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I am about to start my first novel set in a fantasy world I am designing, and am struggling deeply with my first scene. I have read in books on fantasy writing that the opening is the hook. I am contemplating starting with a religious initiation ritual that the young protagonist is going through.

My other thought was to start the character in a spiritual vision that I intend for them to have at some point. Otherwise, I thought of a very cliche way of starting the novel such as the character hunting with their father in the woods or lost in the woods at night.

The scene could be compelling as the character will be blindfolded, will not know what to expect, and will be outside.

I worry the problem with a religious initiation ritual is that it may be very obscure or too abstract for a reader who is just starting a story in a new fantasy world. The format of the ritual will be very obviously a religious ritual, and there will be an altar in the room. The overall aspects should not be too obscure or foreign for the reader to understand.

I have not seen many books open in this way, but I think it may be effective.

The other problem with this as the initial scene is that it is not as profound for the reader in their understanding of the character as it is the entry point in the world. That is, the character is undergoing this perhaps pivotal ritual in the character's development before the reader is introduced to the character.

It is not going to be culturally a coming of age ritual within the theme but essentially may begin the coming of age experience for the character. It also begins the character awakening to the fact that they have magical powers or starting them on that path.

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I think you name all the correct issues. The reader starts with no context, the setting is obscure, the reader won't be invested. And of course you don't want a cliche.

On the plus side, however, it is obviously a changing point for the main character, and those are good places to start stories: Spiderman starts when Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Ah, but wait: He doesn't really get bit in the opening scene, we are first introduced to Peter Parker's life, the girl he hopelessly loves, and who Peter Parker is BEFORE he gets bitten by the spider.

The same goes for The Hobbit: The plot starts when Gandalf tricks Bilbo Baggins into hosting a party for him. That is the change in Bilbo's life that triggers the rest of the story; for Bilbo the first turning point. However ... to understand Bilbo's turn in life, we must first understand the straight line he was on, so the story begins with a sketch that shows us who Bilbo Baggins currently is. That is the straight line.

I think this religious transformation is a good idea for a start. But the story doesn't have to START with somebody standing in front of the altar. If I were to write a story about a couple's new life in marriage, I would be tempted to start with the wedding. And I would, but doesn't a wedding begin a few days before the couple actually stands in church? You want to know these this couple a bit for the wedding to have an impact, so I would start perhaps a week before, when this wedding is very much on everybody's mind but we can have some minor problems, comedy if appropriate, and interaction between the couple before the groom is standing before the altar and hoping the damn boutonnière doesn't fall off his jacket again.

Extend your scene. Somehow or another, your main character got to the physical location of this ceremony. Who brought him? What was the last normal meal he had before this happened? For my wedding, I might open on such a meal for my couple, to show they are living together (or not), at a restaurant or in their apartment, maybe even a fast food joint, eating burgers and going through their checklist of wedding stuff and the choreography of their roles and getting there.

How did your MC dress? Are they nervous or confident? Encouraged most by Mom, or Dad? What is their life like (in sketch) for the MC before this ceremony? How does the MC (and those around the MC) expect their life to change once the ceremony is accomplished? What new responsibilities will exist, what old relationships will be terminated or transformed? Will the MC have a new job? If so, what of their OLD job, and boss, and coworkers?

This lets you keep the focus on your MC and your religious ceremony throughout. The ceremony itself becomes the current 'problem' to be solved and the reader can be looking forward to it, as bits and pieces are described and the characters come into play.

Really the ceremony is still the opening scene, on everybody's mind, and the topics are all about this and anticipation of what happens next. It is just that a dozen pages or so (3000 to 3500 words in my counting) lead up to the moment when the blindfold and hood are tied on the MC.

The advice to open with a hook is correct, but in all forms of fiction, you will have about 5% of the total length as "good will" from your audience. If they don't already know your character (from a previous fiction), they expect your story to start in the normal world. (The movies and books that do not will typically have characters we already know from outside the movie or previous movies; e.g. Mission Impossible, Superman, super heroes, etc).

