Writing Discussion

Secondary World Novels: Analyzing Beginnings

There is a subset of fantasy novels where the unsuspecting protagonist crosses over from this world into another. My novel in progress happens to be one such book, so I raided my shelves for examples.

Here’s what I wanted to find out:

  1. How does the author hint that there’s another world, and that the novel will have elements of fantasy or science fiction?
  2. How many pages does it take before the protagonist finally crosses over into the other world?

The results surprised me. The existence of other world was generally explicitly stated, and the protagonist always crosses over within the first few chapters of the book.

The results of my analysis in further detail…

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

  1. The first hint of speculative elements to the story was on page 3 of the prologue. A  woman tells Richard his future, that he’s going on a long journey to “Not any London I know.” Chapter 1 opens with characters escaping from the other world into this one.  Chapter 2 opens with a dream about the other world and a strange creature.
  2. Richard crosses over into the other world somewhere around the 40 page mark. The transition is subtle because the two worlds are intertwined. This is about 11% of the way into the novel.

The Onion Girl by Charles De Lint

  1. The first hint of fantasy is the opening line: “Once upon a time…”. Jilly talks about dreams, and wishes, and fairies. She says explicitly that she carries another world inside her, explains that there are things that exist on the fringes of our consciousness, like gargoyles that pretend to be stone, but wink as she passes. She dreams of the same place repeatedly.
  2. She crosses over on page 7, into the familiar space of her dreams. This is 1% of the way into the book.

Otherland book 1 – City of Golden Shadows by Tad Williams

  1. The foreword is set in the other world. The character speaking uses the words “in a normal world” establishing that this is not a normal place. By the end of the foreword, the character thinks he has died, but he is still conscious, and awakens in a strange place. As chapter 1 begins, there are hints that impossible realities may exist, and that there are holes in virtual reality where people vanish.
  2. Page 74, or chapter 4, starts entirely in the other world. Ignoring the foreword, this is 6% into the novel.

The Fionavar Tapestry book 1 – The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. The prologue uses epic language, and recounts the history of a world other than ours. In chapter 1, a dwarf appears, and one of the characters has a dream about an antlered man and a dog. On page 23, the main characters are told of the existence of another world, but they don’t believe it.
  2. Page 31 they cross over for what they think is a temporary visit. This is about 7% into the novel.

I wish I had a bigger sampling to examine (I do love my statistics), but I suspect the results would be very similar. I get the idea. The beginning of the novel sets the tone and premise as quickly as possible.

24 Comments to “Secondary World Novels: Analyzing Beginnings”

  1. {nods} My now-on-hold fantasy novel was one of these, and I used a prologue (let’s not even get into that debate) to establish the other world, because I think it’s important that readers have that expectation from the start.

    That said, I am totally overhauling that ms, lol, so who knows how exactly I’ll introduce things when I get back to rewriting it…

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      Hehe yeah the process of overhauling is why I’m looking at this right now. I wonder what could be used to substitute the prologue/foreword. I was surprised how much it seems to be used for this purpose. It makes sense but yeah to prologue or not to prologue… that’s another debate altogether.

  2. Well, you could go classic, with The Chronicles of Narnia. Otherworld entered in like the first two pages, or so, as I recall. (The recent movie lingered much longer in the real world, I think, because the modern audience needed to be oriented in the otherworld of WWII England.)

    Harry Potter plops you in the otherworld on page 1, before returning you to the real world for a short bit.

    I think this is a good insight… we have to see something about the otherworld, in these sorts of stories, fairly early in the story.

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      I was trying to find my copy of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I have a box set, but that book is missing. I think you’re right about that one. In Prince Caspian, the kids made the crossing on page 2.

      It’s been a while since I’ve read Harry Potter. That starting with the other world technique seems to be fairly common, and it works.

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      I wondered if anyone would notice 🙂 It was getting confusing when it came to sending email inquiries as Theresa when most people knew me as Tessa. You can all still call me Tessa though! I prefer the nickname.

      1. Sweet (as in cool) 🙂

        Now I have to inquire… when you get published will the name on your books read “Theresa Bazelli”, “Tessa Bazelli”, “T.S. Bazelli”, or something else altogether (and I seem to recall that “Bazelli” is sort of a pen-name anyway?)?

      2. T.S. Bazelli Author

        T.S. Bazelli is the name I want to use 🙂 Bazelli’s my married surname, but I haven’t done a legal name change yet so it is a pen-name of sorts? LOL ahh the world is a confusing place.

        Theresa’s my real first name.

