David Farland’s Kick in the Pants—Get Focused
One problem that I sometimes see with new authors is that their openings don’t focus on a single image. Here’s a close approximation of one that I read yesterday: “Leaves fluttered down from the trees. A pair of butterflies rose into the air. In the distance, an army marched.” It went on to have several other such descriptions, none of which were very helpful. There was a distant sea, mountains to the west, mud on the ground, and so on.
There are several problems in regard to this opening. The first is that the images presented don’t seem to have any relationship to a viewpoint character. Who is seeing the leaves, the butterflies, and the distant armies? Unless you have a good reason not to, you should get deep into the point of view of an important character right out the gate.
As you can probably guess, the second problem is that every detail was non-specific. What kinds of leaves fluttered down? Were they golden aspen leaves, or brilliant red maple leaves, or something else? What kinds of butterflies flew up? (And why would they be doing it so late in the fall?) What kind of army is moving in the distance—infantry tanks, knights, cyborgs on hover-sleds?
The third problem quite frankly is focus. The author seems to be craning about, looking for details above, around, and beneath the protagonist all at once.
Most people don’t observe the world that way. We have a field of view, normally aimed ahead of us. We hear sounds around and behind us, but filter them.
A much better way to start is to simply give us a focused image: “The dwarven bartender hoisted a earthenware mug of ale onto the table with a clunk, and shoved it toward me. I peered down into its nut-brown depths, as golden bubbles frothed over the lip. It smelled of barley and alcohol and oaken barrels. The bartender stroked his red beard, peered up at me from under his dingy hat, and challenged, ‘This is ogre’s brew. A bit stout for a wee hedge wizard, but if you’re half the man you brag to be, you should be able to hold it.’”
Do you see what I’m doing? It’s quite simple.
First, put something in motion. In this case, it’s a mug of brew scooting toward the protagonist.
Second, give us something immediate to focus on—the mug. Notice how I used sight, sound, and smell to make it real?
Third, then expand your focus to the things around it. I chose to give slight focus on the dwarven bartender, but I can now pull back to reveal a bar full of patrons, rough customers all, gawking at the protagonist in order to see if he can handle the drink. I might describe the hostel, hint at the weather by describing the boom of thunder, the hiss of rain.
Fourth, I introduced a minor conflict here along with the image—a bartender offering a drink that is dangerously strong. But this is just a “bridging conflict,” something to carry me ahead as I delve further into the story.
So when you start trying to reveal your world, try to bring something into focus quickly, and then expand outward from that central image.