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I'm looking for opinions on the effectiveness of this opening scene. It's a vision, not that he knows that at first. He thinks it a dream and won't quite act on it straight away. The vision was given to him by a sentient alien. It's basically the first of a few visions meant to kick start a bit of an adventure sci-fi plot.

Josh opened his eyes. He saw nothing though he could hear his breathing plainly and the beating of his heart thudded as if he were holding it up to his ear. The air, if there was any, felt as clean as the air in an untouched forest. Slowly, his eyes adapted to the dark and he saw the shapes of jagged spikes of rock in the distance; black and rough yet lit up by a ghostly white light. They were arranged like a passage way, reaching upward until they could no longer be seen.

He blinked, a subconscious automated blink, yet now stars shone bright in all directions. He felt like he was floating in space; a void of nothingness littered with sparkles further away than he could imagine.

He had a mind now to seek out the passageway. He tried to walk though he felt weightless in the vastness of this starry void, yet he knew somehow that he was moving forward. Or was it moving to him?

Strangely, he felt at peace, curious even, and didn’t fear what had become of him. In fact, he wasn’t even aware of what he had previously been doing.

Everything disappeared.

Before he knew it, the sound of the garbage truck hit his ears, the sun blinded him and he felt the hard cement underneath his feet. Gravity took hold and he fell to the ground, disoriented. Reality came back to him, reeling his mind in from the far off place. Birds, trees, people passing by, staring at him on the ground.

Sci-fi setting: humans in the far future, no aliens as they thought there might be, a little like a Star Wars type setting (no aliens though). I.e. normal life can be gritty, rich people, poor people, themes from modern society etc.

Story brief: beacons are found, they signal an onslaught from an alien species that seeks to reclaim "their" galaxy. they left a long time ago to end a war with the species of alien this "vision-giver" is. The beacons were meant to signal the fact that another race had tried to inhabit the galaxy. They don't like this. Greedy aliens in other words.

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I am not sure whether this question is sci-fi specific. Pleading for the "science-fiction" tag removal. –  Nerevar May 24 '11 at 10:03
    
It's a critique request, on a piece which is aimed at (eventually) achieving a sci-fi effect. –  Standback May 24 '11 at 14:08

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

On the general topic of opening with a dream, I'm going to second Kate's excellent comments: it's a technique that's heavily predisposed to backfire, because you're explicitly kicking off with something that is not part of the actual story, of what's actually going on.

Even if there is a clear connection to the actual story (e.g.: the dream becomes a plot point later on; the dream reflects the protagonist's personality and present concerns; etc.), the reader doesn't know that unless you establish it right away - and he's got little reason to stick around and find out.

So if opening with a dream, or even having it feature fairly early on, is important to you, I suggest you establish right away why the reader should care. Some examples:

  • "This was the fifth time this month he'd had that dream." This is common shorthand for "this dream sequence is significant, and not just a normal, random, meaningless dream, but I won't tell you why yet." Not terribly compelling, but it makes clear that the author has a decent reason for the dream, which will be addressed later. Likewise, "It had seemed so real and vivid - far more than just an ordinary dream."
  • Clear ties to something going on in the protagonist's life - e.g. dreams about his family, or a big event - can segue easily from dream to reality, and then the reader feels like the dream sequence "makes sense," because he knows what it's there for.
  • One person telling another about a dream is rather different from what you've tried here, but it can get across both the dream, and all kinds of character/plot/setting details from the actual scene being played out.

In reaction to your particular piece of writing, I was fairly underwhelmed by it. I didn't get much more than "somebody's in a weird place" out of it - nothing in the description seemed particularly attention-grabbing. There's no distinctive features in the setting that I want to understand better; I don't know yet who the protag is, so I don't particularly care about him; he doesn't seem to know anything about where he is, so I didn't feel like the opening had much direction or drive; there's a lot of weaselly "protagonist 'somehow' decides to do things for no particular reason" lines that I find annoying.

