Occasionally, I take a break from reading or listening to fantasy and sci-fi novels. Switching between the two helps keep things fresh, each acting as a sort of neutralizing force against the other (breaking physics with fantasy, trying to make them seem plausible in sci-fi, you know the routine), but then there are the times when I’ve listened to a huge series or singular behemoths and I have to step back and ground myself in reality. This might take the form of listening to backlogs of a podcast for a week as I drive around, something light and funny, or perhaps I’ll delve into a non-fiction book which has been suggested to me.
Most recently, this has taken the form of Ken Jennings’ book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. Jennings, for those who somehow weren’t aware of or were too young at the time to remember, was and still is the longest-reigning champion in the history of the game show Jeopardy!, racking up seventy-four wins and over 2.5 million dollars of prize money. He solidified his place in quiz show history and the hearts of those who watched him demolish the competition night after night, and has gone on to use his talents to help others. The book is very interesting, and highlights how our understanding of the world – as well as much of our common phrases and habits – are tied to geography, and while I want to go into what he said about maps in fantasy another time, there’s a phrase which has gotten stuck in my mind that I’m more eager to expand on for the present: the fantasy Learning Curve.
Fantasy and Science Fiction, in their own different yet similar ways, are not books you open up and passively glide through. Well, perhaps that’s not universally the case – there might be some novels which are easier to skim than others, but for the most part there is a definite learning curve one must ride in order to understand the world you’re in and the magic or technology presented to you. It’s part of what makes these genres so enjoyable: you must not only find out what’s going on in the story, but how everything ticks and where people are in this vastly different version of reality. It’s why maps are so invaluable, receiving places of prominence in the first few pages after the table of contents or inside the front and/or back cover(s). Particularly savvy authors will also include an index of terms and place names in the back, which cause some fantasy nerds to go absolutely ballistic. Jennings referenced Brandon Sanderson, prominent fantasy author and his former roommate, who absolutely loved this aspect of fantasy books, and has always made sure to include such resources in his own work.
This learning curve is a signature of the cousin genres – sci-fi and fantasy – a rite of passage through every novel’s first act or so which fans pride themselves on overcoming and enjoy dealing with to reach an understanding of what’s happening in what they’re reading. If this learning curve were somehow taken away, it would destroy much of the reason why we take on world after world in story after story. Knowing the common themes of the cousin genres and assigning them as we go along can help, but this is something learned through years of experience, not given away at the time one is first handed a book. It’s part of what stops some people from being able to enjoy these genres, especially if they were not initiated into them at a young age. Funnily enough, my father – not the biggest fan of high fantasy, in part due to this learning curve – was the one who started me on this path when he gave me The Hobbit.
Of course, how this information is presented to the reader is vital to a novel’s success. I recently attempted to start Steven Erickson’s Gardens of the Moon, and was unable to get much further than an hour into the audio book, if even. Erickson’s book has received some good reviews, and was suggested to me on Audible’s site so often that I eventually caved and bought it. It took me a little while to get to after the impulse purchase, but when I did, I was met with a learning curve far too severe to enjoy at all. It broke something which I’m going to go ahead and call the Law of Conservation of Perspective.
What this shiny new law tells us is that, particularly while setting up exposition for a new story, the author should endeavor to:
To put it a different way, try to limit the number of characters introduced as primary PoVs during the first part of a book, but if you must have more than a few, limit the number of locations they appear in severely. This limits the amount of information a person needs to absorb beyond the basic set-up of a world and, if introduced early on, its magic/technology. Expanding later is always an option (which some authors do with admittedly reckless abandon), but even then, one should consider this law when branching out far and wide with more and more characters. This gives readers a more concise view of what’s happening and keeps authors from going crazy trying to give too many characters in too many places enough page time to remain memorable.
This might seem like a load of common sense, but Erickson’s book managed to break it both ways. In the first five chapters, four different perspectives were introduced, at least one of whom died at the end of his/her chapter. Not only that, but between each, there were time skips of varying degrees, each initiated by the relaying information – places, names, and other logistical details – concerning an ongoing war which I, as a reader just getting into the book, was neither very informed about nor interested in learning the specifics of through dry narration. These weren’t skips of days or weeks, either – these were whole months or years lost to unwieldy exposition.
