Let’s get one thing straight right now – writing isn’t easy.
It’s a personal project. And we always get more critical, attached, and emotional about things personal to us.
Then there’s plotting. Unless you’re someone like the late, great J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s best to have a sense of direction, you’ve got to know where the story is going, what the characters are working towards, and the size of the project.
But even when you’ve got everything organised, you’ve got your plot ready, and your mind is in that perfect state of ‘creative yet critical’, the real challenge begins – getting the first words out.
So, how do you start? A shocking revelation? A snappy conversation? Some stunning imagery? Or a simple thought or action from your protagonist? There are so many ways, but some will be more effective than others – it all depends on what story you want to tell.
At University, we were always told to ‘start the story at the latest possible moment’. Cut the crap about Mr Brown buttering his toast and trimming his nose hair before work, and start at the moment he realises a bomb’s about to go off at the office. Or maybe even after the bomb has gone off. Seems a simple task, right? Unless you’re writing a fantasy story.
Fantasy changes all the rules. Here, you don’t just have to introduce the plot and characters, you have to introduce the very world that plot is taking place in. Imagine telling the story of ‘Trainspotting’ to an alien, who doesn’t understand what things like heroin, Glasgow, cigarettes, H I V, and football are?
Put it into practice. If Mr Brown was called ‘Ex-megazorf’, his office was called ‘The Lanzadar Project’ and the bomb was an ‘Emberglow’, I’d need to take the time to explain what each of those things are, because let’s face it, the phrase ‘Ex-megazorf reached The Lanzadar Project just as the Emberglow erupted’ creates far many more questions than it solves. No one wants to read an intro like that – and for good reason.
But then there’s the opposite sin of over-explaining everything so that your story resembles a thesaurus or encyclopaedia of the world you’re writing about; and putting your reader to sleep while you’re at it. If nothing is actually happening, just concepts, worlds and events being info-dumped to the reader, they aren’t going to make it past the first page.
Obviously, these rules apply mostly in the media of novel-writing. With film (and graphic novels) you can portray so much in the visuals; doing away with much of the tedious descriptions and throwing your audience into the plot straight away. But it still has to feel real, even two of my favourite TV shows ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ are guilty of some of the sins I’ve talked about. The very first moments of Buffy feature a nasal narrator explaining ‘the rules of the Slayer,’ while Game of Thrones was heavily criticised throughout the first few seasons for ‘sexposition’; lazily dumping expositional plot points on the reader during sex scenes. Heck, Jaime Lannister’s first few words of dialogue are ‘As your brother, I feel it is my duty to warn you…’
Really? There wasn’t a more interesting way to introduce the relationship between Jaime and his sister? Who talks like that? Who would feel the need the casually drop their sibling status into a conversation with someone they have known their whole life? It’s clunky dialogue, and it breaks the age-old sin of story-telling; ‘show don’t tell.’
‘Show don’t tell’ is a way of introducing characters, moods and relationships without obvious, expositional statements. It’s something that can be done through dialogue occasionally, but the dialogue has to be believable. A clever way to introduce a fantasy world or concept is through the ‘fish out of water’ character trope. Some effective examples are Ellen Page’s character ‘Ariadne’ in ‘Inception’, and ‘Tidus’ in the RPG ‘Final Fantasy X’. Both serve as the audience’s eyes and ears at parts of their respective stories; as newcomers in an alien world or construct. That way, they can ask questions that we, the audience, would ask, without it seeming out of character, because they are experiencing the same things for the first time, just like us.
But hey, rules are meant to be broken, right? In hindsight, this all seems a bit hypocritical of me, as I probably broke every single rule I’ve just mentioned at some point during the Aeronautica project. In fact, there’s no probability about it. When we first started, we rushed together an intro to show to a prominent independent comic writer at a seminar in Salford. It was awful. He was awful. We were awful. Everything was awful. But as bad as the experience was, it did set us on a different path to telling Aeronautica as the story we wanted it to be. We initially started the graphic novel with Petrus staring out of the ship in a hectic chase scene, with loads of fantasy jargon thrown in for good measure. It was messy, confusing and lazy story-writing, and no wonder we got grilled so much by the guy running the seminar.
So we took a deep breath, stripped it all back, and took the ‘fish out of water’ concept in a new direction…
Now, Petrus is on the verge of a big discovery, he’s hopeful of a whole new life for him and his family, and by writing a letter to his very young children, we can break our world down into manageable pieces that young children – and our audience – can easily follow, all while setting up character relationships, plot direction, and world-building.
And yeah, it isn’t quite as exciting as a hectic chase scene, and there are times when we ‘tell and don’t show’, but it works for the the story we’re trying to do.
And hey, Lucinda laughs at the idea, anyway. See, we’re self-aware.