This continues last week’s post with the rest of Nicole’s questions and Christie V Powell’s responses:
Q#2-How much essential information should I include in the first few paragraphs (or chapters) of my story? When I try to introduce essential info, it always comes out in a jumbled mess and makes no sense whatsoever. How do I spread out the info across the plot?
Q#3- I want to make the beginnings interesting, but sometimes I want to avoid action as an opener and introduce the plot calmly. How do I do that without losing the reader after the first sentence?
From Christie V Powell:
2 For introducing information, I’d suggest looking at some of your favorite sequels and see how they summarize the story before and how much they put in. Sometimes it helps to use a “Watson character,” someone who has no idea what’s going on and so needs to have things explained. You can also add short flashbacks if they have to do with the subject at hand: showing her home in flames to explain why she can’t go back, for instance. I found that I knew too much about the story and didn’t know what needed to be said, so I had some new readers look at it and tell me where I needed to explain things.
3 Ella Enchanted doesn’t start with action. The first chapter is a quick summary of her life and what brought her to this point. And yet we love it. Having an interesting voice helps a lot–I’m not sure it would have worked in 3rd person, for instance. I think the important thing is that there’s conflict, whether or not it involves action. Ella is pitted against her curse–there’s conflict right from the beginning, even though she’s not fighting ogres or something.
Thank you, Christie V Powell for the kind words about Ella Enchanted!
What follows will jump around between Q#2 and Q#3.
Looking for help in beloved books can be instructive, as Christie V Powell suggests, and these don’t have to be sequels. Any admired fantasy will do.
In some of his Discworld books, Terry Pratchett starts with background about his universe. It’s not action, but the strangeness of this world draws me in. The appeal is intellectual more than emotional. I want to know more about a flat world that rides on the back of four elephants who stand on a giant turtle, so I start turning pages.
That’s one strategy, to think about the universe we’re operating in and what might most surprise the reader, and then we can state it directly. This is probably easiest to do in third person. In first, the reader may wonder how the MC knows that other universes exist. However, we can set the stage in third person and then shift to first for the rest of the story if that’s our preference.
Further along in his books, Pratchett sometimes gives information in footnotes, which are usually humorous. I love them, but they do take me out of the unfolding action–though I don’t care. I’m a total fan. When I read a Pratchett book I abandon myself to whatever he throws at me in whatever form he throws it.
We can do something similar. We can use footnotes or sidebars or information in outlined boxes. But what we reveal in these asides has to be worth it–has to feel key to understanding or has to charm on its own and can’t take more words than are strictly necessary–or the reader will start skipping.
In her famous beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Austen starts out as calm as pudding with irony and an abstract principle: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
This isn’t fantasy, but the early nineteenth century is in some ways more distant and different from our own world than anything our early twenty-first century minds can create out of thin air.
I can’t resist Austen’s beginning, not even after umpteen readings. The first time I read it, my response was, Huh? Let me look at that again. Then it was, Ha! And then: Single man? Wife? Romance coming up. I’m in.
So we can even start with an abstraction, if it’s interesting.
Humor always works for me. A beginning can be devoid of action, but if it’s funny, I will give what follows a chance.
Despite my admiration for Terry Pratchett, I’ve never used his direct delivery approach. I tend to throw readers in at the deep end, swim or sink. In a way, entering the world of a book is like learning a language, and I prefer the immersion method. I’m not aware of this while I’m writing. I know the territory, so I just write as though the reader does, too. I assume that if what’s going on is just comprehensible enough and interesting enough, he’ll want to soldier on.
But I confused the copy editor for the Two Princesses prequel, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, and she had lots of questions. On one, my editor wrote in response to let it go because an information dump early in the story wouldn’t work. (I think she’d agree it never works, no matter when it appears.) In other cases, my editor asked me to address the copy editor’s question in the manuscript. But when I did, I dropped the info in quickly, as minimally as possible, a sentence, a phrase, rarely a paragraph. And sometimes, I confess, I thought the copy editor’s questions came out of nothing more than curiosity, because the answers weren’t essential to the story, and sometimes they just over-complicated what was going on. So I ignored ‘em.
If we don’t want to start with action, we can begin with character. Say our MC Katya is a kitchen wench in the king’s castle. The book opens with her chopping vegetables and imagining a conversation between the carrots and the onions. The reader will learn about her, both because she’s someone who wonders what veggies think and from the speeches she gives them. We can even make the reader like or dislike her depending on the words she puts in the veggies’ not-mouths. And we can drop in some hints at future conflict even though we haven’t introduced it directly.
We can open with actual conversation, but we should resist the urge to make our characters say what they already know just to inform the reader, because that sort of conversation is forced.
Katya’s best friend, Mark, who serves crumpets to the prime minister, can come into the kitchen and stop for a moment at Katya’s chopping board. Mark can tell about the mouse that ran over the queen’s slippers at breakfast. Katya knows nothing of this, so their dialogue will be fresh. We can drop in impressions of characters who are going to figure in our story, and we can show the relationship between the friends, which will be revealing about both.
Let’s use this example to show how we can slip in information without our story grinding to a halt. Suppose in the anecdote Mark tells Katya, the mouse jumped from the slippers to the table and ran across one of the golden plates. The reader thinks, Golden plates? Why does that seem familiar? Mark adds, “That’s when Her Majesty fainted.” Now we’ve highlighted our clue by the fainting. Katya says, “What about the baby?” The reader thinks, There’s a baby? I think I recognize this story. Mark can answer, “Oh, she slept right through it.” That will probably drive the nail home: golden plates + girl baby + good sleeper = “Sleeping Beauty.”
Here are three prompts:
∙ Write the veggie-chopping scene and the imagined carrot-onion discussion and make the reader dislike Katya, who may be the villain in the coming tale. If you like, keep going.
∙ Begin your story with Katya in the castle kitchen and subtly introduce a different fairy tale, maybe “Snow White” or “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” In this version, she can be likable or not–your choice.
∙ Begin your story with an abstract principle. You can use an adage like “A stitch in time saves nine,” or borrow from ancient Greek philosophy with this from Democritus: “The world is change; life is opinion.” Or anything else that interests you.
Have fun, and save what you write!