Twenty Novels, Twenty Opening Chapters: Cherie Priest's Boneshaker

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Today’s attempt to analyze what makes for a compelling opening chapter is a classic of the steampunk genre – one where gas-crazed zombies chase desperate scavengers through the underground of a collapsed alt-history Seattle.
And yet the story opens in a vastly different, and dare I say audacious, way.
For I have theorized that a good opening chapter will will not just introduce you to the main character at some point in the first three paragraphs, it will actually tell you what that character’s emotional dilemma is.  You’ll not just know who they are quickly, but be rooted in whatever it is they’re trying to do.
And yet Cherie Priest, wisely, said “Fuck you and your silly theories, Ferrett,” and went a different route.
Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest (Feel free to download the sample to your Kindle, if you’d like to play along.)
Opening Sentence: “Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nation’s coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crossed strings and crossed fingers.”
When Do We Find Out What Motivates Our Protagonist? …we don’t. 

The protagonist doesn’t show up at all until Chapter One.
In fact, there’s no protagonist at all in this introduction.
(A side note: Some may complain that the “intro” isn’t “the first chapter.”  But it is the first thing we read, and if it’s a bad intro or prologue or foreword, we will never actually get to the so-called start of your book.  So for analytical purposes, I’m sticking with my definition: this is the opening chapter, even if it’s not the first chapter.)
What Cherie starts out with is, essentially, a nonfiction summary of her alternate history.  Here’s why people were incentivized to build big fucking steampunk mining-drills just before the Civil War,  here’s why they tried the drill in Seattle, here’s the disaster that occurred when the drill went awry and destroyed downtown Seattle, and here’s the mysterious gas that seeped up from the ground after the nefarious Dr. Blue and his Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine bored a hole straight to Hell.
Now, one of the cardinal rules of worldbuilding is that you do not infodump.  You string the reader along, giving them only what they need to know just before they know it,  because a big clunky chunk of “Here’s how my technology works” is going to stand in front of your plot and characters and bore the crap out of people.  It’s considered kind of amateurish to just go, “All right, here’s what happened” and blather on for a thousand words to get your backstory across.
And Cherie pokes that rule right in the face.
She’s doing the audacious bit of telling a story without a hero – there’s no one person we’re following here.  And that’s hard to pull off, but she does it with lots of clever and visually dazzling phrasings to keep you going, such as:

In California, there were nuggets the size of walnuts lying on the ground – or so it was said, and truth travels slowly when rumors have wings of gold.

And, discussing the disappointing hauls the miners found:

Gold came out of the ground in dust so fine that the men who mined it could’ve inhaled it.

And:

On the afternoon of January 2, 1863, something appalling burst out of the basement and tore a trail of havoc from the house on Denny Hill to the central business district, and then back home again.

Cherie gets away with it because she’s continually creating interesting images to grab and pull you along, which keeps us interested until we get to the devastation about 750 words in – and frankly, if a rogue steampowered drill collapsing downtown Seattle isn’t enough to keep your attention, I don’t know what will.  Yes, it’s a block of infodump that’s unrelated to the emotional struggles of the characters who will be introduced shortly, but it’s a really interesting block of infodump, and so we read without complaint.  It slides by on pure, compacted prose.
And it breaks the so-called rules, but also breaks them for a damn good reason.  Because honestly?  Trying to quietly intersperse this complex alt-history and chronicle of events while introducing characters you actually cared about?  Would be hell.  You’d have to keep ping-ponging back between character development and “Oh, here’s what you need to know about Seattle and its zombie-creating gas pockets now,” and I don’t think you could do both effectively in parallel.
Yet what I really have to applaud is the way Cherie quietly transplants another genre into fiction.  Because this opener is not, actually, fiction.  What it is is straight-up RPG Supplement material – this could have been cut-and-copied from some parallel universe’s reference sourcebook for THE CLOCKWORK CENTURY’S GUIDEBOOK: SEATTLE.  And Cherie melding the world of roleplaying games and science fiction so effortlessly, remolding them together without a care in the world, is quietly genius.
Yeah, in the next chapter we meet crazy Dr. Blue’s poor abandoned wife and son, and the son runs off, and damn if the wife doesn’t have to chase him all over Seattle.  And that’s compelling, too.  But the start is a different kind of technique, and a welcome reminder that really, in fiction, there’s no one way to make a sandwich.
Past analyses:

2 Comments

  1. BenjaminJB
    Apr 22, 2014

    Have you read / looked at VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, particularly the chapter on beginnings and endings (but mostly beginnings)?

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 23, 2014

      I have not. Though I’m currently reading Booklife, so I may pick up Wonderbook, especially now that it was nominated.

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