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Introducing magic on the first page?

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My critique group got into a debate last night about whether or not a fantasy / sci-fi writer should introduce, or at least hint at, supernatural elements from the first page of a story, or whether it's okay to take a few pages, or even a few chapters to get there.

I see plenty of examples of the latter, and think my bias lies that way. But some members of my critique group argued that it would be harder to market a book like that.

What do you think? And on what page do your fantasy / sci-fi elements show up?
#1 - May 29, 2013, 06:40 AM

From all the feedback I've ever gotten, I feel like an audience feels more satisfied when the type of story they're going to read is clearly indicated by the title, movie poster, book cover, opening, etc.  I don't think most people like it when they were expected something realistic and it suddenly goes supernatural.  They might SAY "Hey, wow--I never expected that!  What a crazy twist!" but somewhere underneath, they feel a little jerked around and you've lost a little trust.  This is just my opinion, mind you.  It feels like you're being super-original and all M. Night Shyamalan-ish, but . . . no.

There are stories with supernatural elements that take a little time to get there, but I feel like they are usually given titles, covers, and/or brief prologues that say clearly "This is going to have aliens.  This is going to have ghosts.  Hope you like cowboys.  Hope you like romance." or whatever.

For example, one of my favorites--Ghosts I Have Been, by Richard Peck.  "Realistic" story in the beginning with the main character, Blossom, setting out to take revenge on some boys at school by scaring them on Halloween.  Very humorous, spooky, but all REAL.  Only we know this is going to be a story with actual supernatural content because the cover, title and prologue told us so.  We signed up for actual ghost story, so we're eager to keep reading, knowing we'll get there . . .

If you're not keeping the promise you made at the beginning (whether that promise was "This is a realistic story" or "This will have supernatural elements") then you'll dissatisfy the audience expectations you set.  I've experienced this in the opposite regard (setting up in a way that made it seem it was going to be supernatural when it wasn't) and it doesn't make for happy readers, who WANT what you promised, not a Scooby Doo ending.
#2 - May 29, 2013, 06:55 AM

I am not sure if it has to show up on the first page but I think it needs to be introduced fairly soon. My two WIP have supernatural aspects but is NOT on the first page. One introduces it at the end of the chapter, the other has it on the second page. I did feel compelled to write a short prologue, as Jaina suggested above, for both stories because of the way the stories unfold with everything feeling normal and then ...

#3 - May 29, 2013, 07:42 AM
« Last Edit: May 29, 2013, 08:52 AM by Shelliep »
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I don't think the first page is necessary, because it's far more important in my eyes to establish character first. I generally introduce whatever fantasy elements I have in the first chapter, but I'm working on something now where they won't be made plain till much later in the book...but there will definitely be hints and inexplicabilities... :-) 

Short answer is--whatever works for the individual story.
#4 - May 29, 2013, 07:45 AM
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I think one thing we have to keep in mind is that a manuscript is not a published book. In the latter, readers have the cover and blurb, if nothing else, to tell them what they're getting. They might also have seen promo, reviews, trailer, and what-have-you to clue them in. They can wait a little because they know it's coming. But when you hand a ms. to a critiquer without comment, they have no prior clue. Even if you tell them what the book is about, they still only have the words and may find the story "artificially confusing," meaning that confusion or a feeling of not being oriented isn't *always* solved by revision alone. It's also solved/prevented by the entire package the published book comes in. That is, charges of confusion could disappear with no change in words at all, just the addition of the "packaging" that orients the reader.

Still, my preference is to have it introduced fairly soon. It's hooky, for one thing. If I feel the alternative is a prologue, then I would really aim to introduce it on the first page instead of in a prologue if at all possible. Frankly, my reasoning is this: I'm afraid of trying to pitch a book with a prologue, especially in any kind of contest where they take only 250 words or so, that it would be a strike against me, and who needs an unnecessary risk?

More honesty? I think agented/published writers "can be trusted" to deliver even if they take their time, whereas the unagented/unpublished dare not raise any doubts. I'd err on the side of the early hint, sans prologue, as long as you are also establishing character, setting, goal, and other things you want a beginning to do. 
#5 - May 29, 2013, 08:04 AM
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Great discussion! I don't think that all of the supernatural elements need to be discussed up front, but I think the world needs to be established in a way that something feels off, different than our current world. If you set up uncertainty about the world/ setting of the story then you can start with a "regular" kid in a "regular" scenario but with an eerie or otherworldly feeling that makes it not seem completely out of nowhere when the "regular" kid turns out to be a demon or whatever.

