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Old 02-01-2013, 11:42 PM   #1
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Wave of Introductions

I've been reading through every SF/F SYW that comes up and I've noticed a pattern. Almost invariably, authors are introducing somewhere from 5 - 10 new names with no context in the opening chapter. Compressed example:

---

The Lothon swept quietly over the Red Ruff, finding little resistance to its Quell Calls. It was too late to raise the alarm when it dropped in front of the Gilltur Guard.

'Holy Hegnlisyth,' was all that escaped the gruff figure, before black-red blood gurgled up in his throat.

The Wakening had begun.

---

As a reader, I have no clue what's going on. Are the-royal-we doing that now? Should I be skipping over explanation of new ideas and names in favor of throwing the reader into the waves of terminology, like chum to the sharks?

Personally, I'm not all about it - if the general tone didn't make that obvious. But I'd like to know if other people find this to be an effective storytelling technique.

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Old 02-02-2013, 12:10 AM   #2
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That sort of thing annoys me to no end. If context is given or the words are just a tweak of an existing English word/phrase so I can figure it out for myself (a la BLACK SUN RISING), no big deal. If there is no context and no definition given, I'm out.
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Old 02-02-2013, 12:23 AM   #3
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If done right it can be interesting and compel a reader to read on with only bits and pieces being introduced at the same time--until a bigger picture is painted.

Malazan does this.
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Old 02-02-2013, 12:41 AM   #4
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It only works if there is enough context given for clues - and then, sadly, only if the reader is actually accustomed to reading for context. This is a tradition in SF&F and mystery, but not so much in romance. With all the cross-genre writing happening, different audiences will stumble into different blocks.

I agree from personal reading and writing experience, that it's safer to only introduce one or two characters in that first chapter.
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Old 02-02-2013, 01:06 AM   #5
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The problem becomes worse when not only are several characters introduced, but unfamiliar places or concepts, too.

However, I have read, quite recently, several novels where a name (nd/or concept, event, place) is mentioned but goes unexplained... sometimes for several chapters. This happens a lot in Bacigalupi's "The Windup Girl," for example. I had to keep several names, places, events, in mind for several chapters. Fortunately, Bacigalupi doesn't do this on page one, two, or three. Fortunately, he is good enough to take me off the hook with one or another before loading me up again with yet another unfamiliarity. Fortunately, his story-telling ability is excellent and I found myself captivated throughout the book.

A writer fails, I think, when he expects the reader to understand what is in the writer's imagination, whether consciously or not, and never gives the reader any explanation for these things. It's the opposite of laying on too much backstory that does nothing to further the plot.
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Old 02-02-2013, 01:30 AM   #6
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In the hands of a good writer, who is able to slip in enough timely context & incluing to orient the reader, it can work.

In the hands of a clumsy writer, it's a recipe for confusion (& confusion's cousins annoyance and boredom).

In other words, like pretty much everything about writing, it's all in the execution.
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Old 02-02-2013, 01:43 AM   #7
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What can be annoying to some readers is exciting to others. Who're these people? What's this place? What's going on? What's this Wakening thing? What's going to happen?
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Old 02-02-2013, 02:57 AM   #8
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Hell, I'm struggling just to figure out how to introduce a race/species without pulling an 'as-you-know-bob', or an info dump.

A character that's a member of that race/species isn't going to notice their own differences from humans and any human characters already know what this race/species looks like, so it wouldn't make sense for them to make much notice of it either.

Grrr@ fantasy genre. We have a love/hate relationship sometimes.
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Old 02-02-2013, 03:08 AM   #9
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I prefer to introduce only a couple of names at the beginning. In the project I'm currently editing, I believe I introduce only the main character, his parents, and Imperial Guards in the first scene--all of which are pretty easy to figure out. At the end of the scene, I also introduce the main character's uncle, one of the Imperial Guards, and then in the next scene, I introduce the villain.