But I think it is often misinterpreted: The hook does not have to be a big dramatic scene, and usually an "establishing shot" is provided in books and movies, first. If you go to see a movie, you expect two hours of entertainment. Almost nobody gets exercised over the first five minutes of a movie with characters they haven't seen before. They fully expect the MC to appear first (or very early), but they also expect an establishing shot of context: Use your magic to solve some minor problem. Your MC snags his jacket and rips it, his mother snaps her fingers and the rip is repaired. Or the milk he spilled out of nervousness about his upcoming ceremony is stopped in mid-air and put back in the carton. Magic doesn't have to be proven by opening a portal to another world, magic is magic: An offhand spell that sews a loose button back on a shirt cuff is enough to prove the point that magic exists.

Your ceremony scene is indeed the hook for the novel, but take some time leading up to it and having characters talk and worry about it. Buid the anticipation to it. The first tiny hook that draws us in can be any problem for your MC to solve, even one as minor as breaking a shoelace while trying to tie a shoe in a hurry.

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A drama is fundamentally about values and about a choice between values that reveals who the protagonist is in their heart of hearts. The first question that a story has to answer, therefore, is one of values. Who is the protagonist, what does he have now that he cherishes, and what does he desire that he does not possess. (Alternatively what thing that he cherishes will be taken away from him so that he has to give up something else he values to get it back.)

The reader knows (probably not consciously, since we learn to love stories long before we learn to analyse them) that at the heart of every story is a choice of values, and so the first thing they are looking for at the beginning of a story is what the protagonist values. There are at least two values that matter: the value the protagonist will seek to attain, and the value they they will have to give up as the price of attaining the first value.

Those values are the hook. They are what tells the reader that this is someone with something to lose and something to gain. It is important to note here that the hook is not action. The hook is values. Values establish the essential grounds of drama, and that is what the reader is looking for at the beginning. You can certainly use action to establish values. But it is the values exposed by the action that are the hook, not the action itself. Conversely, you can establish values without action, or at least without violent action.

You can, for instance, establish values through a religious initiation. Religion is very much concerned with values. Religious beliefs and practices are expressions of values, or of facts which have consequences for values. A religious initiation is an initiation into a set of values and a set of ideas which are the ground of values, and so it can do exactly the job that you need to do at the beginning of a story.

What you have to be careful of is that religious practice, and religious initiation in particular, are so routinely vilified in fiction today that it has become a kind of lazy shorthand for authors to establish the villain by making them a religious leader who requires or inflicts religious initiations on poor defenceless protagonists. This is, to my mind, an appalling bit of prejudice, but it is an inescapable part of the contemporary literary culture in which your story must find its audience. This means that if this is not what you intend the reader to get from this initiation, you are going to have to work extra hard to make sure they get the message you want rather than assuming the default message that the culture has primed them to expect.

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For your concerns about the particular scene itself, I think Amadeus’s answer is perfect.

But in a general sense, the first scene should tell the reader what to expect from the rest of the story. I have some anecdotal experience that might help.

The first time I watched the Studio Ghibli film ‘Princess Mononoke’ there was a scratch on the DVD which caused the first scene of the film to skip. I decided to keep watching anyway, and started with the second scene, where some sort of ceremony was happening. A boy had been cursed by a monster and was being sent away from his village. Cool. I felt like I hadn’t missed much.

But I found myself confused for the rest of the story. In my mind, this ceremony held more importance than it should have. Why? Because it was the first scene I saw, the very first point of reference from which I viewed the rest of the story. It introduced the protagonist, some side characters, as well as the birth place of the protagonist and its culture, most of which (to my confusion and disappointment) would never be seen again for the rest of the film. It also seemed to set up the protagonist as the centre around which the story would revolve. This also turned out to be false.

