A disclaimer before we start today: I know nothing, Jon Snow. I am offering the following merely as the opinion of a layperson who has not, for the record, published a single book – not as a treatise of indisputable fact. So it’s entirely possible that the words lying in wait below may be a complete and utter waste of the precious time I’ve requested of you. But please try to give them some consideration before you sit down to your next draft. Trust me, I have been there and done that and I want to try to steer you away from the rocky shores I know lie in wait. Put simply, you need to stop opening your stories with massive information dumps.
Across the Interwebs lies a plethora of sites where authors both experienced and perenially aspiring have posted excerpts of their books – usually the first chapter – for ongoing perusal and feedback. As a veteran lurker I’ve thumbed through a copious number of them, and as my own interest is in writing fantasy (at least for the time being; I’m not limiting the scope of future projects) those tend to be the ones I zero in on. And it pains me to point out that a great many fall victim to the curse of the information dump. The following is my own pastiche, but let me know if any of it rings familiar:
Prince Xakhar Tazeros, half-dragon Ninth Regent of the Grobulan Confederacy of United Independent Feudal Kingdoms, was seventeenth in line to the throne of Erador. Erador was one of three countries fighting for dominance of the island of Makteros, the only source of the prized mineral hermulite, which was needed to forge the precious Lion Scimitars that were wielded by the ancient warrior race of Qobari. The Qobari Order, descended from the first colonists of Zathan, were the finest combatants that had ever walked beneath the twin suns and possessed the secret martial art of sha’Kaj, which allowed them to possess the forms of trees and plants and turn them against their enemies. One of their most formidable foes was Duchess Zalana, Prince Xakhar’s blood-sister and a sorceress of considerable power, who had long held a grudge against the Qobari and sought to wipe them out. Zalana drew her magic from the Goddess Ia, matron of darkness and one of the Six Gods of Grobular, along with Gatharsa, Yelene, Mq’mal, Rappan and X’gi. The Six Gods were worshipped on every continent except the sub-lands of Serkana, whose belief system operated on a belief in the divinity of blades of grass. Xakhar and Zalana were descendants of the last King of Shocen, who had died in a battle against the Qobari twenty-nine semicycles ago…
Are you still awake? Hope so, but if you’re not, I’m not surprised. Granted, this was a bit over the top, but this is the feeling I sometimes get in reading some of these manuscripts-in-progress. I am in awe – SHEER JAW-DROPPED AWE, I tell you, of the imaginations that can craft these complex worlds that are at once both familiar and alien. I can’t do it. I just come up with silly names like Grobular. But what usually happens is that the writers get so caught up in spilling out these intricate details that they forget to tell a story. Go back and read that paragraph again and note that nothing happens. It’s just fact after fact laid out for you with excruciating precision and at no point does the story start moving. Theoretically, everything I wrote there was important to the telling of the story that is to follow, but rather than introduce this stuff organically, I threw it at you like a bucketload of baseballs. And there’s nothing there to keep you reading unless you really want to know how the last King of Shocen died (fell off his six-legged zorse into a pit of hungry hoopdehars).
Let’s try this again.
CHAPTER ONE (revised)
Xakhar removed his blood-soaked Lion Scimitar from the face of the dead Makterosian soldier, thinking that while his headache of this morning had not eased, it was certainly preferable to that which his opponent had just suffered. Xakhar slid the blade back into his scabbard and cast his gaze upward to the angry, swirling clouds which blotted most of the light from the twin suns, the storm the result of the spell cast by his blood-sister. When they were small they fought over toys or the last slice of dessert; it bemused Xakhar to note that while the scale of their battles had escalated considerably to include thousands of innocent casualties, the stakes had more or less remain unchanged. Zalana still wanted his toys – the kingdom-shaped ones, naturally – and she was not above using her magic to wipe out anyone who stood between her and the prize she sought. As he looked skyward, he could see her evil smile in the curve of the clouds, hear her mocking laughter in the thunder, and feel the might of her anger in each crash of lightning. “Going to be one of those days,” Xakhar said to himself. He glanced down at the soldier’s bisected face. “You got off easy.”
Okay, while this is still not the most magnificent prose ever crafted, at least we have some sense of Xakhar as a character, the world he occupies, and the conflict that is likely to form the spine of the story. We’ve hacked out most of the unnecessary exposition and placed a character in the middle of a tense situation. And while the setting is still alien, the situation is more understandable on a human level. Troubled dude with a jealous, possibly insane sister who won’t leave him alone. This has potential. It still needs to go through the rewrite oven a few times, but we can work with this.
If you’re writing a detective novel, you can usually get away with the most minimal of introductions to your world. “It was raining in San Francisco that Thursday afternoon.” Everyone grasps the setting almost immediately. Unfortunately, a fantasy or SF author has no such privilege. The world and the rules must be established early to provide a point of reference that the reader can latch onto. How do you do that? Well, less is more. And this is where 007 can be of assistance.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen at least one James Bond movie. So I’m guessing that most of you reading this are familiar with the basic Bond structure and the pre-titles teaser sequence, which is usually a huge action setpiece that may or may not relate to the main story. You can even argue that it takes its inspiration from William Shakespeare, who almost always begins his plays with a scene involving minor characters before getting on with business. This stylistic invention was, like many things, a creation born of practical necessity – audiences in Elizabethan England would take forever to settle down and pay attention to the stage, so Shakespeare put a bit of fluff at the start to give the rowdy masses a chance to cool it without really missing anything important. The Bond teaser is meant to grab the audience by the metaphorical balls and reintroduce them to their favorite hero in smashing, not drawn-out, polysyllabic style, and much in the same way as the Bard, doesn’t start laying out the important plot until after the main titles. So it’s okay if you’re still distracted a bit when things first start up. After the explosions and the power ballad is when the real story will begin.
My modest suggestion, then, is to “steal from the best” and open with a scene that will introduce a strong character – preferably your protagonist – in a situation where they are forced to do something active instead of idling and recounting the tales of twenty-eight generations of their ancestry. (Think about it – how realistic is this? Do we go to work each morning thinking in exacting detail about the sheer scope of our family bloodline?) The other thing too is that the more of this stuff you hold back in the beginning, the more mystery there will be around your character, the more tantalizing secrets to reveal. When I was first drafting my novel, I fell into this trap. I had the heroine tell you in the first chapter exactly who she was, where she came from and why she could do the things that she could. When I realized as noted above that no one goes around thinking these things about themselves on an average day, I started hacking those parts out, and finding that my leading lady was consequently a lot more interesting – because now you wanted to read on to find the answers.
When you’re world-building, don’t throw it all at us at once, in a blizzard of arcane references and unpronounceable names. Focus on movement, wants, and action, and sprinkle in details where they are relevant. Or, to use a cooking metaphor, use them like spices and not the main ingredient. Come into the story in medias res (in the middle of things, for the non-Latin speakers/non-English majors among us). And if you can open with a Bond-esque, rip-roaring cracker of a scene, with peril and tension and stuff blowing up, more power to you. The aim is to hook us, not give us a history lecture.
Verdict, ladies and gentlemen? Am I on to something here or merely blowing smoke?