David B. Coe: Another Post About Openings


David B. Coe/D.B. JacksonWe write about openings a lot here at Magical Words, and with good reason. A good opening for a story or novel establishes voice, tone, and conflict, and will ground your reader in your setting, your narrative, and your various character arcs. Early in our careers, when we submit work to editors and agents for consideration, we rarely get more than a page or so to convince them that our stories are worth publishing or representing. A lot rides on those first few paragraphs. Later, when we’re established, we still rely on those openings to carry a disproportionate share of the burden in winning over readers. Potential buyers will often read the opening page to determine whether they’re interested in purchasing a novel. I’ve had readers do this right in front of me at signings and conventions. Sometimes they read a few graphs, put the book back on the shelf or pile, and move on. More often, I’m pleased to say, they buy the book.

Faith refers to this as Bait and Hook, and that’s just what it is. We bait readers with the first lines, piquing their interest. And then we hook them with tension, or a hint of plot, or some cool element of our worldbuilding, or with a compelling character. We have to do it effectively, and we have to do it fast. There are a lot of books out there. We want people to buy ours.

So I’m going to break down the opening paragraphs of Dead Man’s Reach, the fourth book in the Thieftaker Chronicles, which comes out on July 21 — next Tuesday! I’ll try to give you some sense of what I was hoping to accomplish with each element I introduce, and of course, I’ll be happy to answer questions in the discussion that follows. I also plan to do this next month with the opening of His Father’s Eyes, the second book in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson, which comes out on August 4.

The opening of Dead Man’s Reach is, in many respects, similar to the opening of the other Thieftaker novels. I begin with Ethan in the streets of Boston, at night, pursuing a thief. As in the other books, this initial pursuit is meant to drop my reader directly into a scene fraught with action and tension, and also to introduce some small plot point that will come back into play later in the novel. Here are the opening 150 words or so:

Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, February 21, 1770

Ethan Kaille slipped through shadows, stepping from one snow-crusted cobble to the next with the care of a thief. He held a knife in one hand, his fingers numb with cold. The other hand he trailed along the side of a brick building, steadying himself as a precaution against the uncertain footing.

Dim pools of light spilled onto the street from candlelit windows. Flakes of snow dusted his coat and hat, and melted as they brushed against his face. Every breath produced a billow of vapor, rendering his concealment spell all but useless.

The air was still–a small mercy on a night as cold as this one–and a deep silence had settled over Boston, like a thick woolen blanket. Even the harbor, her waters frozen near to shore, and placid where they remained open, offered not a sound. In the hush that enveloped the city, Ethan’s steps seemed as loud as musket fire.

Dead Man's Reach, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)The first paragraph establishes point of view, tension, and setting. For readers of the previous books, and those who are just coming to the series for the first time, I tell them with the first words whose point of view we’re in. I don’t bother with what he looks like, or anything in his personal history. I don’t need to right now. We’re in Ethan’s head, listening to his thoughts, and he is thinking about the knife he holds, the ice beneath his feet, his desire to “slip through shadows.” It’s winter, the streets are made of cobblestone, his weapon of choice is a blade. And he’s trying not to be seen. One graph in, and my reader knows a lot.

But more to the point, my reader is, I hope, interested in what’s happening. Why is he carrying that knife? From whom is he hiding? What would happen if he were to fall or be seen?

The second paragraph deepens the ambiance and tone, bringing the scene to life, and reinforcing the historical. Pools of light spilling from candlelit windows — this is not a modern setting. While the flakes of snow and billowing vapor paint a lovely picture, if I do say so myself, they might well be a distraction from the tension of my opening. But then I hit my readers with that last phrase: “rendering his concealment spell all but useless.” That’s a hook. Now, in addition to the knife, and the mystery of what he’s up to, we have a magical element. This guy can cast spells. Yes, my long-time readers knew this already. But the fact that he’s concealed adds to the tension and hints at more conflict. And for new readers, this is one more thing to make them say, “Cool!”

In the third paragraph, I employ a similar approach. The city, Boston, is quiet — too quiet, as the old movie cliché goes. It’s gripped by cold, by ice and snow. The tranquility of the scene could feel reassuring, and I use those descriptive passages to lull my readers a bit, to hint at that calm. But then I shatter it at the end: “In the hush that enveloped the city, Ethan’s steps seemed as loud as musket fire.” By returning to Ethan and his caution, I amp up the tension again, and, more, I foreshadow the central historical conflict that will play out in this book: the bloody lead-up to the Boston Massacre.

