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An example:

Naomi's words hung in the air as I gazed out of the hotel window. The mountain lay quietly in the dark, like a calm, sleeping giant. A cluster of city lights glittered beyond. In the forest nearby, pine trees bowed slightly in the wind, and the loud cries of cicadas reverberated among the trunks.

"The Giant Ancient Tree?" I said, making sure I had heard right.

Naomi nodded.

I turned to look at her. "I thought it was just a myth."

I would like to know if this reads smoothly, and whether it feels clumsy to start with a reference to what someone just said, and then follow that with a setting description (of course, with the topic being reveled immediately after).

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5 Answers 5

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Yep, works for me. Particularly if this is the literal opening of the story, not just the scene; I like to establish some sort of setting fairly early on. You don't linger too much. You're giving us just enough for us to grasp where she is, and then get back to the dialogue.

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I think your first paragraph works well. You create a tiny mystery right off the bat -- what was it that Naomi said that her words are still "hanging in the air"? -- that sucks the reader in. It's often said that if you can hook the reader in the first couple of sentences, you've got him. (I may plagiarize this idea myself someday. :-)

A great piece of advice I read once was from an editor who said that a writer submitted a story to him and explained, "My story really starts rolling in chapter 2." The editor's response was, "Then start the story with chapter 2."

I'll add that personally, I don't like the "I thought it was just a myth." I think that's a line that has been beaten to death. It seems like every time a strange tale or object is introduced in an adventure story, someone says, "I thought that was just a myth."

Also, "the Giant Ancient Tree" is a rather dull name for something that sounds like it's going to turn into a key element in the story.

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3  
So let's revise: "The TOSSAIS? The Tree Of Staggering Size And Incredible Age? That's just a paranoid rumor cooked up by end-times conspiracy theorists." Edit as needed. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 27 '13 at 13:33
    
@Jay Thanks for the feedback. Ha, the dialogue is just random stuff I came out with. They will discuss about something else. Something more interesting. –  Alexandro Chen Jun 27 '13 at 14:41

I didn't think it read clumsily at all. I think it sets up a nice conflict and mystery at the start. The way you get right into the dialogue is nice as well.

It might be fun to play with some kind of interplay between the viewpoint character's thoughts about Naomi's words and the description of the scenery, but that's the only suggestion I would have.

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The organization and flow are good. As other answers mention, a slight sense of mystery or perhaps foreboding arises. But because of several minor problems it doesn't read smoothly for me. For example, the second sentence ends verbosely or clumsily; “who had just gone to sleep” could change to “just now asleep”. “At the distance” [since edited out] instead of the more-usual “in the distance” was jarring. I don't find “pine trees swung slightly” accurate as a description of pine trees in wind – perhaps my problem with it is that I think of swinging things as suspended from above. Perhaps try “pine trees bowed and nodded” instead. If the forest is an important part of the story, make its first mention more interesting and specific; “nearby” lends little interest. Is it all around? Adjectives like great, deep, ancient, dark, brooding, impenetrable are perhaps overused as modifiers of forest, but if any of them apply to your concept of the forest, then use one or two, or look at synonyms and find a word that's descriptive, striking, and less-used.

“Faded cries of cicadas reverberated” seems self-contradictory to me because I regard a “faded cry” as a memory of a cry, rather than an attenuated cry; and regard something that reverberates (or “rings with many echos”) as necessarily loud and audible. Thus, while one might accurately say loud cries reverberated, or the buzz and rattle of cicadas reverberated, or faded cries of cicadas tinged the air, it seems to me that faded is incompatible with reverberated.

“Gave me quick nod” seems clumsy. Perhaps revise the last two paragraphs to one:

Naomi nodded when I turned to her; and then I asked, “But isn't it just a myth?”

In summary, the organization is sound, and the minor flaws I mentioned should be easy to smooth out.

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Thanks. I modified the text based on some of your suggestions. –  Alexandro Chen Jun 27 '13 at 17:17
1  
'Naomi nodded when I turned to her; and then I asked, “But isn't it just a myth?”' I personally like this part as two sentences, not one. It gives the story room to breathe. –  Lincoln Bergeson Jun 27 '13 at 19:07

Alex, the basic concept of opening with a reference to what someone has just said, followed by a scene description, is absolutely fine. In fact, it's a great idea. In your example, I think you've handled it really well! I see that you have the concept down perfectly, and this is a first draft that you can polish into something terrific.

There are of course a kazillion ways of doing it, so forgive me for just going ahead and taking my own turn at the plate here. Let me just have a go for fun:

Behind me, Naomi repeated the name. She knew she would have to, even though she couldn't see the scorn on my face. Before me, the mountain was a sleeping giant in the dark. A cluster of city lights glittered at its feet. Cicadas chirped and chattered in the surrounding forest.

"The Dragon's Egg Tree," was what she had said, for the second time.

I turned away from the hotel window and strode past her.

"Drink?" I asked, grabbing a bottle on the side bar.

She scowled. "That's all you have to say?"

I dumped some tonic into her gin and shoved the glass into her hand.

"What else should I say if you bring me three thousand miles to talk about fairy tales? Cheers, Naomi!"

I downed my Scotch in one gulp.

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Ha, nice example. I'll consider doing something like this. –  Alexandro Chen Jul 5 '13 at 9:08

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