Beginnings

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I’m doing a webinar for Writers Digest Books on June 9th at 1 pm on Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy and Paranormal, so, as you can imagine, I’ve done a lot of thinking lately on the subject of writing and on genre in particular.  One special challenge you often have with speculative fiction is that at the same time you have to introduce your readers to new characters and situations, you’ve also got to create an entire world in their mind’s eye.  This can lead to a lot of info dump at the beginning of novels.

I find that one of the best ways to head this off is to be sure to begin in the right place.  If you start the novel too long before the main story so that you can provide set-up and context, you may lose the reader through the lack of immediacy.  If you start too in media res, there’s a ton of backstory that you’re going to have to fit in, which will slow down your forward momentum.  This means that you’ve got to choose the moment in time where the key elements that become important to the overarching plot are developing, but early enough in their development that you can provide context before everything goes kablooey.  In other words, we have to understand what’s normal before it all goes to hell.  Also, we have to care.

Some simple says to avoid info dump:

-Don’t introduce characters before they appear (i.e. “Maia prepped mentally for her meeting with President and his aid, who had been hurt in the “police action” of Kentaga in ’34 and as a result bore horrible scars as constant reminders”).  So much more powerful to experience her reaction when the aid comes through the door.

-Once a character appears, do not stop your action to give us his or her history, but reveal it through dialogue or context.

-Likewise, while you’ll have to set a scene and give us description of settings, it’s much more immediate to show how the chill air hit the sweat that still clung to her from the sweat lodge, practically turning it to a thin coating of ice than to simply tell us that it was a cold night.

-Remember that body language and vocal cues can teach us as much about a situation as simply informing us.  For example, if you have two characters talking to each other, is one clearly deferential?  Authoritarian?  Flippant?  The interaction itself will enlighten us as to the relationship between these characters with much more relevance and interest than laying it out for us in paragraph form.

-Also, what do your characters take for granted?  What do they swear by?  Culturally, a curse is generally something which profanes the sacred, taking God’s name in vain, as it were, so there’s a wealth of information in a curse.

Remember that your characters are the lenses through which we learn about events and the world.  They’re the storytellers.  Thus, unless something is relevant to them at a given moment, they won’t be thinking about it and the reader won’t be hearing about it.  Also, and I believe this goes back to something David B. Coe said in an earlier post, everything should do double-duty…not just inform, but invite a reaction.  Keep it visceral, keep it immediate and keep in concise…that’s my motto.

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16 comments to Beginnings

  • A part of me thinks that I may have started my opening too in media res, so to speak, in my MS and I perhaps need an earlier opening. I’m also working on getting my tech info better integrated to try to keep the action flowing. I honestly was afraid the tech description issues were slowing the scene, but I wasn’t getting that from my betas… Ah well, trust my own instincts more, I guess. 😉

    Sadly, I love the opening lines in the old version… :\ Egh, should have her fixed and ready for the next round of queries in a week or two.

    Oh, and thanks again. 🙂

  • Thank you for posting about this, Lucienne. I found it particularly helpful since I am just beginning a major rewrite of my WIP, Altar of Heaven. Exactly how to introduce my characters is weighing heavily on my mind. A character’s first scene is so important for the Reader when it comes to setting tone and character arc for the entire story.

    “-Don’t introduce a character before they appear ”

    This is my favorite of your points. It is something I think many newbie writers (including myself) fall into all too easy.

    Thank you once again!

  • Hello, Lucienne. Interesting post, and interesting tidbit about the webinar. Where can we get more info about that? You’re (of course) 100% right about finding the correct starting point for a novel; I must have rewritten the opening to the novel I’m working on at least half a dozen times until I finally found the right starting point. Funny thing is, I thought I had the correct opening the first five times. Then I started writing chapter two…

  • Oh, the link at the top of the post takes us to webinar info. Everybody point at Ed ad say, “Duh.”

  • These are some nice techniques for getting around an info dump.

    I’m thinking that the “right place” to start a story varies somewhat depending on the context, the story, and the mood or flavor the story. A very action-oriented tale might need to start closer to the action, possibly in medias res. A story that is intentionally contemplative and intellectual might start at a point much farther from the inciting incident. Or do you find that the relative distance from the inciting incident doesn’t change much across these different types of novels?

