Openings in Creative Endeavors

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My best friend linked me an article in which Steven King talks about opening sentences to books — how important they are, why that is, and what makes some more memorable than others. He spends a long time crafting the opening sentences to his books. It’s a fascinating read, whether or not you like to write. But while I was reading it, my mind drifted a bit. I’ve been thinking a lot about writing styles recently anyway, thanks to the author’s commentary at the end of the Ender’s Game audiobook, and this article just built on that for me.

In the Ender’s Game audiobook commentary, Orson Scott Card talks about his roots as a playwright and how that has affected his book writing. One thing he mentioned is that he doesn’t spend a lot of time describing things that don’t have any effect on the impact of the plot. And it’s true — I don’t have a clue what Ender looks like (though as always happens, the movie will cement a certain look in everyone’s heads soon enough). The things that mattered for the plot of Ender’s Game were his age, thoughts, and feelings. Those are talked about often enough, but I don’t think the hair color of Ender or anyone else is mentioned anywhere in the book. When you write a play, a lot is revealed through dialogue alone, and although OSC uses more than dialogue in his books, he skips unnecessary extras.

When I think about it, I don’t usually remember details about things like appearance when I’m reading a book. Some people had a fuss about Roo being black in the Hunger Games movie, which was followed by people pointing out that it was mentioned in the books that she was dark-skinned. When I was reading the books, though, she didn’t have a skin color — and it was because that didn’t matter. Her youth and intellect were what made it such a damned shame that she got picked to represent her district, not her skin color. Her death was so striking because an oppressive government was killing cute, intelligent little girls for sport to keep its serfs in line. Roo’s skin color could have been blue and that would only have mattered because in Katniss Everdeen’s world, only the elite class did things like color their bodies strange colors.

So along comes Steven King, talking about how the opening sentence of a book sets a tone for the whole thing. And it’s true. You pick up a book at the store or the library because the cover and title catch your attention, but the first sentence decides whether or not your read the first paragraph and ultimately that first paragraph determines whether or not you take the book home.

This reminded me of J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books. I’m not sure offhandd which book it was — Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I think — but in the prologue, the Minister of Magic visits the Muggle Minister to talk to him about Voldemort. Rowling has said that an earlier version of that bit was originally intended to be the opening to the first book. She decided it didn’t fit and shelved the idea for later. I feel like that was the right decision. If she had used it for book one, it would have been an okay introduction, but to someone coming to the books with no notion of what’s going on, the current setup allows the reader to gradually integrate into the wizarding world with Harry.

Academic papers have something in common with these things, too. Isn’t the introduction the hardest part to write? You write the body, which leads to the conclusion naturally, if you’ve done things right. But the introduction has to tell people what you’re talking about succinctly while also catching their attention and not just being a copy of the conclusion. It’s easier to write the introduction last.

If we step beyond the realm of writing and into the realm of game design, you see some of that as well. Shigeru Miyamoto doesn’t let Nintendo’s game designers make the first level of any Mario game until the end. The first stage to be played is always the last one put together. He does that because it’s the first introduction to the gameplay the player gets, and he wants to make sure it’s a good introduction. I’ve heard of other game developers doing the same with their games because the tutorial/introductory gameplay can’t be properly balanced if the rest of the game isn’t basically ready to go.

So. The moral, I guess, is that intros are too important to be lazy with — in writing or in game design.

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