My five year old just started reading the Heidi Hecklebeck series and Heidi is a normal kid at school until the very last page (sentence, I think) where she says she's a witch. My daughter started screaming and jumping up and down having read her first book with a big twist and basically demanded that we immediately go to the bookstore and get the next book in the series. In that book it worked because Heidi kept saying that she didn't feel like herself and wanted to get home to her favorite book, that turned out to be a book of spells. The point being that even the little guys can hold out for a big surprise if you thread enough elements through the story to hint that something might be different. There's lots of YA examples of normal kids being vampires, shape shifters, secret agents, etc. and some start with a prologue but many do not, and still work.

I like mrh's comment too that there is some set up for readers, once the book is published, which helps.
#6 - May 29, 2013, 09:12 AM

I don't think you have to show the magic on the first page but I think the first chapter should at least hint at it.
#7 - May 29, 2013, 11:17 AM
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I agree with Marissa and mrh-- I always establish character first, and readers know what kind of book they have picked up, and so what to expect. Editors should know from your cover letter before they begin reading.

When I introduce magic depends on the story. If it is set in an alternate universe where magic is par for the course it will be right away, part of the background world building. If I am leading my character into discovering a magical world or a magical element of this world, I take my time and establish the character in a normal world, then let it unfold for the reader as it unfolds for the character wonder by wonder.

:) eab
#8 - May 29, 2013, 12:07 PM

looking at Silver Phoenix, i *hinted* upon
magic on page 5. but i wouldn't say it is full
blown fantasy until page 37. so fairly early on.

i honestly think you can do it either way, as long
as you do it well. =)

good luck!
#9 - May 29, 2013, 12:41 PM
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In one of my books, readers suggested that I give a hint early on that there was fantasy afoot, so I did on the first page so that people wouldn't think it was historical fiction. But I wasn't thinking about what people have mentioned here: the cover and jacket flap made it clear the book was fantasy. Like Cindy says, either way is fine "as long as you do it well"!
#10 - May 29, 2013, 06:26 PM

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I've heard it said that this was probably the reason for the prologue in A Game of Thrones. Without the supernatural element in there, the reader would end up being blindsided by the magical elements later in the story, since the beginning otherwise reads as very non-magical. It seems best to at least hint at it early on somehow, unless you're setting up a surprise twist for later.
#11 - May 29, 2013, 07:00 PM

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I'm with Jaina on this one. Though i agree with stuff Marcia said, too.

Anything CAN work, but IMO, the sooner the better - I actually always try for a hint of some kind in the first line, not just the first page. I think it's a little shocking when it does appear later, otherwise, and shock = taken out of story to readjust. Book promo might replace that first line, but until it IS a book...
#12 - May 30, 2013, 04:10 AM
« Last Edit: May 30, 2013, 04:12 AM by Joni »
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I think it's fairly important to make it clear what genre a book is  on the first page, but I don't think this means full on magic has to happen. Word choice can do it, comparisons, tone ... things like that can be plenty.

I'm reading a book right now which on the first page discribes the sound of the roof expanding in the heat  as being like "someone creeping about in the dark cavity above the ceiling." This kind of thing is enough to clue the reader into genre--or hint that ghosts may happen. With a few tweaks the same opening could hint at magic.
#13 - May 30, 2013, 05:05 AM
« Last Edit: May 30, 2013, 05:14 AM by PatEsden »
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A ton of great responses already. I'll just add that my experience is it's more about the style of writing and the presentation, that is, if I write a story with a very realistic voice and realistic characters, when something magical or surrealistic happens later, it happens in such a realistic world that it asks for great skill on my part as the author to get the reader to suspend disbelief (although I'm sure it can be done). On the other hand, if the story starts already with weird or funny or strange or magical things happening, the reader accepts that it's just that kind of story. Slide into real kids doing real things in a real world, it doesn't matter, when the magic comes back suspension of disbelief is a lot easier.
#14 - June 01, 2013, 06:27 AM
Keith McGowan,

I have a story where everything is realistic but it all sort of comes off as fantastical as its viewed through a very different point of view than we're used to.  So I make that clear in the second paragraph.
#15 - June 01, 2013, 08:21 AM

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... it's far more important in my eyes to establish character first.

...Short answer is--whatever works for the individual story.

Well said^.
#16 - June 01, 2013, 10:19 AM


I agree with Xiaotian - everything is possible once done well. But it is important to set the stage properly and stick to the intention of the book.
#17 - June 16, 2013, 07:12 AM


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