This could have worked if I felt that you were going for a dream-like writing voice - disorienting, nonsensical, dream-logic stuff. That's tricky to pull off at the beginning of a story - particularly an SF story - because the reader is all set to accept whatever you tell him as ground rules, even very weird stuff. I don't think you did that here, because the narration is a straightforward, matter-of-fact account of what Josh sees around him and what he does. There's lots of ways to convey a dreamlike experience; I don't feel that you did much of that here.

So, from this opening, I felt neither the "exciting fake-out" of a dream as a false beginning, not the "dreamlike experience" of actually being in the middle of a dream. Neither of these would bother me in the least if we were further into the story; it's not poor writing. It just doesn't strike me as an effective opening - it doesn't ground me in the story or give me interesting things to care about.

Hope this is helpful :)

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The passage was rushed and a little unthought out, I'll admit. I agree, it needs context, and it also needs a lot of work in itself. Perhaps he's "on the job" (whatever that may be) and the vision happens, interrupting him that has repercussions, only for it to happen again later. –  Nick Bedford May 20 '11 at 14:18
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Giving the dream repercussions is a great way to avoid the problems I discussed in the first part. It establishes the dream as something important and life-changing (it's unusual enough to have real-life repercussions; regular dreams don't do that) and it ties directly into immediate, plot-related events in the "real" world (the repercussions). –  Standback May 21 '11 at 18:08

Re this specific piece of writing: like Standback, it didn't grab me either — it's not long enough. I didn't feel like I was being drawn into a setting, or a mystery. It's too brief and the protagonist is too comfortable. If you're looking for any kind of tension, saying your protagonist is "at peace" is a fast way to kill it.

Also, curiosity comes from tension — the tension of wanting to know what's on the other side of that hill over there, and not knowing. If he's relaxed and at peace, why would he have any interest in knowing what's on the other side of the mountains?

I suggest longer, weirder, and yes, have him wake up in his own bed. The garbage truck can still rumble by his house and wake him up.

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Opening with a dream is a technique that I've seen get a lot of criticism. I think there's a few reasons for it.

One, if you're using the dream/vision to immerse your readers in a world, it's asking a lot of them to get immersed in that world, and then a few paragraphs later have to jump into a whole NEW world when the dreamer returns to reality.

Two, it may create tension, but it's a false tension. The reader feels ripped off, only a few paragraphs into your story, to realize that s/he has ALREADY been fooled.

Three, as an alternative to two - if you acknowledge that the scene you're painting is just a vision/dream, then there isn't any tension at all. Why do I care that some character I don't know is having a dream about some place I don't know? I don't know.

There's probably a four, relating to being a cliche, etc., but those three are the ones that jump out at me.

For your situation, how about borrowing an idea from One Monkey and having the story open in the doctor's office? You can establish enough about your character to make us care a little, you can establish a bit of setting, and you can have tension from the fact that he thinks he's got a tumour, or is going crazy, or something. And then he could have the vision, right there in the doctor's office. Just a suggestion.

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Good points. You can counter the "false tension" / "no tension" if the vision suggests something is going to happen: maybe he sees himself get killed; someone he knows in danger; sees the end of the world ... Btw, if I remember correctly, your suggestion of starting in a doctor's office was done very effectively by Ursula Le Guin in "The Lathe of Heaven" (although not immediately as the beginning). Excellent book, that. –  Craig Sefton May 20 '11 at 10:15
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Thanks. I can see why it doesn't work well, despite the roughness of my post's version. I think if I'm going to do this vision (given to him by this alien), it has to be connected to what he's doing. Perhaps it's a few pages in that it actually happens, and as a result he ends up in a hospital for apparently passing out, or something. –  Nick Bedford May 20 '11 at 14:21
    
Nick - I think the 'few pages in part could work, as long as what he's doing for those two pages is absorbing and relevant. If it's just a couple pages of him walking around living his life - not too absorbing. –  Kate Sherwood May 21 '11 at 11:22
    
You're right, Craig, the nature of the vision would help with the tension. And I'm glad my/One Monkey's ideas are in such good company as Le Guin! –  Kate Sherwood May 21 '11 at 11:24

It doesn't grab me from the first sentence, which is the real beginning. I have no sense of mystery, or wanting to know more, except perhaps right at the end. I have no sense that what the character is experiencing is, in fact, unusual, except towards the end. It's also strange because the character's heart is thudding loudly, but he behaves in a completely calm and rational fashion.

