David B. Coe: Openings, Hooks, and Breaking Rules


200CoeJacksonLast week I re-introduced you to my upcoming novel, Spell Blind, which is the reincarnation of a book I wrote a long time ago, and the culmination of years of writing, reinvention, and revision. I have always loved the characters, but it wasn’t until I came up with a new plot and, more importantly, a new magic system that the novel and its sequels became all that I wanted them to be.

What I love most about all the books in the Case Files of Justis Fearsson are the characters and their interactions. And I intend to write a couple of posts about them (Spell Blind comes out January 6, so I’m going to be showing up here at Magical Words throughout December and January; we have plenty of time to cover a bunch of topics) and about other elements of the story as well. But today I want to focus on the opening lines of Book 1.

To my mind, the series has two hooks, two qualities that are likely to grab my readers’ attention from the very beginning. The first is the voice for the series. Justis (Jay) Fearsson is my narrator, and he provides, I think, as compelling a voice for the books as any point of view character I’ve written. The second hook is the magic system.

So, in crafting my opening paragraphs, I wanted to introduce both the voice and magic system as dramatically and effectively as possible. And in order to do that, I had to break a couple of my own rules. For those of you who have read other posts we’ve written about opening passages, and especially for those of you who have attended or taken part in the live-action slush sessions Faith, Misty, and I have run at ConCarolinas and ConGregate, you know that there are certain things we like to see in opening paragraphs, and certain things we don’t like at all. We often suggest that openings should present conflict and action from the beginning, that something should be happening right off. And we don’t necessarily take well to being “told” stuff rather than “shown.”

And yet, I felt that the best way to open Spell Blind was to introduce the magic system right off the bat. Now I suppose there is something to be said for the idea that we don’t get to break the rules until we’ve first mastered them. I’ve been doing this for a long time; I’ve opened a lot of novels with lines that follow the advice I give to others. And with this, my sixteenth published novel, some might say I’ve earned the right to break those rules. But for the record, I did struggle with this opening just a bit, precisely because I was doing things I don’t normally sanction in the work of others.

Here is the opening:

Ask most people to point at the moon, and they’ll lift their gaze skyward, trying to locate it. Ask the same of a weremyste like me, and we don’t have to search for it. We know where it is. Always, and precisely. As it waxes full, we can feel it robbing us of our sanity and enhancing the strength of our magic. Like ocean tides, our minds and our runecraft are subject to its pull.

I was on the interstate cutting across the outskirts of Phoenix, and already I could feel the moon tugging at my thoughts, subtle and light, but as insistent as a curious child. Three hours before today’s moonrise, nearly a week before it would wax full, and its touch was as real to me as the leather steering wheel against my palms, the rush of the morning desert air on my face and neck.

I sensed the reservoir of power within me responding to its caress, like water to gravity. And I felt as well the madman lurking inside my head, coaxing the moon toward full, desperate to be free again.

I had five days.

And in the meantime, I had work to do.

SpellBlind250Let’s break that down. As I mentioned, my hooks are Jay’s voice and the magic system, and we have both here in spades. The voice is noirish, direct, no-nonsense, which is very much who Jay is as a character. There is a darkness to him, but also an honesty, a deep dedication to his work, and, dare I hope it, an eloquence that I think readers will respond to. (He can also be funny, but you don’t really see that here.)

And he is a weremyste, a conjurer whose magic and sanity are subject to the pull of the full moon. Think Jekyll and Hyde meet the Wolfman, with some old-fashioned spellmaking thrown in and you’ve pretty much got it. Jay speaks of his power, of the influence of the moon, of the madman lurking within him, waiting to awaken again. There is a lot more to the magic, and readers are introduced to these other magical rules and abilities as the story progresses, but these are the basics and they’re all right here in the opening two hundred words.

But the opening also establishes some other things. We know where and when this takes place: we’re in modern-day Phoenix. We also see immediately one of the main motifs of the book and series: water and heat. Water imagery recurs throughout the book; it is an indicator of magic and healing, as opposed to heat and fire, which tend to be destructive forces. It’s been a fun theme with which to play, and as I say, you can see it here right from the start.

And finally, while I break a rule here, by opening with what is essentially background information, I also “explain” that choice at the end of the excerpt. I do so by introducing a key narrative element — the “ticking clock” of the coming full moon: “I had five days.” That ticking clock will drive the action of the entire novel. And then I assure my readers that the stuff they’re expecting in an opening — the action, the conflict, etc. — is coming right up. “And in the meantime, I had work to do.”