One note about the date/place stamp at the start of the passage: All the Thieftaker books, and most of the Ethan Kaille stories, begin with a date stamp like the one that you see here. The books are clearly historical in nature; every element of the packaging — the art, the print, the jacket copy — points to this. I include the exact date because it is invariably significant from a historical perspective. February 21, 1770 is the day before the fatal shooting of Christopher Seider, a young boy who many consider the first casualty of the fight for American Independence. Most of my readers won’t know that, but a couple will, and for them that date will be pure gold. A few other readers will realize that this book begins shortly before the Massacre. That’s helpful as well in building narrative tension, even if it’s significant to only a small percentage of my audience.

So there it is: the opening of Dead Man’s Reach. From here we get into the inevitable encounter with a thief and with Ethan’s thieftaking rival, Sephira Pryce. But by then the reader is, I hope, already baited and hooked.

How is the opening of your WIP shaping up? Care to share? 150 words max please.


David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach, which will be released on July 21. Under his own name, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first volume, Spell Blind, debuted in January 2015. The newest book in the series, His Father’s Eyes, comes out on August 4. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.



15 comments to David B. Coe: Another Post About Openings

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  • Tdancer2

    Excellent post – I can’t wait to read the last (though I live in hope) installment in the Thieftaker series.

    Here is the first few lines from the piece I’m currently shopping around. Some of you may recognize this from past slush readings. I hope it hooks you!

    I was squished, I was bruised, and I was upside down. At least this time I remembered to add packing foam before stuffing myself into the shipping crate. I’d skipped that step during my last heist and was shaken around so violently I needed to destroy the crate to avoid leaving blood everywhere. This time I wasn’t jostled as badly, but the witless postman had driven the crate around town upside down, ignoring the HUGE signs that indicated which side was up.

    In a nice twist of karma, after contorting myself into impossible positions to return upright, the guards at the shipping and receiving dock of my destination had no problems reading the signs and flipped me over again. I think I ate some of the popcorns the second time around.

  • Looking forward to it! I got a lot of bookstore gift cared money for my birthday thanks to knowing family and friends, so I preordered this and His Father’s Eyes.

    Hmm. Well, my opening for book 2 of my WIP had a thorough re-working after the panel at ConCarolinas. Or rather, I took copious notes, and I’m going to leave it be until the first draft is properly complete rather than just in-depth outlined. But I also recently finished polishing a short story for which I have high hopes (Urban SF&F, Chick Lit):

    The glass-and-chrome behemoth on the kitchen counter loomed like something straight out of a sci-fi flick. Surprising, since it had come from a harpy. But the regular office microwave was broken, I was starving, and my lunch was in serious need of therapeutic radiation, so I didn’t have much choice.

    I savored the muted aroma emanating from the foam box I’d pulled from the fridge. Emperor Ho’s made the best chicken chow mein in town, and the union contract mandated an hour for lunch. After yet another harrowing morning, I was ready to take my MSG-laden comfort and escape into the June sunshine. I opened the machine’s wide door—

    “Chinese food, really?”

    She was at my side as if I’d summoned her, derision dripping from her voice like a leaky faucet. “Ellen, I thought we talked about this.”

    No, you talked at me. Red-faced, I glanced away. “They’re just leftovers.”

  • Code Red: Chapter One: November 9, 2024, The White House

    “Yes!” Tucker Daniels said to himself pumping his arm like Tiger Woods dropping a putt.

    He didn’t shout, not wanting to rub it in to others reporting for duty, but when he saw the envelope, Daniels knew his retirement papers had gone through. In just over ten weeks, the day Henry Garvin would be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, would be his last day as an agent of the U.S. Secret Service.

    A few days after, he and Maureen would tie the knot and board a flight to Hawaii. Retiring and getting married the same week! Big steps, but he was ready. After twenty-five years in the Secret Service and a decade before that in the Marines, Daniels felt he’d more than done his duty to his country. He deserved a heaping portion of R and R, and he was going to take it.

  • Razziecat

    David, I’m really looking forward to this next Thieftaker book! Your opening scene here really nailed the feeling of a winter night. We even have cobblestones in an old, historic part of my town; they’re hard enough to walk on in the summer, I shudder at the thought of trying to do it over ice and snow!

