Those of us who endeavor to write speculative fiction sometimes have to translate or transpose literary rules, if they are to be of any use to us. One of these effects how we begin our stories. In medias res. Come in with a bang? OK. But, hang on, I’ve got all this world-building to do. How do I drop the reader onto a moving train (dragon or spaceship) and world-build at the same time? Let’s have a look:
Planet of Exile, Ursula K. Le Guin
“In the last days of the last moonphase of Autumn a wind blew from the northern ranges through the dying forests of Askatevar, a cold wind that smelled of smoke and snow. Slight and shadowy as a wild animal in her light furs, the girl Rolery slipped through the woods, through the storming of dead leaves, away from the walls that stone by stone were rising on the hillside of Tevar and from the busy fields of the last harvest. She went alone and no one called after her. She followed a faint path that led west, scored and rescored in grooves by the passing southward of the footroots, choked in places by fallen trunks or huge drifts of leaves.
Where the path forked at the foot of the Border Ridge she went on straight, but before she had gone ten steps she turned back quickly towards a pulsing rustle that approached from behind.
A runner came down the northward track, bare feet beating in the surf of leaves, the long string that tied his hair whipping behind him. From the north he came at a steady, pounding, lung-bursting pace, and never glanced at Rolery among the trees but pounded past and was gone. The wind blew him on his way to Tevar with his news-storm, disaster, winter, war… . Incurious, Rolery turned and followed her own evasive path, which zigzagged upward among the great, dead, groaning trunks until at last on the ridge-top she saw sky break clear before her, and beneath the sky the sea.
The dead forest had been cleared from the west face of the ridge. Sitting in the shelter of a huge stump, she could look out on the remote and radiant west, the endless gray reaches of the tidal plain, and, a little below her and to the right, walled and red-roofed on its sea-cliffs, the city of the farborns.”
This beautifully achieved start to “Planet of Exile” immediately sets the scene, the time and the place. Rolery is on her way to do something out of the ordinary, forbidden maybe. Her world seems to be on the verge of some dangerous change. We are shown her movements and those of others in the world around her. The object of her desire is glimpsed. Three hundred and twenty words.
Pulling back the cover of a book or clicking the link to a short story is to start fresh. To wake up after a long sleep or coma, as wise editor/teacher Hannah Tinti describes it. As author, you are the person in the room when I wake. You are either the loved one sitting beside my bed who has known me for years, and who has full knowledge of what put me in the coma in the first place, or you are a child who found me unconscious, who understands only snippets of what happened and who is worried mainly about the location of your lost bicycle. You might be the doctor about to inject me with an unknown substance in a dark, windowless room.
Who you as author/narrator choose to be will determine how much and what kind of information you give me upon waking into your world. In order for things to proceed without frustration, you should give me enough solidity of place for me to get my bearings and enough information about the reasons this story is being told (character motivation) for me to want to keep my eyes open. And unless you make me feel confident in the telling (that even if you’re not telling me everything right now, you know what you’re talking about and will get me there eventually), I may feel safer dropping back into my coma (putting down your book).
Railsea, by China Mieville
“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
There he stands, swaying as utterly as any windblown sapling. He is quite, quite red. If only that were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they were once, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.
Only his eyes stand out. The white of each almost glows against the gore, lightbulbs in a dark room. He stares with great fervour at nothing.
The situation is not as macabre as it sounds. The boy isn’t the only bloody person there: he’s surrounded by others as red & sodden as he. And they are cheerfully singing.
The boy is lost. Nothing has been solved. He thought it might be. He had hoped that this moment might bring clarity. Yet his head is still full of nothing, or he knows not what.
We’re here too soon. Of course we can start anywhere; that’s the beauty of the tangle, that’s its very point. But where we do and don’t begin has its ramifications, and this right now is not the best chosen. Into reverse: let this engine go back. Just to before the boy was bloodied, there to pause and go forward again to see how we got here, to red, to music, to chaos, to a big question mark in a young man’s head.”
I’ll state up front that I have an uncomfortable relationship with any sort of time jump at the start of a story. Some part of me can’t help but feel there is trickery in it, a bit of cheating—oh sure, jump to the exciting bit then back peddle. What I’m saying is, there’d better be a good reason for it.
Here’s what suspicious-cynical-me first thinks: ‘oh sure, put red and blood in the first sentence! Red sells they say and blood compels us all!’ So, why use Railsea here? Because what story-hungry-reader-me thinks is: ‘what is this boy in the middle of and why?’ Mieville states openly that this provocative moment is not where the narrative will begin (this is the book’s Preface), so I do not feel tricked. It is a flash forward within the flashback to come. Also, these are the most succinct and compelling 230 words I’ve read in a long time.
With poetic skill, Mieville’s narrator lowers into the story from above. And despite the initial distance from events, the telling flows (like blood!) toward the upcoming action, horrible but not so horrible, I am assured. It is safe to go on—or back, and then on again from there. This narrator is a clever, possibly cagey adult, telling me just enough about what I’ve missed (while in my coma) to keep me awake, but not enough to overwhelm me with all the ways in which the world changed. He’ll get me there, safely, in time.
So, speculative author, consider the following: given your story, what type of person are you aiming to wake from a coma today? Does he or she want you to tell the story straight on from just before they lost consciousness, like the narrator in Planet of Exile? Or would they like certain questions answered before others, to jump in time or place, like the narrator in Railsea? What kind of narrator are you? Will you set the scene as it is underway, at the moment when things change? If you do, you may well have a better chance of keeping your readers’ eyes open, of making us click or scroll or lick our fingers to turn the page.