It is an unconventional way to open a novel, but in this case I believe it works for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. It brings in my hooks right away. It sets out a crucial component of my conflict: Jay’s looming descent into insanity. It initiates a key device in my plotting and pacing: that ticking clock. And — forgive me for saying so — it represents some of the best prose I’ve written. (Next summer, as I prepare for the release of the second Jay Fearsson book, His Father’s Eyes, I’ll do another post on opening passages. The opening of that book is REALLY unconventional, and the best writing I’ve ever done.)

But for now, let’s talk about openings. Do you have an opening of which you’re particularly proud? Want to share a few lines of it here? Are you having issues with an opening that you want to discuss?


David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than fifteen fantasy novels. His newest series, a contemporary urban fantasy called The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, debuts with the January 2015 release from Baen Books of Spell Blind. The second book, His Father’s Eyes, will be out in the summer of 2015. Writing as D.B. Jackson, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and Dead Man’s Reach (also coming in the summer of 2015). He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged 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.



26 comments to David B. Coe: Openings, Hooks, and Breaking Rules

  • sagablessed

    Love it!!! This is why I adore MW. The contributors here teach the craft and science of writing. And you guys do so in such a manner that helps we readers think about what we are doing and how to improve.
    I do have an opening I would like feedback on. I am not sure why it just doesn’t fit.

    Death was a patient thing, neither rushed nor late. She came for us all I knew, but right now I wished for more time. I could give more time to almost anyone, but not for the poor sap in the glass. I sighed bitterly at the irony. Such was fate’s little “Eff you” for my kind, as if what we did was offensive.
    My kind? Were we human? My hand, firm and strong only a few days ago now gnarled with arthritis, wiped away the steam from the mirror. The reflection dared me to find the answer. We bled, we laughed, we loved and hated. We died, albeit sooner than most. But those like me could do the one thing the grieving wished for the most -and couldn’t.

  • Thanks, Donald. I like this concept, but I will admit that I had to read it twice through before I “got” it all the way. Perhaps taking a slightly more direct path to who and what your POV character is. The writing is strong, at times elegant, but it beats around the bush a bit too much. Little things — exchange “mirror” for “glass”, so that the first instance is mirror and the second reference, the hand wiping away the steam, is glass. It will clarify who “the poor sap is.” And then maybe clarify that final line, which hints at the power the character possesses, but a little too obliquely. Again, this is nice writing and a great concept. It just needs a tweak or two to make it clearer and stronger.

  • I really like your “inverted” opening, David–and while you open with brief backstory there’s still a sense of threat and danger in that description that pulls the reader in.

    I’ve been struggling with the opening for my WIP as long as I’ve been working on it. I actually want my character to appear somewhat passive in the beginning, but of course I need for there to be action as well. This is what I currently have for the opening:

    I had no right to spy on Captain Laris, not this time. Maybe I never did.

    Roiling gray clouds concealed both moons as I crouched in the shadows thirty-five meters behind the captain’s house. I fingered the AudEar, now illegal for me to carry, but left if turned off. The low hum of conversation and occasional laughter from her guests slipped through the open windows, but without the AudEar I couldn’t make out specific words. For over an hour I’d sat in silence as threatening skies advanced on the brightly lit stone house, torn between listening and leaving.

  • […] opening lines, as all writers do for their openings, and I discuss those in depth in this post. The post can be found here. I hope you enjoy it and find it […]

  • SiSi, thank you for the kind comment on my opening. I like yours. I think that the opening line is effective. The mention of spying is a hook, and what fallows — “not this time. Maybe I never did.” — hints at your back story in an intriguing way. The rest shows a character in turmoil, at odds with him/herself. And the writing is strong. I think it works. I say that without having read the rest, of course, but if presented with these opening lines, I would keep reading.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you again for a very helpful and thought-provoking post (and for the peek at your new book!). In my latest round of revisions I’ve been putting off the re-write of my first chapter because it’s sort of a mess, especially in terms of following conventions. I got a great suggestion from one of my beta-readers, but wasn’t sure how to implement it without being really clunky, and no matter what my opening lines do need work.

    But your suggestion to think about the opening as an opportunity to introduce some of our hooks has my brain slowly waking up to some possibilities. Especially in pairing this post with one I recently read elsewhere on endings, which suggested strong endings sometimes come from echoing something from the beginning. In my case, the beginning and ending of this first chapter, since it has a POV change (yes, I did say it was a mess) and so it needs *something* like beginning/ending echoing if it’s going to come out at all coherent.

    …sorry for the rambling, but yay for new ideas meshing with old ideas and leading us down the road to awesomeness!