    This is the opening of something that’s currently on my back burner while I work on another thing. It needs work, specifically that I’m not sure it’s possible to kill someone as described here, but I think that can be fixed:

    Fadiyah killed the guardsman with a dagger thrust to the heart. It was a lucky stroke; the sword cut in her side had weakened her arm. She left the blade in his breast and staggered up the ossuarium steps, one hand braced against the wall. Two young men followed: Chaya, bearer of all her hopes, and fearless Turs, hand in hand, their childlike faces pale in the flickering stormlight. Shouts echoed up the mountainside and she thanked the gods for the heavy rain that washed away her tracks.
    She stumbled over the threshold. Chaya caught her by the arm. Blood shone, black in the dimness, on her right hand. She wiped it off on her dark cloak before he could see it.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Yay! An analysis post! And, comparing your excerpt to the openings I’ve been working on, yours is definitely getting more mileage out of those first 150 words than I am. Very atmospheric, although I’d say that ambiance has been a major strength of all of the theiftaker books so far (and, as a reader, effective world-building is one of my favorite things!) As a starting guess, I’d say that my propensity for long sentences is still a problem. This is the new opening for a rewritten first chapter of my long-in-progress book:

    Lifting his eyes from the bare dirt of the roadway, Rubion Greydog squinted through the stinking, yellow smoke-haze and felt a chill of worry shudder through his blood. The city of Holdingfast was just visible in the distance, now less than ten miles out. Though the tithe-caravan moved at a crawl, trudging and dusty, they’d reach the place still in barely more than a day. Then Greydog would have to prove good his oath and get his charge safely over the bridge, into the city, and hidden.

    Suppressing a cough, cursing the grass-fire smoke that had plagued the caravan for the past half-tenday, Greydog gauged the distance again, and again mentally paced out their decent from the hills down to the river, testing how long it would be. He could do this, had done it before. Though this time he sensed a greater importance to his task, a greater weight of hope carried in the man who walked beside him.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    And now I’m being evil and double-posting. Feel free to ignore this one if you like. First, though, first-impression comments for the others, if they’re interested:
    (NOTE, all these excerpts have great writing, I just have a terrible tendency to focus on the confusion points to the exclusion of the rest.)

    @Tdancer2: I like the voice, but I’m confused about a couple things. 1) You make shipping oneself sound like it’s a common occurrence for this character, but so far I’m having trouble imagining that as part of anyone’s reality. 2) I would think getting bloodied up in an unpadded shipping container would include some nasty head-injuries…? But, man, you can do humor in your writing, so I’m still immediately envious.

    @Laura: The first two sentences definitely suggest a non-familiar setting, so yay, but starting from “She was at my side as if I’d summoned her” I’m confused, I think mostly because we have no descriptors for this disembodied voice. Was ‘she’ in the machine, or was that action just coincidentally timed?

    @xmanpub: This opening does a really good job of grounding us in the character and the basic backstory, however I’m only getting the barest of hints about *this* story so far. Might you be a bit more sprinkly with this information over the first few pages and interleave some more present action?

    @Razziecat: So far I’m not having trouble with the method of killing mostly because you’re vague enough about it and I don’t know this character or setting yet so I don’t have any basis for doubting it could work. The only part I’m really having trouble with is the “hand in hand” transition, because you start out referring to them as men but then describe them twice as children…

    Okay, and now for my (skippable) evilness. Here is the opening to the book I’m working on at the moment. I quite like it, but I don’t have a clear idea about how it works in terms of providing a first impression for this character:

    A thin, keening fox howl shivered through the air as Lutha cautiously approached the pine hollow where he’d laid his snare. The fox must have heard the shush of his skis as he drew nearer, for the cry changed suddenly, shrieking upward, high, like a woman in pain. Behind Lutha, Bear danced backward in the snow, ears flattened against his head and lip lifted in a half-snarl.

    Rounding the hollow, Lutha came in sight of the snare and the trapped fox: a vixen, red coat silky and full for the early winter, lips black and pulled back from her teeth. She screamed again when she saw him, and beneath the thick layers of his winter clothes Lutha felt the hair on his arms prickle warningly. The glint in her eyes was as strange as the dogged, thin howling that had been audible since they’d entered the mouth of the canyon, half-a-mile from the trap-line.

