When I was at Westercon over this last weekend I was part of a number of discussions, and one in particular about the importance of details in setting up a story world. This post immediately leapt to mind. It's about integrating character, world, and the beginning of the story in the form of the inciting event.
I've been thinking a bit about inciting events. An inciting event is generally the event that propels you into the main conflict of your story. My friend Janice Hardy mentions it in a great blog post, here (as many of you already know, her blog has tons of great information on the process of writing and on getting published). In her words, "The inciting event is the trigger that sets the rest of the story in motion." She treats it separately from the opening scene, but I'm not sure the two are necessarily separate. When trying to hook your reader, it's good to plunge into the inciting event as early as possible. I've spent a lot of time in my writing career working on the question of where to start my stories, and believe me, it can be tricky - but it's worth thinking seriously about.
Where I want to take this topic in a particularly TalkToYoUniverse direction is by linking the inciting event to the issue of worldbuilding. When you're thinking about how to open your story in a science fiction or fantasy context, you have to take into account both your need to hook the reader, and your need to introduce your world.
We all know the dreaded word, infodumping. We all know we want to avoid it. But how do we go about creating a scene where this information doesn't need to be explained? How do we make it so the information is simply evident in the action?
First, use your POV character. Make sure you know the character's background, culture and motivations to the fullest extent possible, so that you can use the character to help you convey information. This is what I call making your world personal. Think about what your characters care about, and what they don't care about - where they are especially attentive or where they have blind spots and weaknesses. All of these things can become your tools, as you can imbue your narration with a dismissive or contemptuous tone, or a bubbly enthusiasm, or what have you.
Next comes the tougher, more subtle step: working in the things that the character considers normal. Things that are totally normal, entirely obvious to the character, are not things you want him or her to talk about. Talking about obvious things leads to completely cringe-worthy "As you know, Bob" dialog, and we don't want that.
So here's the question: How can we possibly describe the basic parameters of our worlds, when we know that to our character, so much is entirely unremarkable?
The answer is, use conflict and contrast. I have an example of this done simply and elegantly for a real-world scenario, here.
In fact, there's a beautiful convergence here: the inciting event, the trigger for the core conflict of the novel, very often is all about the precise type of conflict that can let you give out world information.
Here's an example from the drafting stage of my story, "Cold Words" (Analog, October 2009). [I read from it at Westercon and it was so much fun!] Consider the list of events below and ask yourself which one is the best to use for an opening scene:
1. A Human ambassador inadvertently insults the Majesty of the Aurrel, placing a spaceport negotiation in danger.
2. The native liaison asks the Humans to send away the failed ambassador and get a new one.
3. The Human ambassador comes to the native liaison to tell him that he's worried about the motives of the replacement ambassador.
4. The native liaison goes to the Majesty to report the impending arrival of the replacement ambassador and try to rescue the spaceport negotiation.
I wouldn't choose 1 or 2. Any event that occurs before a significant lull, like waiting for a replacement ambassador to arrive, is less optimal because it will require a time break and reduce forward momentum. Furthermore, even though the incident of insult is interesting, it would be hard for readers to understand without significant previous context - which, since this is the first scene, they can't possibly have.
When I wrote my first draft, I chose 4. The story is told in the point of view of Rulii, the native liaison, and thus the main motivating force in the story is Rulii's desire to complete the spaceport negotiation successfully (for his own secret reasons). Why not start where you see him pressing his suit with the Majesty, a place where he can show his intense desire for success and share it with the reader?
The answer to that question is this: if he's alone with the Majesty, he's in a completely native context where everything is normal. And that means that every piece of normal world information will be really difficult to put in.
So in the end, I chose 3. There's conflict in that scene, because the human ambassador brings a warning that may put the negotiation at even deeper risk. More importantly for this discussion, though, scene #3 puts our native liaison in direct contact with a human. There's conflict, and there's contrast. There are opportunities for the human ambassador to demonstrate his own cultural biases, and for Rulii to remark on them, thus putting his own world forward for readers to explore. Better yet, the sense of contrast continues forward as he goes to see Majesty, because with the human interaction foremost in his mind, Rulii is more likely to remark on the quirky cultural things inherent in their interaction.
So, when you're looking at your own stories, consider the kinds of conflict or contrast opportunities that appear in the opening scene as you've written it, and then ask yourself how you could tune the circumstances of that scene to make your job easier.
Finally, in the spirit of making a world personal, I'm posting this list of eleven questions [which also appears in the "Know Your Character Inside and Out" post at left]. You've probably seen questions like these before, but worldbuilding questions are often phrased in a very impersonal way, and that's not what I'm trying to do here. All of these questions are deliberately phrased to relate directly to a protagonist's view of the world, and participants in my workshops have found it a helpful exercise to answer them using the voice of their POV characters.
Here are the questions:
1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries?
2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What do I fear?
3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort?
4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What shapes and textures give me comfort, or discomfort?
5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both?
6. How do I show who I am in the way I dress? What is comfortable? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of looking good or looking powerful?
7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?
8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?
9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?
10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?
11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?
I hope you may find this exercise helpful in your writing process.