How To Create A Compelling Fictional World: Part 1

I believe all writers share this fantasy:   a customer is wandering through a bookstore and spots our book on the shelves.  He pauses, picks up the book and skims the first few lines.   At that moment, the world fades away and the reader falls, like Alice in Wonderland, into our fictional world.   The reader keeps on reading, page after page, until he stumbles to the cash register and buys the book.

All right, we all know it’s a fantasy, but the question is a valuable one:  how do we convince the reader to linger in our fictional world and keep turning the pages?  Studies show that it takes the reader less than 10 seconds to decide whether to continue reading or put the book down.  So how do we make the most of those 10 seconds?

Over the next few posts,  I’ll cover some of the key elements, which help to create a compelling fictional world.   To begin, let’s start with an obvious one:

1.  Write A Powerful Opener.

You know immediately when you read a great opening line.  It creates a shiver of excitement, of curiosity, of adventure.  For me, it’s like walking through a door into another world:

Capri, Italy

Capri, Italy

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984

Or, it’s a glimpse into someone’s mind with a unique perspective:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Or, it’s a narrative treat because the writing is powerful and masterful.  Its cadence and rhythm sweep me away:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)

Or, it’s an improbable situation that is mysterious and curious:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)

Or it reveals a universal truth about the human condition:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

Even though we all can recognize great opening lines, writing one isn’t nearly as easy.  I have spent more time trying to get the beginning just right, only to scrap it and start all over again.  It’s a daunting task, but here are some guidelines which have helped me:

Imagine a reader is standing at a door and is squinting through the keyhole.  The door is your book and the keyhole is a glimpse into your fictional world.  What can the reader see through that tiny opening?

Through the Keyhole.  Art Prize Entry, 2013, Grand Rapids, MI

Through the Keyhole. Art Prize Entry, 2013, Grand Rapids, MI

Peering through the keyhole Into my book, I could see a car and its driver.  Recognizing that key element was the first step.  It made me realize that the pages I had written about my fictional village of Montebello, its church and piazza, and the tailor shop where one of my main characters was sewing, were not the key elements.  It was all about the car–a Fiat 514 Mille Miglia– and its driver:  Benito Mussolini.

From Racing  Google Images

From Racing Google Images

And so, I started over.  I imaged the car was climbing through the Italian mountains on an unusually hot day in September.  And its driver, Benito Mussolini, was tearing down the country roads, creating plumes of dust because he had a passion for speed and racing cars and was trying to impress his passenger, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.   I imagined the car was approaching my fictional village of Montebello.  A few men from the village would spot the clouds of dust and the car–a rare site in this poor village in 1930.

Now I was ready to create my opener, which would be the keyhole into my fictional world.  And so , I wrote:

The three men from Montebello had never seen a machine so fast or so beautiful before.

That sentence worked.  It established place.  It identified the key element–the car.  And it created some mystery.   And, feedback from readers was positive.   The first line was a hook which drew them into the story and made them want to read more.

And now it’s your turn.  What great openers are on your top 10 list?   Have you written a solid opening line?  Was it challenging for you too?

In my next post, we’ll explore how a writer’s use of details is another key ingredient in creating a compelling fictional world.   Until then, let’s keep writing!

26 replies »

  1. My own opening line: “The mansion was bubblegum pink.” Since I’m not yet published, I can’t say for sure if it’s that great, but my beta readers liked it. And yes, it was torture trying to get a good opening. I must have two dozen or more attempts.

    My favorite is the classic, from Pride and Prejudice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.”


    • Hi Phantom. That’s a great first line from “Pride and Prejudice!” I also like your first line. ‘Bubblegum pink’ is a great descriptor and a wonderful contrast with “mansion.” It raises all sorts of tantalizing questions. I’d also want to know where the mansion is. Can you add a tiny geographical clue? I’d be interested to know if other people would also want this.


  2. My favorite opening line still stands as Barbara Kingsolver’s opening to “The Poisonwood Bible:”

    Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

    It then tumbles into an absolutely gorgeous description of the Congolese jungle and sets the mood for a rich and intriguing tale. I’ve yet to encounter an opening line that sticks with me as effectively as that one does.


  3. This was so informative, Patti! While my writing is in memoir form, I think the same rules still apply (mostly.) I always try to remember to touch on all of the senses when writing. I wan to be ‘taken there’ in all ways. Thanks for citing some of the greats… Be well. 🙂 ~Karen~


    • Hi! Agreed. I love those quirky writers too. Flannery O’Connor’s opener –“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida,” is so powerful and weird and wonderful. Who are your favorite authors?


      • I like a pretty wide variety of authors and genres and actually wrote a few posts about this subject too. I’d planned on a longer series but haven’t updated the group in awhile… A few on my “great first lines” list are The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Rook by Daniel O’Malley and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.


  4. Hi again! I’ll have to check out your posts on this topic too. Thanks for your list! I’m familiar with Donna Tartt’s work, but not the others. I’ll check them out.


  5. Oh thanks, Bluebee! That’s a great opener!–There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills – Alan Patton The word “lovely” is so powerful here.


  6. What a terrific suggestion, Patti! I love the idea of imagining the reader peeking through a keyhole at the world of the story. I’m going to use that when I begin editing my novel.

    One of my favorite novel opening lines is from Gabriel Garcia Marquez:
    Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. ~One Hundred Years of Solitude


  7. Hi Jackie. It’s wonderful that you’re trying the “keyhole” idea when you edit your novel. I hope it’s helpful. And yes, I think that opening line by Marquez is stunning. Thanks so much for contributing it to our “collection!”


  8. I still love the first line in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number Four Privit Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal thank you very much.”

    So much attitude! So much intrigue! ❤


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