  • Thx. Hepseba ALHH. My opening is a set up. The character thinks all will be quiet for the next ten weeks, until he retires and lives happily ever after, but in the very next paragraph there’s a second item in his mail box that suggests to the reader that something is afoot.

    I loved your opening graphs. I can hear the skis shushing through the snow and the snared fox’s howls. The only thing that threw me was the last sentence. I don’t know whether Lutha is male or female; hence I don’t know whether the glint in “her” eyes belongs to Lutha or the fox, and on second reading I don’t know why the glint would be “strange,” which is a vague word. You might clarify by saying “Lutha wondered if the glint in the fox’s eyes was some kind of warning” or “was as unexpected as the dogged, thin howling.” Hope that helps.

  • Hi, all. So sorry for my delay in responding. I’m at a writer’s workshop this week doing manuscript critiques, and my days are packed. But I’m so grateful for the kind words about DMR, and I’m glad to see some samples here. So, jumping in . . .

    TDancer, you had me from the first line. There’s humor, there’s intriguing language — I was hooked. I do think that Hep is right: there are some logistical/realism issues to address. But I think you’re off to a good start.

    Laura, thank you. Love the tone of this opening and the snarky turns of phrase (therapeutic radiation — LOVE IT). And I don’t know who this rhymes-with-witch is standing at her shoulder, but I WANT to know. Well done.

    XMan, I’m intrigued, and would definitely keep reading. I would suggest changing the Tiger Woods reference. You’re setting this in 2024, and I don’t expect he’ll be relevant nine years from now. Skip the pop-culture reference, and use something more universal. And watch the “would be” repetition in the first graph. But I like!

    Thanks, Razz. This is action-packed and compelling — always a good way to begin. But I would consider starting your story 15 seconds earlier, when her life is still in danger. That puts us in the middle of the fight. Right now, I think some readers might feel cheated and wonder why we didn’t see more of the action. Just a thought.

    Hep, thanks. Glad you liked it. And talk about atmospheric. This is a nice start — very evocative and intriguing. A couple of points. I do think the first sentence should be divided into two sentences, for clarity and early flow. And then in the second graph I would do the same with its first sentence, and also rephrase to avoid the repeated “again.” But I would keep reading.

    And I like the second opening a lot. Again, you set your scene very well and hint at mystery and action. Good stuff!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    xmanpub and David: thank you both so much for the helpful critique. Definitely helpful points to consider and improve!

  • Razziecat

    Thanks, David! I see your point. I’ll have to rethink this one.

    Hepseba, thanks for your thoughts. Chaya and Turs are not described as “children” but as “childlike.” If I didn’t make it clear that they’re not normal young men, though, I’ll need to rework that part, so I appreciate your comments!

  • As usual, I think your technique is fantastic David. Thanks for the blow by blow on the opening. I’ll throw out my current WIP opening too, if it’s not too late. 🙂 This is an older story that I moved on from and am now coming back to, hopefully making it better:

    In the heart of the night, in a tangle of moist and musky underbrush, a bead of fire appeared.

    Smouldering redly, it crept up like a knife tearing through fabric, leaving a line of flame behind, hanging unsupported in the air. Where the line of fire touched branches or leaves, the greenery didn’t burst into flame or curl away in blackened recoil, but instead simply faded. When the fire overtopped the tallest tree, it began to curve sideways, a vast red curtain that swept across the darkened forest until it had created a circle, miles deep. Everything inside the wall was hidden, if it existed at all.

    Near the spot where it had started, the wall of flame swirled and darkened, and a man stepped out. He was thin but supple, and the blade in his hand redly in the red of the wall. A dark snake-like tongue darted out, and then the man smiled and stepped forward.

  • Hep, glad to help.

    Razz, no problem.

    Adrian, thank you so much for the kind words. I love the evocative language of your opening — some great imagery and turns of phrase. But I would suggest that you rewrite to place the action in a character’s point of view from the very start. Right now this opens in what sounds like omniscient voice. You’re not really in anyone’s head. And omniscient is not in favor in the market these days. That’s not to say you CAN’T leave it this way. But I would suggest that it start immediately in the perspective of the man with the blade, or in the perspective of someone seeing this happen. POV is a powerful tool for writers, and it’s most effective when the POV is tied closely to a character. Thanks for sharing, and best of luck.

  • Thanks David! Sorry for slow reply, but much appreciated!