Beginnings are such a tricky phase of a book, especially in fantasy. You’ve got to introduce characters, possibly a whole world, and set up the story, and do it in a way that draws people right into the book. I think the most critical thing about a beginning is making readers care about the characters. If they care about the characters, then readers will want to know more about their lives, including their world and the history that affects them.
I got a case study in that last week when I tried to read a relatively recent book that shall remain nameless. This was a YA fantasy release from a major publisher, by a debut author. I haven’t seen a lot of buzz about it other than it being on a list of fantasy releases (I’m trying to be better about reading newish books), so I don’t think it was a “big” book given any kind of lead title treatment, probably the same kind of release I’ve had. And it had one of the worst openings I think I’ve seen in a long time.
There would be a paragraph or so about the current action — what the characters are doing now. Then a few paragraphs of backstory about their world. Then a paragraph of action and another paragraph or two about the world. Another paragraph of action, then some backstory about the characters and their history. And so forth. Very little of the backstory applied directly to what was happening in the present, and I didn’t yet care enough about the characters to care about their history and their world. It wasn’t the sort of thing the viewpoint character would really have been thinking about under those circumstances. The present action was the sort of thing that would have taken all her focus.
The result was that I couldn’t really dive into the characters and come to care about them because I kept getting distracted by the backstory. Because I didn’t yet care, I didn’t care about the backstory and kept skimming over or even skipping it. All the skipping back and forth between the story and the backstory meant I wasn’t really following either. At least in those 1970s fantasy epics that tended to begin with the wizard showing up at the tavern and telling the entire history of the world it was one coherent story instead of skipping back and forth. I kept trying to read on in the book, but I don’t think I ever really attached, and after about page 80 (it took me nearly 5 days to get that far), I skipped ahead and skimmed a few bits, found that my guesses about what would happen were more or less accurate, and gave myself permission to put the book down.
It looked like a fairly common rookie mistake from someone who’d heard the advice not to just dump backstory in but who didn’t quite understand how that worked and didn’t get that splitting up the paragraphs didn’t make it not an infodump. I’m just surprised that the editor didn’t do something about it. I think I would have really been pulled into the book if we’d just had that opening scene, which on its own might have been very moving, and then learned exactly why that event was so significant. Instead, we were told the significance before we saw the event, but instead of making the event more meaningful, I think it took away from the emotion. I did notice that the initial Amazon reviews were fairly harsh on the infodumping, but then there was a wave of “how dare those mean reviewers say mean things about this awesome book” reviews (most of which mentioned receiving a free copy in exchange for an honest review).
I was particularly concerned because the book I’m working on now has a lot of similarities to this book (one of the reasons I was reading it, as it might come close to a “comp” title to compare mine to when marketing it to publishers). In my case, there’s an incident in the heroine’s past that’s utterly critical to understanding the inciting incident, but I didn’t want to put it as a prologue. The solution I came up with (which may or may not stick) was to have an opening scene in which she has to deal with a daily life situation that shows her strengths and weaknesses. She got into this difficult situation because she has a tendency to daydream and get sidetracked, and once she’s out of the difficult situation, she goes back into the daydream, which involves obsessing about a memory about this past event, so then I follow her daydream as a flashback, showing that past event as she remembers it. And then the inciting incident happens and we know why it happens and why it’s important to her. We still don’t know why it’s important to the world since the heroine doesn’t entirely know. There are bits and pieces of what she knows in both the present and in the flashback.
I think (hope!) this will work, so readers will care about her and be curious about what daydream is so distracting, then want to see how this past incident will affect her life going forward.