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.”