I don't care too much for books that throw a lot at you at once. That was one of my biggest problem with the first Malazan book. I'm on the second now, so I'll see if that keeps up. It's also the reason I stopped reading The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker. There were just too many names, places, and factions to remember. I'll probably give it another try at some point.
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Old 02-02-2013, 03:27 AM   #10
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I had fun a year or two back, trying to introduce an alien shapeshifter character in first person POV. Didn't matter whether it was SYW or other online crit forums - most of the urban fantasy and paranormal romance readers saw 'paws+fur+sentient' and immediately decided my main character was a werewolf. They were miffed when that wasn't the case at all. I've since improved those opening chapters, but I know where not to have them critiqued now.
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Old 02-02-2013, 05:20 AM   #11
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I think two, or three at the most (and that might be pushing it - depends on the complexity of the idea), new characters, places or concepts in the first chapter is ok. After that, my brain is full and I may just put the book down because you're confusing me.

What I find more confusing/frustrating than having a heap of people or places thrown at me all at once, is when I can't pronounce the names of those people or places. One, maybe two such names I can cope with, but any more than that and I'm putting the book down, because, frankly, I feel stupid that I can't figure out how those three syllables, with their funky letter combinations and accents should sound. Case in point, Aoife (pronounced EE-fa), and it's only two syllables.
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Old 02-02-2013, 10:08 AM   #12
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I honestly can't think of very many recent titles that suffer from name-vomiting as extreme as in your example, but I do agree it gets really annoying if handled poorly.
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Old 02-03-2013, 08:26 PM   #13
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I think Redram was specifically talking about the SYW forum-- which would include a lot of beginners/unpublished authors. They are more likely to suffer from that name/info-dump as they are excited by their own creations and want to share them all at once. Most experienced authors handle this problem with more aplomb.
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Old 02-04-2013, 08:10 PM   #14
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I think Redram was specifically talking about the SYW forum-- which would include a lot of beginners/unpublished authors. They are more likely to suffer from that name/info-dump as they are excited by their own creations and want to share them all at once. Most experienced authors handle this problem with more aplomb.
Not necessarily. I used to read, and enjoy, Eric Van Lustbader's various books about Nicholas Linnear, ninja. Then he went and began writing fantasy. I thought, okay, and started the first one. I was lost within the first two pages. The names of the characters, places, and new species were flying fast and furious. I put it down and haven't gone back.
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Old 02-04-2013, 08:25 PM   #15
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I almost put down Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie because it began with one of the craziest instances of name-dropping and general maid and butler dialogue I had ever encountered in a published novel. I got through it and I ended up liking the book a lot, but man, I really wasn't sure at first.
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Old 02-04-2013, 09:00 PM   #16
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In other words, like pretty much everything about writing, it's all in the execution.
This.

For me, if I open the book and hit a wall of names, places, and terms I don't understand, I'll probably stop reading. Give me something to care about first. An interesting event, a conflict, an emotion, these things are common to all people and generally transcend location. Make me curious and hook me , instead of world building from the first word. At that point, I have no reason to care about your world if you're going to make me work for it.

I just finished reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and think he did this well in the opening. It starts with an unnamed female in trouble, then introduces Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar in such a way that I didn't know who--or what--these people were or what was going on, but I wanted to keep reading to find out.
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Old 02-05-2013, 12:13 AM   #17
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What can be annoying to some readers is exciting to others. Who're these people? What's this place? What's going on? What's this Wakening thing? What's going to happen?
I do, to an extent, but it has to be done right:

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In the hands of a good writer, who is able to slip in enough timely context & incluing to orient the reader, it can work.