The actual first scene of Princess Mononoke is a narration describing the world in which the story is set, where gods of nature and humans used to live in harmony but now are in conflict. It only then introduces the protagonist and sets in motion the events that will be important, i.e. protagonist getting cursed and going on a journey. Now the audience is not surprised when the main arc is less about the protagonist himself but about the much greater conflict between humans and nature. Rather than his journey being the focus, he is only a small part of a larger story.

What I’ve learned from this experience is that the first scene will set expectations for the reader, whether consciously or unconsciously. If you can’t decide on your first scene, you may need to locate the primary arc of the story and decide exactly where that begins, at least for the reader, or how best you can set the stage for the events to unfold.

So if your plot is primarily about the protagonist and his involvement with the religion, by all means make the first scene be his initiation. If it is more about the protagonist going on a journey separate from this aspect of the plot, you could start with the hunting scene in the woods, where maybe he and his dad talk about the upcoming ceremony but there is obviously something else on one of their minds, or hints of something greater happening in the world around them. If the protagonist will continue to have visions throughout he story or is a ‘chosen one’ type, then a vision is a grand place to start. It all comes down to what you want the reader to expect from the rest of the story.

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Personally, I think this is a very compelling beginning. Perhaps my own fascination with religion is a part of that, but I think I'm far from the only person who finds religion naturally interesting. Here's my suggestions for the specific concerns you have:

1 - Is it too obscure/abstract? No, not if the character is also confused. That gives us someone to identify with, so we feel inside the situation, not outside it. Solving a mystery is a great hook for most people, and we can all identify with being in confusing and unfamiliar surroundings. This also gives you a great avenue for providing info about the world organically.

2 - Would it have more impact after we know the character better? Perhaps, but there are ways around this. You could start with the ritual and then immediately flashback to give context. Or, start and move forward linearly, but have the character reflect back on the experience later, once we have more of a frame of reference for it. Even in real life, we often have experiences whose meaning transforms for us in retrospect.

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  • That's what I was going to say ... The problem is that an important ritual is a turning point in a story or life, - so there has to be a "before" for it to make sense. But, in a novel, the before can come after. ;) You just have to sell it sufficiently so that the reader wants to know what just happened in the ceremony - perhaps with things like references to the past being left behind or all the preparation which was required before the character became worthy of participating in the ceremony... A hook within a hook. – Joe Oct 25 '17 at 7:35
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I would personally advise against it. Unless you're an already well-known author, it is in your best interest to start novels with scenes that suck readers in. Expositional things such as this, while very important to the lore and story, are often perceived as dull and boring if the reader is not invested in the characters and world yet, which they can't be since you just started your novel (unless it's part of a series).

I would warmly advise you to perhaps leave this scene for a later time, after you've sucked the reader in with a more enticing scene that will leave the reader hungry to know what comes next.

I'm not saying your scene can't make that impression on a reader :). It might really make the reader want to find out more about the ritual, thus compelling them to keep reading, but since you mentioned that it was going to be a bit more generic to keep ambiguity at a minimum, I'm afraid that's not likely going to be the case.

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  • The particular ritual is closer to an initiation ritual than say what we typically think of. The character will be blindfolded, described as not knowing what to expect, etc. I think such a book would hook me, but perhaps not a general reader. – Seanchaí Oct 24 '17 at 9:29
  • It’s definitely more a question of personal taste, but you could definitely pull it off if you kept the mystery and anticipation high, and exposition to a minimum :). Blindfolding the character can certainly work in your favor! – Klara Raškaj Oct 24 '17 at 9:33
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There are excellent points in the other answers at time of writing. Apologies if anyone's thought to mention it before, but Frank Herbert's "Dune" series has some great examples of how to work religious themes into a story - particularly an initiation rite.

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  • I have read Dune. Great point. I may go back and read his scenes with more analysis. – Seanchaí Oct 24 '17 at 21:39

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