World Building

How Not to World Build in Your Opening

Wularz was the youngest son of the prominent Backth family. They lived on Knaphi, and like many others made a good living trading in Abilia, in the warmer seasons at least. Life seemed good, but Wularz’s family were oblivious to his dark secret…for three months he had been a card-carrying member of the Scisac-Clan. Today he was set to be half-blooded.

This is not the opening to my next project. These are the prototypical first three sentences I read in many a novice writers efforts at writing science fiction or fantasy.

I get it. I really do.

The Backth family has a vast and interesting history which spans for generations, and the lore of Knaphi is so incredible you could fill a companion bible with its culture.

But I’m never going to read that bible. I’m not going to hang around long enough to find out that an Abilia is a sort of cow, and that the Scisac-Clan is a street gang, and to be half-blooded means committing assault on their behalf for the first time. And it’s a damn shame I’m not going to hang on, because that all sounds like it has the potential to be a good story.

But you’ve already lost me:

  • Dropping five jargon words in the first paragraph is a red flag.

  • Naming jargon, and then writing about it in a way which sounds like I should already know what it is, is a red flag.

  • Giving supplementary information about jargon, before I even know what the original jargon even is, is a red flag.

I only need one red flag and I’m putting down the book and considering if I’ve made a bad choice. If I get hit with three flags that quick; bang, bang bang – you’re either getting deleted from my Kindle or you’re going in the bin.

magic girl

You’ve put a lot of thought into your magic-system? Think maybe we can talk about that later? Pretty please?

Maybe you think the main problem with that opening is that it was telling all that information, rather than showing. Well, let’s see how showing the same quantity of gobbledygook is just a big a turn off:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

Drospe, a full-blooded, tutted.

‘Why are you even here Wularz, you’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy Backth?’

This elicited chuckles from the other Scisac-Clan members. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years tending Abiilia have given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, and if he passed, he’d finally be half-blooded.

This is a much better opening, but it’s still got too much jargon for my liking.

As a reader, I’m frustrated this blooded thing keeps getting mentioned and I’m still in the dark, it feels like I’m the last one to a party.

The sentence about tending Abiilia giving the character a fine right hook makes perfect sense to the author, but no sense to the reader.

We’re only seven paragraphs in and we’ve managed to overwhelm, exclude, and also confuse the reader.

tap

Your jargon is water coming from a tap. It needs to drip, any faster and the sink overflows, and then you then slip and die.

Let’s fix it. Cut the mention of the family name and establish it later. Cut the mention the blooded system, and establish it later. I might even cut mention of the Scisac-Clan, and establish it later. We have got a whole book to get this stuff in after all.

Let’s see how the scene looks now:

The boy looked so pitiable, Wularz didn’t have it in him to strike him again. He was supposed to see an enemy, but all he saw was a child, no older than one of his brothers.

‘Why are you even here Wularz,’ tutted Drospe. ‘You’ve not got the balls for this kind of work. If you need extra cash why not just run home and ask Mommy?’

This elicited chuckles from the other men. Something snapped within Wularz, thoughts of his brothers faded. He had a new family now.

He struck the cowering boy again, hard enough to draw blood.

‘Well look at that,’ said Drospe. ‘All those years working on his Daddy’s farm has given Wularz here a fine right hook. You think your hot shit don’t you, Wularz? You think you got the best right hook on all of Knaphi I bet.’

Wularz ignored him. He was being baited, urged to show disrespect. This was all part of the test, it would take a better man than Drospe to make him slip up today.

Now we’re rolling. Our jargon count has gone from nine words to three, but we’ve still got the exact same scene.

Of the three jargon words that are left; two are character names. Names are pretty important in prose, duh. If your reader is only going to remember one piece of jargon by the end of your opening, it better be your weird-ass character’s name.

Anyway, that’s the end of today’s lecture. If you liked the small taste of my writing why not check out Inferna – a  web serial/writing exercise hosted for free on this blog.

Have you got any pet peeves that bother you in the first couple pages of a story? Do you have any books to recommend which ease you into the world, rather than throwing you in the deep-end? Let me know in the comments.

– H. L

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A Moment In Inferna

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Everything had gone to hell.

That was the only thing that had gone through Amarok’s head for the last hour. He’d stopped walking, stopped planning, stopped trying to find a way out of this whole mess. He stared into the distance. And something stared back.

In a gloved hand Amarok held a small canister, his last one. It was a lifeline. A last flicker of hope that he’d hold out long enough for some reprieve or rescue, but he had long since given up. He was going to die.

