Before I start the post, I want to mention that last week I recorded Writing Magic, which is going to be an audio book with me reading. I’ll let you know when it’s out. I just wanted to share my joy about having done it. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to. My voice cracks when I’m nervous, and I thought the people doing the recording would give up in disgust, but we all soldiered on. I repeated many sentences and had to read the whole beginning over at the end, but we did it! If you get it, you won’t hear a young voice or even a smooth voice, I don’t think, but the inflections will be the way I hear the book in my head, the way I wrote it.
Now for the post: On June 28, 2013, Michelle wrote, Mrs. Levine, in Writing Magic, you said that in a story, you can’t begin using subjects before you have introduced them. The example you gave was of a boy delivering a message on a foreign planet. He gets attacked by wulffs, and that’s interesting, but the author hasn’t mentioned wulffs until then. This is the problem I have. I have a complicated story, and it contains a lot of legends. There are three different trials that my character has to pass through, and each one requires a legend to explain it since it is so complex. How do I slip all of that information in before the trials come up while still being subtle?
Advice from anyone else is also more than welcome.
Athira Abraham weighed in with, I remember that example!!!
Mrs. Levine had also mentioned to try to slip something about that earlier in the story. So for the wulffs, maybe his best friend had a scar from them.
For your story, maybe you can have the legends being mentioned in a book your character might have been reading, or if he/she was in a library, maybe the librarian was caught reading something about it.
Or if this is top secret information (the legends) you can have your character eavesdrop or overhear two people that are important to these trials talking about it. Then you can have your character recall them speaking, and racking his/her brain trying to remember what the two people were saying and eventually remember.
These are wonderful ideas. I especially love the library idea.
I’m not sure why subtlety is necessary in this case. If legends are a big part of this world, you can be bold about them. In the case of the wulffs, I was imagining that they weren’t very important, just one more danger for an MC who is already in a perilous situation. If I were writing a story in which wulffs were one of the main plot strands I’d introduce them more powerfully.
I’m guessing, so I may have what you’re doing all wrong, but if the legends are part of the culture of this society, then everyone knows them. There are lots of possibilities for introducing them to the reader. For example, the story can start with your MC being told them by her grandfather when she’s a child. The reader feels both the terror of the tales and the comfort of the grandfather’s rumbling voice, maybe the feel of his dry hand stroking her forehead, and the taste of the hot ginger tea he’s prepared for her. Then we flash forward to the present where the body of the story will take place.
The only trouble with this approach is that if the trials are a hundred pages in the future, by the time the reader gets there, he may have forgotten the details of the legends and may need to be reminded in the narrative or in the MC’s thoughts.
Or, the story starts in the present. The legends are mentioned once or twice in the narrative or hinted at in dialogue. When we come to the trials, there can be some kind of ceremony during which the first legend can be recited by someone who has that role in the community. Action stops for the recitation.
For me, as a reader, I don’t mind the cessation of action for a legend. Just the word, legend, puts me in a receptive state. Mmm, delicious, I think. The recitation runs its course, and then the trial takes place. Trial over, we’re ready for the next legend.
The only problem I can see is that we don’t want the reader to be lulled by the format into a sense of security. We don’t want him to think that the MC is going to succeed because there are two more legends coming up, so we have to work in tension, maybe with dialogue about promising candidates of the past who’ve failed the tests. Maybe with suggestions that new candidates step up regularly. If our MC fails, someone else will come forward. Or in our MC’s worried thoughts. Or in the legends themselves, which incorporate a dismal record of failure. Maybe no one has ever succeeded.
Another way to go would be to start the story with a legend in third person from a voice that’s outside the ordinary narration. What’s told could be one of the trial legends or a creation myth for the entire culture. Starting this way would prepare the reader for the story to be stopped occasionally for legends.
Here’s a caution about dialogue, which also appears in Writing Magic. If everyone in this world knows the legends, we have to be cautious about how we put them in our dialogue. It sounds unnatural when characters talk to one another about matters they already know. Brandon is unlikely to say to Jenna, “Remember how in the Legend of the Fish seven carp will swim in a circle?”
And Jenna answers, “Yeah. They swim so fast a funnel is created for the contestant to dive into. That’s the beginning of the trial.”
This is just information for the reader, not real dialogue, unless they’re explaining to a foreigner. But if not, we have to find another way.
However, if the legend is complicated, there could reasonably be disagreement about the details. Brandon might say, “Remember how in the Legend of the Fish seven carp will–“
Jenna can interrupt with, “Six carp.”
They can argue over the number until Sura breaks in. “Stop counting carp. I’m hungry.” The action moves on, but when we get to the trial the difference in the fish count is important, and the reader remembers the number, because we’ve highlighted it with the dispute.
There may be many other ways to introduce the legends. If you think of some, you can post them.
Here are three prompts:
• Let’s say that a week after the number-of-carp debate, Sura is chosen as the candidate to undergo the trials. Her lack of interest in the details of the legend becomes a factor in her performance. She has to enter the funnel to get to an underwater (dry) prehistoric world where she has to find the only talking dinosaur, who can answer a question vital to the survival of her people. Write the trial, keeping in mind her flaw.
• Or, Sura, the chosen one again, enters the funnel when only six carp have created it, without waiting for the arrival of the seventh. The funnel isn’t strong enough to hold. Write what happens. What other strengths might she have to offset her heedlessness?
• Write the legend of the carp and the underwater kingdom as the introduction to your story. Move into the narrative with characters and the upcoming trials. Get us worried, then interrupt the story with the next legend. Keep going.
Have fun, and save what you write!