Well of the Unicorn: Post sort-of the second

Well of the Unicorn doesn’t waste much time on backstory. All we learn about Airar when the book begins is that he’s “gentry” (i.e., he seems like the equivalent of a British country squire) and his family is going under from taxes.
Which got me thinking about the old advice that you should open a story in media res——in the middle of the action——and just how you go about doing it.
The standard writing-article example is that you don’t usually start with your character’s birth or childhood (unless they’re really out of the ordinary, as in Diana Wynne Jones’ “The Sage of Theare”), you start when something interesting happens. Or to put it another way, as close to the start of the main plot as possible.
But that’s not entirely true, I think, because the main plot isn’t always what the book is about.
Well, for instance, starts with Airar dispossessed of everything but what he carries on his back. It takes a chapter or two before he runs into sinister Dr. Melliboe, and another chapter after that before he falls in resistance.
Pratt could just as easily have started in media res, with Airar stumbling across the wizard’s home, or entering the tavern where he meets the rebels. The story of his family losing their home could have been tossed off in a paragraph of exposition. But Well of the Unicorn isn’t about the revolution per se, it’s about Dalarna itself, and about Airar’s progression from dispossessed nobody to nobility. Starting with scenes of life in Dalarna, and establishing why Airar joins the rebels, fits both of those.
As I pointed out last year, a story can be primarily about plot, characters, a question or a setting. Pratt’s novel is much more about setting and character than plot.
At some point it’s important to decide which of the four your story is about (or one of less-used options, such as theme or humor), because starting in media res means different things with different focii (Orson Scott Card goes into this in detail in a couple of his how-to books; I tackled the same topic in an article for The Writer).
If the plot is the center of your story, you choose an event that kicks off the plot (“It’s pistols at dawn!”) or maybe a crucial turning point (Mage’s Masquerade starts near the end of Montgomery Sinclair’s hunt for a traitor). With possibly a little set up beforehand, such as when the PI’s client walks through the door.
If it’s character, you want the moment when your hero realizes her life is not going right and needs to change. For a question story, you pose the puzzle (“He’s dead——inside a locked room!”). If your goal is to discuss a theme, maybe you bring up the issue in the course of the opening.
For setting, you can kick off as Pratt does, when someone starts off wandering (Airar crosses a lot of the Dales in the course of the book). Or when someone enters the new setting (first day on the job, catapulted into a parallel world, etc.). A setting story is one in which you might want to start with a character’s childhood, to show the life of someone of their class/race/background in modern America/Victorian England/ancient Zimbabwe.
The opening of Mage’s Masquerade keeps shifting as I tinker with the balance of romance, mystery and humor. When I know for sure how it starts, I suspect it’ll be ready to show people.

5 Comments

Filed under Reading, Short Stories, Writing

5 responses to “Well of the Unicorn: Post sort-of the second

  1. Pingback: They’d Rather Be Right « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Openings « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: Prologues « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  4. Pingback: Too much media, to little res? First post from last night’s writing group « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  5. Pingback: Chekhov’s gun « Fraser Sherman's Blog

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