Author’s Corner/Spotlight: Kenya Wright author of Fire Baptized has written an article for OBS, giving writers advice on techniques. Thanks Kenya! Check out her website.
Fantasy and sci-fi authors have a difficult task when writing their first chapter. Unlike other genres, the universe’s rules must be introduced at the beginning of the story as well as the main characters and plot. Surely, it would be simple for the author to just dump paragraphs of the rules right at the beginning, but that would bore the reader, so authors employ creative ways to present their world. From reading and writing these genres, I’ve found three techniques that help display a fantasy or sci-fi world without making the reader fall asleep and put the book down.
Make Every Word Count
Every word in a sentence, scene, and chapter must be significant and help move the story along. In the first chapter, you should only include the information that the reader must know at that time in the story. Dumping large paragraphs of world building and character back story will turn off the reader. Therefore, you have to make sure every word used is important to the present scene and reveals valuable information to the reader. Let’s look at the first sentence in my book Fire Baptized.
“I raced past the university’s gates, splashing water onto homeless Vampires.”
Five of my world’s rules are revealed in one sentence. The reader is told that this is no ordinary world because (Holy batman!) there are homeless Vampires hanging around a university. The fact that the Vampires are homeless informs the reader that this is a universe filled with poverty that even supernaturals can’t avoid.
The main character is running past a university so the audience can assume that the society is somewhat advanced with reading and writing. Additionally, the Vampires are outside so most likely it is night time. Water is being splashed so this is not a desert or barren land, at the very least it rains. I could have written five sentences presenting these world rules, but the effect would have been a dull narrative. The last thing you want to do is give the reader a dull fantasy voyage.
Limit Your Metaphors
Avid fantasy and sci-fi readers understand that they will slowly be given the world’s rules. They pay attention to each detail, using them as clues to how the world works. Everything will be taken literally. Let’s look at a popular metaphor and put it in the context of fantasy and sci-fi.
“Men’s words are bullets, that their enemies take up and make use of against them.”
(George Savile, Maxims)
If this sentence was introduced in the chapter of a fantasy or sci-fi novel, there would be some readers that assumed words really are like bullets. It actually wouldn’t be a bad assumption. Magical spells are in fact a bunch of specific words spoken to achieve a particular outcome. Therefore, one can easily assume that men’s words can harm each other and be used against their enemies.
I’m not saying that fantasy and sci-fi writers can never apply metaphors within a story. However, if the rules of your world aren’t fully established, then consider avoiding metaphors until it is. Once the reader is familiar with the world, then metaphors are fine.
Display Your Character’s Power
If your main characters have powers or some amazing ability that they will use throughout the story, then present them in the first few chapters. Perhaps your character can create water from his hands. You can have the character flood a city or make water appear in a glass. It is up to you as the writer on how subtle or extreme you want the presentation to be.
Regardless, I believe it is important for the reader to know about the character’s powers early because it reveals more about that universe. In my book Fire Baptized, I display my main character’s powers in the first chapter. Lanore can create and control fire. At the beginning of the chapter she is forced to defend herself by making several fireballs. By showing Lanore’ s fire power I have presented more clues that tell the reader this is not your regular world or girl.
In conclusion, these are three great techniques to introduce your world’s rules and characters in the first chapter. Additionally, reading great fantasy and sci-fi books are necessary to improve your craft. I have heard a successful author proclaim that a writer should read fifty books for each novel that he or she writes. I don’t think there is an exact science but reading a lot of books in the genre you’re writing in, is a must. Each book would be a great example of how authors reveal their universe to readers.