  • Alex Pendergrass

    I’ll give it a go. Here’s the first reworked version of the opening to my current WIP:

    The assassin stood, bound in chains, awaiting her executioner. Her guards mocked her sex, the scars they made across her back. The still surface of the pond – where she was expected to drown – glimmered with the setting sun. It was a fine day to die.

    Anyhow, it’s fairly different language than before. Not sure how well it works but I do like the first line. I’m trying to keep the name of the assassin a secret for a page or two, when during her sentencing to death, the executioner calls her one name then asks for any last words. She replies with “Who’s so-and-so?” And then the scene turns to reveal that she’s exactly where she wants to be and here to assassinate the executioner. My question, is it weird or off-putting for readers not to have a name for a couple of pages?

  • Hi, Alex. Thanks for sharing the passage with us. The one problem with the approach you’re taking is that it gives your reader no clear point of view character. She wouldn’t think of herself as “the assassin,” but that last line, “It was a fine day to die,” makes it clear that we’re in her point of view. If you want to keep her identity a secret, you might consider using the executioner as the point of view character, just for this one scene. That way your surprise will work on its intended victim, and the last thing your reader will see in this scene is her [Insert name of weapon here] sweeping toward his [insert name of vital organ here.] Get what I mean? Does that help at all?

  • Oops, sorry, Hep! Didn’t mean to skip over you. Thanks for the kind words about the post. I’m glad to have stirred some thoughts about how you might handle your opening. Best of luck with it!

  • Alex Pendergrass

    It does indeed. Earlier versions use her name (Yvtema) but then I felt that the reveal was lessened a bit when she’s sentenced to death (as Belanna). Beta readers didn’t really say this but it was just my own personal take on it. Perhaps it is down to trying to stick to a certain viewpoint. Trying it out from his point of view is an interesting idea.

  • Razziecat

    David, this is a totally kick-ass opening! That makes me want to keep reading, and since I generally avoid anything that looks like either werewolf or vampire, that means you really do have me hooked 🙂 I don’t have an opening of my own to post right now (long day, too tired) but I’m going to think about this post in regard to my own work. This is the kind of “opening BANG” that I try for (and don’t always hit!)

  • Razz, thanks so much for the kind comment. Glad it hooked you. Keeping our hooks in mind, is really the key for me. That’s what makes an opening work — finding that hook and using it reel in our readers. Again, thank you.

  • This is a short story opening, not a novel. I know it needs help, so feel free to take it apart.

    Sometimes I hate my mother. Sometimes I love her. But always, I miss her.
    She almost never talked about Ireland. She cooked about Ireland from time to time, and she drank about Ireland often enough, but she she wouldn’t talk about it. In third grade I came home from school on St. Patrick’s day and told my mom all about four leafed clovers and the leprechauns who hid gold coins at the end of the rainbow and danced on the green with good little children. In dry LA, where March meant the rains were already over, green and rainy Ireland already sounded magical enough. Why not believe in leprechaun’s too? Finally I knew something about where my mother had come from.
    “And who told you that load of crap?” she said, leaning against the kitchen counter with a highball glass in her hand.

  • Amy Bauer

    Interesting. I’m guessing that knowing when to break the rules effectively is probably the hardest thing to master. I learned from this. Thanks.

  • inkfire

    I write a lot of very very short excerpts from weekly Writer’s Digest prompts, and the one from November 11 sparked a very fun story that I plan on explore deeper later. The prompt was something to the effect of: you went to bed but wake up in a car that’s not yours, in clothes that aren’t yours, holding a bag of money that’s definitely not yours. And there’s a cop car with flashing lights behind you. What happened and what did you do?

    Here’s the opening to my submission for this prompt that I’m very proud of but I’m sure there are still issues with: Psychologists say that habits aid in defining who we are as individuals. Me, I’d say my habit more accurately defines who I’m not. In the last year–no that’s too long a time frame, I’ve lost count. In the last month, I’ve been seventeen different people. I guess you could say I’m a kleptomaniac, sort of. Instead of stealing things, I steal lives.

  • I think that is really great opening. It caught my attention and I want to read more. I love straight forward characters. They get into so much trouble and you love them for it!
    I tried something similar with my opening. I’m nowhere near your level, so now I’m not sure if I pulled it off right. Its a UF about a girl named Bethany who’s being haunted by her childhood boogieman again now that she’s being framed for murder.

