I read a thread the other day on Goodreads talking about whether it’s better for a fantasy to ease into the fantasy or jump in right to the deep end. In the thread it seemed to be decided that it depends on the book and the style of writing. I agree to a certain extent. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. Just dropping you headfirst into the deep end of your world is a terrible idea. You risk losing your reader from the start, for one thing.
To provide an example that I felt did a terrible job in the first chapters— so bad that I couldn’t actually continue reading— was a book I recently started. (I won’t specify, because I’m not a terrible human being.) It had a hilarious title and a pretty good cover, and the description cracked me up, so I was really looking forward to it. Had an almost Douglass Adams feeling. Unfortunately within the first several pages I was thrown tumbling into a world that I have no touchstone for. Yes, someone’s hired a private eye to find a painting, I can go that far, but it was buried in the endless march of things that we’re clearly expected to know about: how a window washer operates
on a high-rise, what color a particular kind of mushroom is, the relationships between various gods and angels and what have you. I’m sure it’s meant to paint the world and the characters in vivid colors, I assume, but really it’s a muddled mess of descriptions and irrelevant chatter that made me feel like the only kid in class who hadn’t studied for the test.
On the other hand, you couldn’t have a Lord of the Rings if you eased slowly into the fantasy setting, for example. It’s a setting that requires a far too much detail to go very slowly, so within the first paragraph (assuming you’ve skipped the prologue and gone right to the story itself,) you are introduced to the idea of a race of creatures for whom a very long life is not shocking (90 is old, sure, but from the tone of the comment it is obviously not desperately old for a Hobbit, maybe late-middle-agedish) but the unnatural youthfulness of Bilbo Baggins is enough to cause talk and thus hint at the darkness that’s coming. By halfway through chapter one we’re had a fair amount of excitement, met a wizard, several Hobbits of importance, and learned that the world is not all happiness and light at all. Tolkein stopped just shy of dropping us into the deep, but not by very much. But even there it was a gentle transition from the real world. You don’t open the page and step right into a battle between great wizards discussing arcane rules of magic that you don’t know.
No. You’re dropped into party planning.
Why is that important? Well, because it gives you, the reader, a place to stand. It’s the foundation for everything that comes after that, and if you couldn’t find your footing there at the beginning then you could never manage the whole journey all the away to Mount Doom. Party planning for something the size of Bilbo’s birthday bash is hectic, full of details and odd moments, interactions with a huge array of people, and it’s also entirely mundane. Sure he was lining up magical fireworks and coping with what to do about the ring, consorting with wizards and traveling off to retire with the elves, but I think we can all relate to figuring out how to get food out there and were visitors can leave their carts, er cars.
“But what about your own books, huh?” you may be asking. The first thing that happens in A Demon’s Duty is a demon goes and fights stuff and sucks out a soul. That’s right into the deep end, lady! Well, yes. That scene starts you off right in the middle of events that have clearly been simmering along for a while. However, I think that it’s not hard for us these days to imagine walking up to the rubble that had recently been a public space. It’s not hard for us to put ourselves int he shoes of a man (okay, demon) that is trying to find a cause for or a meaning in the destruction. The whole chapter is about a dying man’s last words and his devotion to his duty, and another man making a major life choice. These are things we can all understand. There’s no heavy handed attempts to artificially immerse the reader in the world of my story because the reader can get there through the desperation of the characters in the aftermath of the fight. Those emotions are, unfortunately, pretty close to the surface in so many people I can call them common.
So I favor the foundational approach. Neither deep and nor gently dipping in toes is a blanket solution. It’s got a grounding in something we can relate to. It gives us a place to stand before the earth shifts so we can include demons or wizards or Vogon Destructor Fleets full of terrible poetry. You can start throwing odd, made up words around in your first sentence if you like, as long as the reader doesn’t feel like they’re drowning.