Ok, folks, here it is, an opening that works and sold. The book is Lightbreaker by Mark Teppo. It's the full opening scene, but that's what sold me in the bookstore so that's what we're going to look at.
So, let's pull it to bits. I'm going to tell you what worked for me and why.
How often we hear this: start with the protagonist doing something interesting. But what do we have here? A first paragraph that starts with a non-character. It's one step up from the weather or scenery. But it works.The deer lurched out of the forest on a dark curve of the narrow highway, staggering onto the pavement like a maritime drunk. Silver light radiated from its mouth and eyes, a spectral luminescence that made the animal visible against the dark brush.
Why? We've all traveled down those dark roads in the wee hours, we've all got stories of near misses, where something lunges from the shadows into our path. The author has given us something I can certainly relate to. My first reaction is to mentally gasp because I know what could happen. And yet...he follows up the familiar with something unexpected. We know instantly that this deer isn't destined for road kill. Something much more nefarious is going on, something paranormal. (I was pretty sure at this point the deer hadn't just been slurping on luminescent paint. )
The author has me. I want to move on to that next paragraph. Why is the deer glowing? I have to know.
Here the protagonist appears. Again, we're hit with something mundane followed by the unusual. It's established instantly that, in this world, glowing deers aren't normal, and the protagonist goes on to give us a clue as to what's wrong: the deer is possessed.I stopped the car and the deer shied away from the vehicle with an unorganized accordion movement of its legs. It was a young buck, a pair of knobby buttons adorning its head. Bloody foam flecked its muzzle.
The light leaking from the animal was spiritual overflow, a profusion of energy not meant to be contained in the deer's simple meat sack. The possession of an other. A human spirit.
How? Why? How does the protagonist know this? Who is he?
Now that our attention has been captured, the camera is pulling out a small ways. The author is establishing scenery, the mood, and filling in the senses. Seared meat. Who doesn't know that smell?As it wobbled across the road, the car's headlights bleached the shadows on its flanks. Not all the shadows disappeared, and what I had first thought were streaks of dirt or soot were revealed to be burns. With some difficulty, it traversed the shallow ditch running beside the road. At the top of the short embankment, the animal paused, chest heaving, and a tiny cloud of silver motes danced at its mouth.
I powered down the window, and the smell rolled into the car, an acrid sweetness of seared meat.
The author doesn't leave us here for long, though. He quickly moves on to explain before we get too tired of waiting for answers and shove the result of his hard work back onto the shelf.
Hmmm, so while possession isn't unheard of in this world, animal possession sounds somewhat taboo. Only someone desperate or with a faulty moral compass would do such a thing. The protagonist tells us, in a subtle way, that this form is just temporary. The soul inside is going to need another container--and soon.The human soul is too intense for the animal kingdom. The mythologies say Man was created as a reflection of the Creator. Crafted in His image and composed of the four elements, the human shell was built specifically to carry the fire of the soul. The Word written in flame and flesh. The lesser creatures of the world are too fragile, the fables tell us, they are vessels unable to sustain the intense presence of the Divine Spark.
Why then was a soul possessing the body of this deer? How had it become separated from its proper vessel?
Then he goes on to ask the same questions we're asking. So we get the sense that the protagonist knows a whole heck of a lot, but this scenario is unusual enough that he doesn't have all the answers. Yet.
More reader curiosity invoked! So, it's clear the protagonist is unusual and maybe powerful, but...it has a source? What is this Chorus? Part of him or something external? Does he control it, or it him?The Chorus were a whispering echo beneath these questions, and—exquire!—responding to my curiosity, they arced across the road. Phantasmal snakes wiggling through ethereal space, they kissed the smoldering flesh of the deer, and the contact returned a taste of the hot human presence within.
Here we get a taste of what the Chorus does. Not too much, mind you, but just enough to make us thirst for more. And we know the information it provides can be somewhat of a sensory overload for the protagonist. I can see where that could be a liability down the road--can't you?The deer jerked as if it had just been shocked, the invasive soul reacting to my spectral inquisition. The animal snorted, hot blood spattering from its nose, and bolted. The sound of its movement through the heavy brush was pure panic—that unidirectional flight of instinct-driven terror.