    They say I killed the brother of my best friend. I may have. I have killed before. The fact that I’m not sure if I didn’t kill Thomas bothers me kinda like a worrisome itch in the center of your back that for some reason on today your arms can’t reach. What scares me is how my friend and confidant will take to me now. She’s a year older and has been at college for a year and half now. During those half months, we haven’t really spoken and everyone in town knows it. Its small town gossip. What can you do? Besides charge me for murder. And make it stick this time.
    I hear the crowd below Jilly and I as we stand on the hill overlooking the main street, cheering for the returning college kids. I choke on my cigarette. Jilly pats my back and laugh. He just watches.
    “It’s not funny.” I tell her.
    “Why are you so scared? Man you killed your pack already.”
    I look down at the empty pack she smuggled me and crush it in my hand. I puff the last of the cig I’m smoking and throw the butt away. “I’m fine.”
    “Matt know you smoking again?”
    “Better to smoke than to snort.” I see a dark shadow move in my peripheral. I turn my back on him, try and calm my nerves. He can’t hurt me. He can’t hurt.
    “Bethy you gotta stay clean.”
    I look at my longtime friend, curious. I hate when she gets all serious on me. I hate when she calls me Bethy. It’s as close to my real name she is willing to go and it could only mean one thing. She is scared for me. I am scared for me too.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Sarah. I think the best thing you could do to make this even stronger than it already is would be to eliminate the first three sentences. The bit about loving, hating, and missing her mother is telling. The rest of the opening is showing, and in that showing we find the seeds of the things you told us up front, making them superfluous. I think if you were to start the story with “My mother almost never talked about Ireland.” and went from there, it would flow better. But, of course, that’s just my opinion.

    Amy, thanks very much for the comment.

    Inkfire, LOVE the story concept. That last line of your opening is fantastic. Really. That said, I would consider changing the first couple of sentences for the following reasons: Starting with “Psychologies say . . .” has the immediate effect of distancing your reader from your point of view character, and of course you want the opposite to happen. And while I understand why you put in the confusion about the time frame, I’m not quite sure it works. It slows things down and makes the reader stumble a bit when you want him or her to be moving forward. Again, as I said to Sarah, this is just my opinion. Feel free to ignore it, because I might very well be wrong.

    Latedra, thanks very much. Glad you liked the opening. And thanks for sharing your piece. I think you have the beginning of an interesting and compelling story here. I want to know more about your character, which is exactly what you want. I would suggest paring down that first paragraph a bit. You don’t need the bit about the itch in the back, and you fall into explaining a bit more than I think you need to at that moment. You want to explain some of it of course, and I like the lines revolving around the murder. But the ins and outs of the relationship might be better off coming a bit later in the story. Just a suggestion. Best of luck with it!

  • Thank you, David. I think you’re right. 🙂

  • Thanks David. I do get what you mean about the “itch” sentence, it felt out if place to me as well but I liked it so I kept it. But I guess it can go. It doesn’t really move the story anyhow. I will think about the bit of explaining her relationships there in the beginning.

  • Morgyn Star

    SagaBlessed — I love your opening, for what that’s worth.


  • Razziecat

    OK, so now I’m in the mood. Here’s the opening of something new I’ve started:

    I heard the footpads long before I saw them.

    On a dry night, they might have been as silent as hunting owls. But rain had been pissing down since early evening, and by midnight the high street was more stream than avenue. I thanked Edan for it, while I loosened my dagger in its sheath. I held my breath for a moment or two, the better to hear their sloshing progress. They’d catch up to me before I reached the barracks.

    Even if I’d been close enough to be seen from the gatehouse, the night guard wasn’t likely to stir out of it anyway. Not on my account. I got as far as a townhouse, its pale stone walls wet and shining in the wan light that spilled out around the window shutters. The dark bulk of the barracks huddled at the end of the street, a night lamp glowing at the gate. And then I was out of time.

  • Razz, I love this. Seriously, I’ve got nothing to offer except that (and maybe a suggestion that you cut the word “anyway” which seems unnecessary). It’s great and I would absolutely keep reading. I kind of wish I could, actually. Well done.

  • David, I really like the opening and your analysis. I would definitely keep reading. Very helpful. So helpful that I’m re-working my own opening. Thank you.

  • Razziecat

    Thank you, David! Yeah, I see that. I need watch out for words like “anyway” and similar things. Your encouragement means a lot to me! 😀

  • Sorry I’m a late with this (had an our-of-town business trip), but thank you for the feedback on my opening! I’ve been busy at work, pressed for time, and generally not happy with how much or what I’ve been writing lately, so this was a wonderful kickstarter for me!

  • Vyton, thank you so much. Happy to hear that I helped a bit.

    Razz, thank you. I really do love what you wrote.

    SiSi, we all go through periods like that, when things aren’t flowing well and life gets in the way of the work we want to do. But your opening was very strong, and I’m glad this helped you some.