  3. It’d be pretty difficult to write a book about going to a strange land and not remarking on it as strange. The earliest Fantasies in this archetype I can think of are either Dante’s Inferno or Jon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Dante came out of the mythological tradition where you shrugged off the strangeness of the “other world” because people believed in it and mythology generally states startling stuff like bald fact. Swift is the earliest writer who essentially sent a guy to another world, and Gulliver was mighty surprised (and so were the Lilliputians). The character would have to be deranged not to find his new settings odd. One of my novels has a guy going to a new world and my key worry was him adjusting too quickly. I feel like I might come to grips quickly if I were stranded (also – I’d probably die quickly).

    Alice in Wonderland adjusts quickly because she’s a kid, though there’s still an explicit transition. Narnia is very explicit in how weird this place is… Hm.

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      I think some adults could handle the change better than others. Some people love the thrill of travel and learning about unfamiliar customs/cultures. Others feel homesick. I think the same idea would apply to people crossing over to another world, but the degree of shock would depend on how different the other world is from ours. That shock is also sometimes manifested in strange ways.

      Talking rabbits, and half-horse humans, would probably be a lot harder to handle than crossing over into a big dirty city, if you come from a big dirty city. Hmm… and then you might just feel lost.

  4. Ooh splendid examination! 🙂 How about the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? That must be pretty similar. I believe the reference to another world is in the prologue, right?

    1. I can’t remember 🙁 I’ve been trying to find the book but I seem to have lost it. I do know it happens very quickly. There’s not enough room in such a slim book to wait very long.

      1. There’s no prologue in Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s just chapter one… and in chapter one Lucy discovered a wardrobe while playing hide-and-seek. There’s a very little set-up to sort of explain that this takes place during the war (i.e. WWII), that the Pevensie’s have been moved to a country home, and that it was a rainy day so they had to play in-doors. By the end of Chapter One, Lucy has just startled Mr. Tumnus the Faun after having entered Narnia. I’m not sure how many pages in that is (book is at home, at the moment) but I could comment later with the details.

      2. SOMEONE has apparently read that book a few times…I won’t name names here…lol

        Perhaps I’m thinking of the prologue/first chapter of the Magician’s Nephew, where it talks about ‘Other worlds.’

        The end of TLWW is so messed up, though, lol, with the whole no-time-has-passed thing!

      3. D’oh! Good show, Eric W. Didn’t think to use a feature like that. But yes, it’s a fast transition, and I recalled that it was pretty fast.

        @JP, I don’t recall whether Magician’s Nephew has a prologue… but it would make sense in that one for there to be a more general philisophical discussion of “other worlds”, given the plot of that particular entry in the series.

  5. A couple of additional sample points:

    Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

    The first line mentions the door to the other land. Chapter three is when they first go through. This seems to match your other sample points.

    China Mieville’s The City & The City doesn’t explicitly touch on the fantasy elements. The first “unseeing” reference I found was about 4% of the way through the book, and it looks like the first visit to the other city occurs 40% through the book. However, this may be not an odd comparison (I haven’t gotten that far… currently reading it) because the other city may not be fantastic and it may be more the intersection of the two that is fantastic.

    Hope this is helpful.


    1. Although it may wait a little longer before identifying the dual worlds, the title emphasizes the conceit of the book. One-upping those books that wait to the opening sentence 😉

      1. That’s true! I hadn’t thought about the title. That’s a huge clue that something strange is going to happen. That’s very cleverly done, and worth noting. Thanks for the examples!

      2. Eric W

        And obviously, cover art and the book synopsis on the back / cover flap are other ways to convey to the reader that the bulk of the book will NOT be set in the same world we begin our tale in. And why is this important to establish quickly? For the very reason you mentioned previously here: http://www.tsbazelli.com/blog/2010/08/the-authors-promise/

        Stories whose focus is first and foremost on the strange worlds encountered tend to fall into the “milieu” category of Orson Scott Card’s “M.I.C.E. Quotient”:

        http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Science-Fiction-Fantasy/dp/158297103X — start reading on page 76.

        As Orson Scott Card says of his example, Gulliver’s Travels, “it would have been absurd to begin by spending a lot of time on Gulliver’s childhood and upbringing. The real story began the moment Gulliver got to the first of the book’s strange lands, and it ended when he came home.”

        Contrast that “milieu” type of story with a “character” story, which focuses on the character’s transformation. In these, you would likely want to spend however much time as needed to establish their character in their Ordinary World setting before getting to the Inciting Incident that sweeps them to new strange lands (if that’s what happens).

      3. T.S. Bazelli Author

        Great comments Eric!

        Cover art and the back cover blurb come after the writing is done, but it is not always in the author’s control. They are good clues for a reader, though perhaps outside the scope of the actual story telling.

        Thinking about the milleu and character type stories, I think the Narnia books fall very much in the milleu type of story. Out of this set of stories above, the Onion Girl is more of a character type novel… though that bounces back and forth between worlds throughout the novel, and more time is spent in this one.

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