All around in every direction lay a wasteland of sand. Desert dunes stretched for miles upon miles. Empty. No vegetation, no noise; not a trace of what had once been here. Just sand and Amarok. And the things staring back.

If I dug here, miles down I would find a city, he thought. A city buried in sand, littered with corpses. Would the remains still be there though? It had all happened so long ago; who knew what the heat had done to them. Amarok pictured petrified bodies, mouths wide open in fear. Maybe they had been reduced to ashes, a sterile but final end. He feared his final theory was correct; they were mulch. Dripping and stagnating; nasty piles of oozing mush.

Amarok could very much feel the heat of the sun. It worked its way towards him, penetrating through his thick suit, drenching him with sweat. Breathing was becoming difficult, when he coughed his visor was sprayed with spittle, clouding his limited view.

He sighed and squeezed his last canister a little tighter.

What good would a few more days do me? He was lost. The great Amarok, lost two days into a fucking hunt. He’d got turned around, took a left somewhere instead of a right. Such a small mistake. Monstrous sandstorms would ravage the land on occasion, shifting mountains of sand and flattening others, meaning Inferna was never quite how you’d left it. The best hunters however had always been able to spot the subtleties, and Amarok was meant to have been the best of the best.

Far away in the distance, at the top of the furthest visible dune, Amarok could just about make out three figures, unmoving. Amarok knew they were watching him.

They were jet black against the horizon. For a while Amarok thought them to be an apparition of the heat, a mirage, brought on by his failing equipment. He had walked for days and they were always there, a half-a-dozen leagues away, but always there. Amarok never saw them move. The heat shimmered all around them, making them look like ghosts.

They were real. Amarok had suffered through more than a few risky hunts in his time, none anywhere close to this one, but he wasn’t a stranger to the odd mirage now and again. This was different. Whatever the figures were, they were real.

Other hunters, prodded a quiet voice in the back of his mind, not for the first time.

“No.”

Amarok cursed at his own idea. He could see the figures and they could see him. If they were other hunters, they would hail him on his radio, or, failing that, they’d surely give some sort of signal. But the radio was dead, and no matter how long he waited, or prayed, or eventually even cried; the radio had remained dead.

He stood, dropping the canister to the sand.

“What do you want!” he screamed, fists clenched at either side, knuckles white. “What do you want from me! What do you—”

He began to cough, began to choke; to die. Amarok fell to his knees and tried to breathe. Nothing. He tried again and the whole world started to fade away.

Finally a breath came. It was weak and made an unpleasant rattling noise; Amarok was sure it was his last.

It wasn’t. A second came, and eventually even a third.

Slowly, Amarok rose to his feet gripping the top of his mask. 

“I know what you want.” he whispered, eyes wide. 

Amarok ripped off his mask, and he began to scream.

The intensity of the sun was unimaginable. In an instant every inch of skin on Amarok’s head began to blister. His nose began to bleed and his eyeballs bulged horrifically as if they were about to burst. A smell of burnt hair invaded his senses as a crippling pain at the back of his skull brought him to his knees. Huge white spots blinded his vision; his hands scrambled for the discarded mask.

As soon as it was secured the sheer intensity of the heat faded, but the searing pain remained. He could feel the meat of his body, cooking. He vomited, plastering his visor. A loud ringing in his ears disturbed him most of all.

Amarok knelt like that for a while as a ruin; as broken as the city that lay buried beneath him. The pain did not stop, but eventually began to dull.

His mind was made up. He patted the sand, caressing it here and there until his hands found what he was searching for.

Amarok stood to his feet, his body shaking in fury and pain. At the back of his suit was a thick, technical panel with a canister protruding slightly from a fitted slot. Carefully, Amarok removed the now empty canister and replaced it with the one he’d found on the floor. His last one.

The suit hummed to life, cool air surrounded Amarok and offered him some small relief from his agony.

As best he could Amarok squinted into the distance through his soiled visor. The vomit smelled foul and turned his stomach, but he dared not remove the mask again.

The dark figures were right where he’d left them, not having moved an inch during the display of madness.

Amorak took a tentative step without incident, surprising himself. So far so good. 

He’d been pushing forward for days, hoping in vain for some sign of home. Now he pushed backwards, in the opposite direction, retracing his steps. Home was no longer the objective. 

An hour passed; Amorak found himself pleased with his results. He’d closed the gap between him and his stalkers considerably. Were they moving towards him too? He hadn’t seen the bastards move, but it sure seemed that way to what was left of his melted senses. Shadowy vultures, coming to claim the rewards of their careful patience.  

“You’re not coming for me,” he panted, still moving. “I’m coming for you.”