My advice would be to begin with the character's bewilderment, and show the reader that what is happening is unusual. He seems to have been awake in a normal setting one minute, and then he was in some weird hallucination / dream / vision the next. It's difficult to believe that he would not remember where he was previously. Regardless, you probably create more interest for the reader by making it that he remembers. Consider this brief opening sequence (it's not going to win any prizes, it's just meant as an illustration):

The world dissolved into darkness, as if a black hole had sucked out the light. The rumble of the passing dump truck and chatter of people on their way to work vanished, replaced only by the sound of Josh's thundering heart in his chest.

Immediately, we get the sense that the world has changed. Something strange has happened. Better still, our character, Josh, is in a panic. He may be in danger. What's going on? We want to read more to find out.

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Admittedly it was a rushed attempt, but I see your point about putting the vision in context, not to mention some inconsistent elements. –  Nick Bedford May 20 '11 at 14:14

Starting a speculative or fantasy story with a vision is a venerable tradition. As the words "venerable" and "tradition" imply the tricky part is making yours stand out and not seem cliched.

The absolute top a-number-one way of doing this is to not make it seem like a vision to the reader at first. On this your opening fails. Even though you told me I was about to read a vision I didn't really need to be. The last time I started a fantasy novel with a vision I did it like this:

-Right away I made it seem that someone was in mortal danger. They were being hunted by wolves which seemed outlandish but the context of the prologue which had featured the summoning of spirits meant that it could still be the truth.

-The protagonist was chased to a familiar place but certain little details were off from her recollection. This could be panic, or it could be some further magical weirdness, or it could be a dream.

-Immediately I put in a character who back referenced the mythology utilised in the prologue. This took us straight from dream into proper profound vision.

However, at the point at which the reader knows it's a vision we both know and understand why the protagonist believes it to be no more than a dream. At the beginning of the description we believed it was reality. We then were allowed to know it wasn't and at the same time the protagonist was lock stepped in with us as readers. Everyone knows it's a dream. I then dropped information which let the reader know it was definitely a vision but without making them think the protagonist was a total dumbass.

And that comes to the problem here. This guy seems to have blacked out and had a very specific vision in the street. I presume you are then going to go on to tell us that he is going to shrug off his blackout as nothing out of the ordinary. Unless he is, at the very least, going to seek a medical opinion on whether he has a tumour I would think this guy was a chump.

Also, I don't really get the geographical logistics of the vision. Why is the dude floating if there's ground beneath his feet? I can count the number of times I've floated about like a steadicam in a dream on no hands.

If I were framing this I'd make it a proper dream while sleeping, not a blackout. Makes it easier for the character to shrug it off (unless you want them heading of to the doctor's in which case: strike that, reverse it). Second, I would always tend to try to convince the audience that what is happening is really happening at first. The minute you can tell from sentence one it's a dream you have a tendency to switch off or skim unless you feel that there's some compelling reason not to just get to something "proper" happening.

If this makes you question whether you even want to introduce dreams or visions so directly then that wouldn't be surprising. If you remember Close Encounters Spielberg didn't really get heavy handed with the dream sequences instead Richard Dreyfus became obsessed with a shape and he didn't know why, kept seeing the symbol everywhere.

If your main character rather than dipping into 3d sensurround just kept getting distracted by bright blue lights and arrangements of matter that looked like ranks of jagged rocks that might add a sense of mystery which intrigues the reader instead of ramming exposition down their throat.

Either way, I think rather than being ethereal the key to an effective dream sequence is to make it hyper-visceral. The key to visions I would imagine is to make them symbolically strong but contextually vague.

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