  • Great advice. I find it difficult to get in what a character looks like early enough in the story. I like to get it in with the first action, otherwise people form their own image and giving them description later violates their imagination. But, I find it hard not to slow everything down when I give a description. These tips will definitely help.

  • Lucienne, I remember the opening of the Rogue Mage series, BloodRing. Before you agreed to rep me, you had me rewrite it — several times. I finally totally loved where the novel started, so did you, and you signed me as a client. You then sold the series at auction. (Which was so much fun!) But my point is this — Then the editor who bought the series wanted a long scene for world building put in front of my perfect opening!

    You explained to me that sometimes a writer has one opening scene to sell a book to an editor, then a totally different scene to sell to the reading public. Spot on. 🙂

  • One thing that turns me off a bit when reading speculative fiction is when it’s too speculative. When there isn’t enough that’s familiar and I have to do a whole lot of work to get the context of the world and character motivations.

    Basically, shudder, I like my urban fantasy to have vampires who are vampires. They gotta like the night. They gotta drink blood at least some of the time. There’s room for a bit of variation, so vampires who like garlic are fine with me. But, I have trouble with vampires who sparkle in the daytime, like garlic, and drink Clamato juice instead of blood.

    Maybe I’m just close minded, who knows.

    Using some familiar elements to give readers some context may limit an authors creativity, but sometimes limitations make for better writing.

  • Razziecat

    Oh, I like this post. Good points to remember! It’s tempting to describe a character’s past rathern than dole it out a little at a time, but it’s so much more effective when it comes out in body language, dialog and so on. Thanks Lucienne!

  • Stephen, absolutely…the right place is dependent on the story and sometimes there’s a slower build to a really incredible pay-off, but there’ll be enough to tease, torment and intrigue leading up to it and none of it stated outright or in essay form. It’s something I see a lot of with beginning writers – that their first draft will read like one long summary where they’re telling me what would happen, but aren’t giving it to me =as= it happens.

  • @Roxanne – preach it sister! I’m fine with strange, even totally surreal writing and utterly alien worlds, but if you label something with a familiar name it better bear at least a passing resemblance to the thing you just called it. A sparkly, ever living, tomato juice drinking daywalker, especially if it lives in this world, is not a vampire, it’s some variety of sidhe – still dangerous perhaps, but not a vampire. If you’re making up an entirely new creature, give it a new name.

    @Lucienne – thank you for the clear and specific tips. I learn so much better when the advice is pragmatic, rather than abstract. I had the opposite problem to Daniel with my berserker novel – I tried to cram everything into the first chapter and it was a mess. At the 2010 LosCon Tim Powers said on three different panels, “If you can’t resist ‘explaining’ things to your reader then go ahead and explain. Then rip it all out, hand the chapter to a new reader and see if they like it. If they aren’t confused, don’t put any of the explanation back.” That finally got my head around how much I needed to cut.

  • I like your point about using body language and speaking cues to sell the world.

    I replaced a massive page of boring history lesson by writing an entire new chapter to introduce a character. The new chapter was a journey through a city talking with a good friend. It was interesting because of what happens on their way and the conversation kept the pace quick while being able to drop little hints about the social structure and the nature of the two characters. Way more interesting than a lecture about so-and-so’s great grand father who built a wall and joined the church and how the merchant guild evolved from early beginnings blah blah blah.
    I’ve now gone through my whole novel and scratched out big paras of internal ponderings with maybe three or four lines of dialog. Much snappier and lets me tell more about the characters involved.

  • Thanks for this, Lucienne. You have me thinking now about where I’ve started my WIP and whether I need to adjust the timing of one POV character’s introduction. Great stuff. And cool about the Webinar.

  • @Lucienne: LOL, I used to do that all the time as a kid – I got so excited about where the story was going that I actually wrote what was going to happen before it happened. Even then, though, I think I knew it was wrong to do that, because then I’d have my narrator say something like “But I’m getting ahead of myself…”

    I think I learned a lot of writing lessons just by sucking so bad, but never giving up, as a kid…

  • Stephen, I sometimes think the people who have to work at things make the best teachers. Those for whom it’s perfectly natural and easy never have to think about what it is they do and thus have a hard time conveying it to others. We teach (guest blogs, webinars, etc.) so that others can have a shorter learning curve than we did!

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