In the hands of a clumsy writer, it's a recipe for confusion (& confusion's cousins annoyance and boredom).
The first one or two characters might not need to be explained that much, but the subsequent ones should, imo, be introduced by how they related to one of the first ones. Either that, or at least enough descriptors of location so the reader can surmise from there how they are related.

fwiw I have five characters in my first two pages that I put into SYW and no one was confused about who any of them were or what they were doing.
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Old 02-05-2013, 07:38 AM   #18
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Actually, I have to disagree with myself, now that you all mention specific writers. I found in the seventh (eigth? Ninth?) book of the WOT series, I couldn't keep half the characters straight cuz he kept changing peoples' names/faces/genders, even! and introducing new characters and concepts every other page, it seemed. Maybe I'm just dense, but I found it quite the slog to get through some of the later books. Luckily, Sanderson has pulled the story back to a few major characters.
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Old 02-05-2013, 07:40 AM   #19
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Not necessarily. I used to read, and enjoy, Eric Van Lustbader's various books about Nicholas Linnear, ninja. Then he went and began writing fantasy. I thought, okay, and started the first one. I was lost within the first two pages. The names of the characters, places, and new species were flying fast and furious. I put it down and haven't gone back.
The first few chapters of Turtledove's reimagined WWII fantasy (Into the Darkness, Jaws of Darkness etc.) did the same thing. I kept reading through sheer determination (and loved the whole series.)
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Old 02-05-2013, 08:57 PM   #20
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I hate writing such as this. In the author's effort to avoid infodump, the info turns useless. Once you figure out who/what exactly the name is, you have missed the information you were supposed to learn.

It makes for endless reading and re-reading. Erickson's Malazaan does this and is one of the reasons why I cannot read it.
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Old 02-06-2013, 08:42 AM   #21
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Well, there are couple of tricks to it.

One, which is less of a trick and more of a tool, is not to introduce characters until they are doing something significant. This is, in fact, pretty basic. (And like all storytelling rules, you can break it - if you have a good reason.)

Another, which really is kind of a trick, is the use of the telling detail. Find something memorable about the character and introduce it as soon as possible - Ahab's leg, the physical contrast between Tyrion and Jaime Lannister, the way all four kids in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe get a different magic item, etc.
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Old 02-07-2013, 05:58 PM   #22
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Another, which really is kind of a trick, is the use of the telling detail. Find something memorable about the character and introduce it as soon as possible - Ahab's leg, the physical contrast between Tyrion and Jaime Lannister, the way all four kids in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe get a different magic item, etc.
And catchphrases. ("You know nothing, Jon Snow"). It's an easy target for mockery, but it works. A fairly economical way to make even comparatively minor characters fairly quickly memorable enough to keep them apart from each other. Rather useful if you have a large cast of characters. Probably why Dickens uses them quite a lot too.

But that's probably more about the problem of avoiding character soup in the ongoing narrative.

As to the problem of introductions: I was trained to develop a rather high tolerance for an onslaught of unexplained and often almost deliberately confusing information that doesn't make any immediate sense. Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury starts with a chapter from the perspective of a person with rather severe mental handicaps whose stream of consciousness randomly skips between different timelines, in which he himself is referred to by different names and another name refers to two different members of his family at various stages of the narrative. With Infinite Jest it probably took me about 300 pages till I had a first vague idea what's what and how people actually relate to each other. Then again, I'm chronically underemployed and probably have too much time on my hands.

Still, things that don't bother someone with Faulkner and David Foster Wallace may very well bother the same person in Share Your Work, and it's not just the mere injustice that the Big Names will always get away with stuff mere mortals won't get away with.

With me, I guess, it's not so much the mere quantity of the potentially confusing information, but rather the existence or lack of a certain aesthetic coherence in these details. Even if don't yet know _how_ everything fits into the bigger picture precisely, I do get a sense that it _does_ fit together in a way, and as long as have that sense, I have quite a bit of patience for blanks to be filled in later.

Less skilled writers fail to earn my benefit of the doubt, when they fail to make strong stylistic choices that could at least provide some sort of aesthetic unity in the face of not yet perfectyl cohering information.
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Old 02-07-2013, 07:23 PM   #23
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I think I once counted how many characters Austen refers to by name in the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, and it was over twenty. I went and counted in my own first chapter and I think I found five, including the protagonist, and another character who features at the beginning but isn't named because they will be Never Seen Again.
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