What’s in a Fantasy First Arc?

TL;DR: The first arc of a fantasy story should create a bridge between the character and the conflict.

Whether a bridge between character and conflict happens in the first chapter or the third or the fifth, as soon as the benefit, trouble or message is hinted at, three things need to occur. First, a key conflict is brought to the protagonist’s awareness. Second, this awareness foreshadows the lead up of the protagonist entering the conflict. Third, the character reacts in a way that either shows reluctance or relevance and becomes aware of their first goal. The reaction itself, like the theme in the prologue, should be indicative to their character.

A good example of this conflict being relayed to the protagonist and the protagonist’s reaction being indicative of their character is in Terry Goodkind’s Richard’s Cypher’s immediate reaction to the journey set upon him in Wizard’s First Rule.

Bridging the protagonist to the conflict should be second only to the essential world building this arc will demand. If the first chapter should introduce the character, the first arc should introduce the setting. However, to spoon feed this to the reader, this world building will be baby’s first steps to whatever fantasy setting the story involves. World building is built on the back of both transparent and subtle ideas and imagery. Although the minor characters should take a backseat in this, their substitutes should also come through the eyes of the protagonist until later character arcs.

An example of a world being introduced slowly through baby steps is by any doorway fantasy such as the first Narnia and Chronicle of Thomas Covenant books, with the newest manifestation of this being the LitRPG genre.

In some instances the learning curve of the first arc might be much steeper, particularly in the adult demographic. Instead of intrusively explaining things via exposition to a character fresh to the plot, or via first person monologue, books with a steep learning curves expect patience and deduction from their readers, where the simple use of repetition of foreign terms or abilities should be what allows the readers to pick up on what they are or mean. This forces the reader to conduct their own investigation of the world and characters and form a tapestry from the answers they get. In a sense, this allows for more of an impact when the aspects the reader has discovered twists in on themselves.

Examples of fantasy series with steep learning curves are books with exotic settings such as the first book of the Long Price Quartet A Shadow in Summer and Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Of course, an easy way of introducing certain world elements and characteristics simultaneously is by the protagonist’s first run in with them, whether via flashback or introduction to a new environment. In these cases, character reaction or interactions with these elements can both develop character and world build at the same time. To keep the reader engaged with the story, it can smooth a transition to introduce the key conflict after this information is divulged. That’s not to say conflict can’t happen before this point, but if it does, using it for the sake of building character and mystery toward understanding the broader conflict will help pace the story and build the stakes.

Two good examples to explain plot elements through the protagonist’s interaction with them in the first arc is Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, and although a sci-fi book, Altered Carbon also uses this method well.

Depending on if a book is standalone or a part of a series might depend whether the first conflict is with a simple obstacle to the goal, a part of a larger foe, or the foe themselves. In either case, one of these should be introduced in the first arc, and if one of the minor obstacles, it could be overcome if only to foreshadow the wider conflict of the story. Of course, and I will discuss this in my next post, it is very common for this wider conflict to be overcome only to discover that they were only a part of the even larger problem. In some cases being the cog that blocks off the this great evil or the canary in the coal mine, but in many cases the escalation itself and lead to series jumping the shark.

The villains being introduced in the first can be seen clearly in such books as The Blade Itself, Angus Watson’s Age of Iron, and as I will talk about in the next post concerning the villain arcs in Brandon Sanderson’s Final Empire.  

Next Post: Fantasy First Book

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2 Responses to What’s in a Fantasy First Arc?

  1. Pingback: What’s in a Fantasy First Chapter? — Fantasy and Anime | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

  2. Pingback: What’s in a Fantasy First Chapter? | Fantasy and Anime

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