I wanted to know about the characters whose eyes I had been seeing through, and learn about these events through their personal knowledge and feelings relating to them. I cared very little if General Sallyforth of the Forty-Second battalion had numerical advantage over the foe who beat him soundly at the battle of Portajohn, even if said General becomes important later in the story. That can be told to us through the eyes of the queen’s aide who we meet through her perspective, or perhaps talk between soldiers guarding the palace. I’m beginning to go off on a tangent, however, and I want to skillfully wrap around to my point, as I am ever wont to do. Before I do, though, I just want to say that I am not going to give Gardens of the Moon a score of any sort – I didn’t get though enough of it to make a sound judgement, and while there were things I did like right off the bat, I just couldn’t bear the way it was being introduced.
There are places to break from the perspective required by the story to give some sort of expositional dump or other information important to the story yet difficult to integrate smoothly to the central narrative. The first and most often used is the prologue. They are so commonly used, in fact, that when a story leads off with chapter one straight away, maybe after a brief poem or passage relating to the overall theme of the story, encompassing all of a half dozen lines, it feels somewhat abrupt. Of course, some stories don’t quite need one, especially if even the more alien concepts presented during the story are relatively mundane, something even a non-fanatic of the genre would understand. The second, used less often, is the interlude, which tells another story within the story, sometimes relating to the background of a character in the story, sometimes telling a tale which builds into something far more important further down the line. As the use of this is so uncommon, we’ll stick to the prologue for now.
To get an idea of what we’re talking about, let’s take an example of a good prologue. Though I have been challenged on this particular point, I think that one of the most stunning prologues in the entire Fantasy genre comes from Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, first installment in the sprawling series The Wheel of Time. When Lews Therin walks through his broken home, he and the structure warped by the power unleashed in his madness, there are a lot of words, names, and concepts which are thrown at the reader in quick succession. Fortunately, it is grounded by the comprehensible facts we see laid before us: there is a man who can use magic, and who has gone mad. He’s calling out for his wife, not noticing in his insanity when he steps over her body. Another man appears from nowhere and, after spewing many of the unfamiliar words and names we hear in this section, heals the madman enough that he understands where he is and what he’s done to it. In his anguish, he calls down a great power, and with his demise comes the beginning of the story proper.
Now, why is this a good prologue, and why should we want to emulate it? On the surface, it looks like an overture meant to overwhelm, but that’s part of the point. We are shown two characters as they go back and forth about matters in which they are clearly well-versed. Very little is given to explain who they are or what events lead to this point – at least none which we are expected to understand just yet as readers. It leaves us a little lost, but Jordan does something more important than making readers feel comfortable: he embeds key terms into our heads. The Dragon, Shai’Tan, Saidin, The Hundred Companions, Killer of Hope and others besides – all of these are things we will eventually be able to connect back to that scene, and the dramatic actions taken therein make it easy to remember. As the real world tells us, it is often easier to make memorable connections with traumatic events, and a madman walking through his broken home, calling out for his loved ones even as he blithely steps around their bodies, being healed in painful manner before destroying himself in his anguish… it’s a pretty dark scene Jordan leads off with. That’s what makes it so effective.
That’s what makes a good fantasy/sci-fi prologue: it shows you what the characters will be able to do – someday. Even if your band of heroes begin with a sorcerer or engineer who has already been initiated into the higher arts of their craft, it lets the author use characters who may or may not turn up again in order to hurl some important place names and special terms in the hope that they’ll stick long enough for you to have that “oh, that’s what it meant” moment, and they aren’t violating Conservation of Perspective because, after all, these likely aren’t characters you’re likely to meet again as direct points of view. You know what it feels like if you’ve reached such a point. To those unused to them, it seems like they hit the learning curve at a 90° angle, but the truth, known to those who have seen a few such introductions and continued to the end, is that it’s just a bump to let you know you’re on the ramp up and onward.
Francis van Zandt writes about writing, fantasy, and fantasy writing. Updates come once a week or so, time and inspiration allowing.