder. That, and the fact that he appeared humanoid, told me he wasn’t a prison guard. Energy weapons were banned on Moabar. Most of the eight-foot tall Takas didn’t need them, anyway.

The man before me was tall, but not eight feet. Nor did his dark jacket glisten with official prison insignia. Another con, then. Possession of the rifle meant he had off- world sources.

I took a step back as he approached. His pace was casual, as if he were just taking his gun out for a moonlit stroll. He prodded the dead guard with the tip of the rifle then squatted down, and ran one hand over the guard’s work vest as if checking for a weapon, or perhaps life signs. I could have told him the guard had neither. “Perhaps I should’ve warned him about you,” he said, rising. “Captain Chasidah Bergren. Pride of the Sixth Fleet. One dangerous woman. But, oh, I forgot. You’re not a captain anymore.”

With a chill I recognized the mocking tone, the cultured voice. And suddenly the dead guard and the rifle were the least of my problems. I breathed a name in disbelief. “Sullivan! This is impossible. You’re dead—“

“Well, if I’m dead, then so are you.” His mirthless laugh was as soft as footsteps on a grave. “Welcome to Hell, Captain. Welcome to Hell.”

23 Responses

  1. Kristen said:

    “His pace was casual, as if he were just taking his gun out for a moonlit stroll.”

    I love this line! It does an amazing job of capturing the essence of the character’s personality in a single sentence. I have to admire an author who can blend those little but oh-so-important character details into the action. I’m definitely going to have to order her book.

  2. A. Shelton said:

    I don’t read much SF, but this looks interesting. I especially liked the line about taking the gun for a moonlit stroll. Made me chuckle.

  3. C.D. Reimer said:

    I love Linnea Sinclair and read “Gaberiel’s Ghost” with the first cover that’s screams science fiction. I’m not sure if I would pick up the book with the second cover since I haven’t read her before then.

    I’m not a big fan of any genre with “Romance” tacked on. I usually skip those pages. With authors that I know, I’ll hold my nose if the cover stinks and buy the book.

  4. Sherryl said:

    A great opening indeed. Lots of action and plenty at stake, tension, hooks and intrigue. What I like is that she doesn’t patronise the reader by explaining stuff – you have to stay alert and work some of it out for yourself.
    That’s enough to make me want to read it!

  5. Lost Wanderer said:

    WOW! I first started reading this purely as instructional thing. Something that was approved on this site.

    But as soon as I read the first two sentences, I completely forgot the fact this was a little exerpt meant for study. I was actually reading the story. Now, I will have to go and get the book.

  6. Carradee said:

    I first read Gabriel’s Ghost because I’d heard about it here, and something about it getting (nominated for?) an award for best paranormal romance when there wasn’t a ghost in it. That piqued my curiosity enough that I read it, and I was astonished to realize I actually liked it.

    I’ve been considering buying it ever since. I’ve checked it out a few times from the library—have it now, actually.

  7. Joyce said:

    Wow. I’m HOOKED. While I try to hone my craft to reach this standard, I’ll definitely be looking out for this book (and writer). Thanks for the great post, Kristin!

  8. A said:

    First, I love your blog. Thanks for ranting a bit.

    This is definitely not my favorite genre, though I was far from bored. No doubt, a fabulous writer and a great opener. Because I am a novice working on my first novel, it was also semi-depressing…

    Not that I dislike my writing or my story, but, as you noted, I feel that I do struggle with moving the plot or conflict well. I excel at character development and showcasing emotional travelogue…but external conflict is a chore. One I hope to master, but a chore nonetheless.

    Thanks for the post. Can you supply any tips for those of us who rely on emotional connection with the reader early on rather than the excitement of an ever-cornering external punch??

    Help! =)

    Kind Regards,
    Amanda C.

  9. Kimber An said:

    That’s good, but I liked the opening to DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES by Linnea Sinclair better.

    If anyone is shy of anything smacking of Science Fiction, but want to give it a try I recommend DOWN HOME ZOMBIE BLUES because it’s set almost entirely right here on planet Earth. If it doesn’t sucker you in, nothing will.

  10. Joan said:

    Awesome opener. It’s unfortunate both covers are really ugly…I don’t know who hires these artists, but using human photography has been out since the ’90s… it’s so cheesy, I expect this to be a great book, and it deserves more than some half-baked 3D renders of two human being or the cut and paste of the Ghost poster (I assumed this was meant to be an homage…) with another rip-off of a Stargate from the popular franchise of the same name.

    My rant on craptastic covers is over, thank god it’s not foreshadowing of the writing!

  11. Anonymous said:

    I thought it was ordinary. I switched off after the first para. And I wouldn’t say the genre is foreign to me.

  12. Christine said:

    For those who do not get the magic of this author’s writing, they are obviously not in need of learning anything at all and one wonders why they are here except to be negative?

    What Kristin is pointing out is that without paragraphs of boring backfill or details, this writer tosses you immediately into the action and while doing so, creates her faraway world as she smoothly as she creates her character’s personality . . . and all while you are reading innocently along.

  13. Maryann Miller said:

    What a great opening. Really liked the fact that it jumps right into the action and story without a pause to introduce characters, setting, etc. Reminded me of the wonderful book, Brother Termite, by Patricia Anthony. I am not a big fan of sci-fi, but will definitely read one that is so well written, as much for the joy of savoring the words as for the story.

  14. Vorkosigrrl said:

    First time reading this blog, which I really enjoyed — Linnea posted a link on her listserv. I’m not a writer, but really appreciate good writing, so I’ll be back for more of your recommendations.

    I love Linnea’s writing, she’s the best in the genre. The openings of many of her books feel like you’re starting in the middle of a story, and you wish you could go back and read the prequel.