My throat and nose tingled as the Chorus returned, flush with stolen memories. They brought me spoil like worker ants returning to their hive queen. Sensory data belonging to the traveling spirit coursed into my awareness, and for a few moments, I was overwhelmed by this rush of images and scents and textures.
And we learn a little about how the Chorus works. The author is telling us how the magic works in this place. We have to believe it can be real, so he's giving us what we need to buy into that. His explanation makes me nod my head and say, "Ah, yes, that makes sense to me."There. A flicker of memory caught my attention. The Chorus wrapped it tightly, and when I squeezed, all of its secrets gushed out. Memory is nothing more than ego impressions imprinted onto raw sense data, consciousness lattices laid over the chemical cages of the brain. It is the psychological bindings—the way these structures become our identities—that anchors the spirit to the flesh. These secrets linger with the soul. The Chorus stretched this illicit memory so I could clearly dissect it. Yes, there. The touch of another spirit. More than flesh, more than spit or blood. Spirit touch. And with that touch, came other details. The ones I remembered. As I inhabited the foreign memory, my tongue unconsciously touched my lips and tasted her skin again; I inhaled deeply as if I could actually smell her on the night air.
And then...HER? Ah, so there's a woman? Isn't there always?
Again with the sensory information. Sometimes we go overboard with descriptions when one word can tell us all we need to know.Lilacs.
He knew Katarina. Shortly before this man had become a rogue spirit, he had been in close physical contact with her.
So here's what we know from this paragraph: the protagonist has some tie to this Katrina. The spirit inhabiting the deer shouldn't be there, it's against the rules of this world, it's male, and it also knows this Katrina.
But who is Katrina? Lover? Friend? Foe? His former landlady?
Whoever she is, she's important enough that this force, the Chorus, seems eager to find her, too. So I'm guessing she's not the former landlady.The Chorus, indelibly bound up in the cosmological memory of my past, sang in their eagerness to find her. Their collective voices, usually a persistent chatter of ancient skulls, became an undulating wind of wordless need. In the dark pit beneath them, I felt the twist of a long-buried root, as if its movement was giving birth to a breath of air that the Chorus magnified into a wind.
We're given something else here: this mention of the "long-buried root" tells us that Katrina isn't someone new. She's been there a long time. Maybe since the beginning. Roots are, after all, the foundation of trees. To me it hints that maybe she has something to do with the protagonist's unusual traits.
It's time for the protagonist to move, and he's off and running after the deer. Only if he catches up to it will he get his answers.I left the car by the side of the road, and went into the forest after the possessed animal. The deer could move faster than I, and I couldn't hope to catch it during its terrified flight. But it wouldn't run for long.
The presence of the human soul was devouring the beast from the inside. Soon, he would be forced to find another host. He could use other animals, but they would suffer the same fate as the deer. He needed to find a human host if his soul was going to survive. This stretch of Washington state road wasn't more than a few miles from Winslow and the Bainbridge Island ferry terminal. He was heading for Seattle, and if he found a host and made it across the water, I would never find him in the glittering city.
We establish a physical location, the Seattle area.
And, we're reminded of the ticking clock: if the protagonist doesn't get his deer, the soul is going to destroy it and move on...if it can find another host body.
Tick tock!He was a direct link. His contact with her was fresh, a few hours old. This was the closest I had been in ten years. A gravid tension lay in my testicles, a near sexual response to being in such proximity. The Chorus sang, a lyric resonating deep in my joints, and like a tuning fork, I vibrated with this need.
I had to catch him.
Catching the deer is the only chance he has to find this mysterious woman. And now we know it's been ten years since he's seen her. What could she possibly have done that he's holding onto her for that long?
Must be something good, and by that I mean ominous.
This opening has all the ingredients necessary for a solid opening. It invokes lots of reader questions, gives us some answers, and those answers lead to more questions--the kind that make a reader turn the page. And it gives us that ticking clock that instills a sense of urgency, which is...TENSION.
So, I want to hear what everyone else thinks. What say you? Does this work for you? Not? If not, I'd love to know why--as we all know not every book is for every reader.
I think we could all get a lot out of this kind of discussion. So hit me with it--but don't break the skin.
(As an aside, Lightbreaker is one of the tightest books I've read in a while. Mark Teppo doesn't tell you a single thing before you need to know it. But that's another topic for another day. )