When introducing something unfamiliar to a reader, such as humanoid dinosaur characters of various sorts in Michael Pryor’s The Lost Castle in his series The Chronicles of Krangor, it is often a useful idea to combine it with something familiar to the reader to maintain their interest while you establish the less familiar details.
Unfamiliar things in a fictional story can provide some mystery and suspense for a reader, but piling a lot of unfamiliar things on top of one another without putting it into a clear context can result in a reader becoming confused or losing interest.
Reading the following passage from the beginning of chapter 2 in The Lost Castle, notice how Michael Pryor has used humanoid dinosaur characters in a very human way (you could slightly adapt any dinosaur related references and it would still work as a passage about human characters). By doing this, Pryor is able to sprinkle unfamiliar dinosaur related details into the story so these details are familiar to the reader by the time they become relevant to the action of the story:
It was at dinner that night, in the banqueting hall, that the purpose of General Wargach’s visit was revealed.
Adalon was sitting near the head of the table, to the left of his great-uncle Baradon. Baradon was an enormous Clawed One. In his youth, his bulk had been muscle. Now his love of food and his lack of activity had turned the muscle to fat. His belly hung over his belt, and he often struggled to rise once he settled himself into a chair.
Moralon was there, and a few of the more important saur from the town were present as well. They were mightily impressed by the uniforms of General Wargrach and his aides.
Adalon listened closely to the arguments and banter that lunged up and down the table. Insults came from General Wargrach’s Clawed One aides, and they roared with laughter whenever one of the other guests took offence. They attacked their food, cracking bones in their jaws, grinding them noisily and shouting for more from the servants. The Plated One sat at Wargrach’s left hand and ate sparingly, drinking only water.
Adalon found it difficult to make up his mind about General Wargrach. He noticed how everyone listened when the general spoke. His voice was a deep growl, but he never had to raise it. While his aides drank tankard after tankard of ale and wine, the General barely sipped at his. His eyes were hard and cold, and he spent as much time sizing up the banqueting hall as he did studying the others at the table. Adalon noticed that his gaze lingered on Moralon, and it was a gaze full of calculation.
After the meal, Lord Ollamon cleared his throat and tapped a claw on the table until he had everyone’s attention. ‘General Wargrach. While we are always happy to see the Queen’s representative, I’m sure we’d all be interested in hearing your reason for this visit.’
Adalon would never forget the smile General Wargrach gave at that moment. It was his first of the entire evening and it showed his dagger-like teeth. It was more a challenge than an attempt to be friendly.
‘The Queen wishes to build a fortress at Sleeto,’ he said, his gaze on Lord Ollamon.
Michael pryor has written that he writes science fiction and fantasy because “it exercises the imagination. By reading about and participating in the alternative and the possible, readers are actively extending their thinking, their imagination. In a society where creative and lateral thinking are valued, reading SF and Fantasy is a real work out for the mind.”
However, if there are a string of unfamiliar things without providing enough context to familiarise a reader with them, the result can become not a workout for the mind but just makes it impossible for a reader to have more than a vague idea of what’s going on. This can be an issue particularly for science fiction and fantasy because once it is established that the what a reader knows about the physical universe may not apply in the fictional context of the story. If there is magic or mysterious forces in the story, different species with different supernatural powers etc, giving each force, species,magical alliance or whatever a name does little to clarify it in a readers mind if it not also accompanied by some context. If you tell a reader “the Hork and Narg clans have been at war”, you better go on to provide some details about each clan and the circumstances of the dispute or a reader might think of it as “a group I know nothing about and another group I know nothing about are at war for reason”. If you need to establish details of the backstory (what happened before your plot began but is important for understanding the plot better), putting something else in the foreground (like Michael Pryor has with a meal between his humanoid dinosaur characters) can be an effective way of getting the details across to a reader in an interesting way.
More on Michael Pryor and his fiction can be found at www.michaelpryor.com.au and in his article I, You, He and She – Some Thoughts on Point of View.
The Australian Literature Review