Once upon a time…

13 Mar
Once upon a time... Public domain image

Once upon a time…                                   Public domain image

If you have ever read folk tales, fairy tales, or fantasy stories of any kind, you have heard the words, “Once upon a time…” The purpose of the fantasy writer, and any writer for that matter is to transport the reader to another time and place. Can you think of four words that do a better job of opening the reader’s mind? The essence of this opening evokes the reader’s mind to journey to a land far away and usually a long time ago. The ‘Once” would indicate that the story only occurred one time. And, since most end with, “They lived happily ever after.” it would seem that the conflict that created the story was gone forever.

For the folk tales and fairy tales of old, This was a great way to open the story. Any time we heard that phrase we were prepared, and still are prepared to be transported to something special. We have talked about opening lines before and how important they are. However, the fantasy genre has evolved and expanded. Paranormal and horror have melded with fantasy. Vampires and werewolves have taken over for elves, halflings, and dwarves.

Urban fantasy has exploded. Every major city and more than a few minor ones have been converted into the hunting grounds for the above mentioned vampires and Lycans, as well as, zombies, wizards, demons, druids, fae, dragons, and yes, even elves. Writing about fantasy in the current modern world created some interesting challenges for writers. How to invoke that sense of wonder and departure from reality in a way the reader would believe.  

Take Jim Butcher’s epic urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files. In the first book Butcher uses the entire first page to introduce The main character. The new mailman can’t believe the sign outside Harry Dresden’s office. It says, ‘Harry Dresden, Wizard’. You see Harry is the only practicing wizard in the Chicago phone book. Butcher puts it in your face on the first page and you either accept it or not. but from that point on you know you are reading a fantasy story set in contemporary Chicago, Illinois.

Where Butcher uses a page, others still try it with one sentence. For example, let’s take the opening line from Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, “There are many perks to living for twenty-one centuries, and foremost among them is bearing witness to the rare birth of genius.” Okay. We will be dealing with a person who was alive and fought with Genghis Khan. You think this is a fantasy story? And even though I am not a fan of vampire stories, this opening line to Jaye Wells’ “Red-headed Stepchild” had me for the duration of the series. “Digging graves is hell on a manicure, but I was taught good vampires clean up after every meal.” This vampire does NOT sparkle! But, she does have a great sense of humor.

So, what can we do to urbanize the classic opening, “Once upon a time…?” Granted it’s not as flashy but what about…

“Right now, in a city near you.”


Posted by on March 13, 2014 in The Journey into Fantasy


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11 responses to “Once upon a time…

  1. 4amWriter

    March 13, 2014 at 5:59 am

    I don’t generally read fantasy, but from the few books I have read in that genre, I think what you say is true. I would add that your point applies to all genres. Even in thrillers or romantic comedies, authors have to set the stage so that the reader can believe the whats and whens. I also think that most readers are prepared and willing to suspend belief before opening a book — but they aren’t going to suspend that belief forever without concrete “proof” from the author that wizards practice in modern Chicago, as you point out.

    • Dennis Langley

      March 13, 2014 at 7:20 am

      I agree with your comment, “…most readers are prepared and willing to suspend belief before opening a book.” So the stage is set before we even start. However, we have to provide a believable, alternate reality for them. That is the challenge.

  2. Scott Weber

    March 13, 2014 at 6:48 am

    The job of the first line can be to draw the reader/editor in enough to be interested and at the same time set the tone/setting enough to let them know what they are in for. It needs to be both interesting and comforting at the same time.
    As I wrote this, it occurred to me that the cover and title of the book serves a similar purpose. I wonder how many authors think of this as they toil away on that first line.

    • Dennis Langley

      March 13, 2014 at 7:22 am

      You are so right. How many good stories don’t get the readers they should because the author or publisher skimped on the cover and title. Very interesting point.

  3. sknicholls

    March 13, 2014 at 6:57 am

    “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    • Dennis Langley

      March 13, 2014 at 7:24 am

      LOL! Yes, indeed. It certainly was. Many a good campfire story started with those words.

  4. char

    March 13, 2014 at 10:55 am

    I love that vampire line about the manicure. Funny. Yes, opening lines can really suck you in…or not. It’s true that the author has to set the stage…and fast, or the reader might give up and never enter the author’s ‘fantasy’ world.

    • Dennis Langley

      March 13, 2014 at 2:59 pm

      Jaye Wells has a very sharp humor to here writing voice. Almost harsh at times, but she keeps me laughing.

      • char

        March 13, 2014 at 11:09 pm

        Yeah, I can imagine that from that excerpt.

  5. Matthew Wright

    March 15, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” George Lucas knew EXACTLY what he was doing with these lines…Modern fairy tale telling? Absolutely!

    • Dennis Langley

      March 17, 2014 at 7:03 am

      I was going to use that. However, I would have bet this years salary that you would include it. Ha, I won! 🙂 You are right , of course about Lucas.


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