I am writing a novel with the basic Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland or the Matrix if you want structure. The novel begins in perfect modern day, and at some point in a very sharp way takes a turn for fantasy.
Right now Kansas currently takes up about 4000 words and aside from an end paragraph is the entire first chapter. There are virtually no magical elements in it. We meet the characters and find out what are their mundane daily lives before everything is subverted. By mundane I try to not mean boring. One is tied up with a crime family, and the other one is struggling with drug addiction.
The feedback I am seeing from my test readers is that because the book is in the fantasy genre they expect fantasy. They want foreshadowing to the fact that there is magic in this world.

My question is, is this something that the modern reader needs? Do we have to put early fantasy elements to keep readers interested? How long can a standard length novel spend in the modern day world before it has to show magic? I am assuming that the normal world action is interesting if the reader just did not know the book was in the fantasy section.

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    @Standback The fist chapter ends with the "tornado" and the characters opening their eyes in Oz 4000 words in: – Andrey Aug 6 at 20:35
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    Question: do you have to start in Kansas? You could start fantasy and then through conversation and memories tell the readers about the 'normal' lives the heros left behind. – Ivana Aug 7 at 8:53
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    You could stay in "Kansas" for the entire duration of the book until the final page if you so wish. – Totumus Maximus Aug 7 at 11:31
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    A prologue can actually help to foreshadow something important without taking interest from the main characters; well structured it can actually help you make the reader interested in how these characters that he's getting to know will eventually handle the situation stated in the prologue. Take for example "A song of fire and ice"; (umm... "small spoiler alert" I guess) the prologue of the first book is all about the "white walkers", and then they don't reappear in the story up until the second half of the second book (as far as I rermember). – Josh Part Aug 7 at 16:58
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    For future reference, the term-of-art used to describe the kind of story you're writing is portal fantasy (warning: TV Tropes link). Also worth knowing about the closely-related borderland fantasy, where there's a place in the real world where you can pass to the fantasy world – Jules Aug 8 at 18:20

12 Answers 12

up vote 41 down vote accepted

The purpose of the Kansas section is to establish the Real World before embarking on the Quest (to use the terms from the Hero's Journey).

The Real World is the place which the Hero (gender/age/number neutral) must leave behind. You can use it to establish character traits, and the Quest could potentially begin there, but generally I think your beta readers are right: either leave the Real World quickly or establish the existence of magic quickly. If it's a fantasy book, get to the fantasy. If it's an urban fantasy book, you still need to get to some element of fantasy promptly.

This can be something the hero doesn't understand, by the way. The White Rabbit can hop by without the hero chasing him; the reader knows what it is even if the hero doesn't. You can drop hints about Weird Things going on and not explain them for a few thousand words. So if you have a mob boss, one of the goons can be making a report about the night's activities and mention "this crazy thing that happened/that Fast Eddie told me about, you wouldn't believe it," and we don't have to get any more detail than to confirm that something unusual is going on.

ETA The Hero's Journey is a classic literary structure, popularly explained by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and broken down into writing terms by Christopher Volger in The Writer's Journey.

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    This is a great answer. I've written before about Harry Potter not learning he's even a wizard until 4-5 chapters in, but because the prologue contains so much magic, and early chapters have unnatural goings on, the reader is willing to wait that long to be officially introduced to the magical world. – Mike.C.Ford Aug 8 at 8:54
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    Good Answer - I think it is important to show the reader early what kind of writing he can expect in exchange for his commitment to your work. Just as the Cover should hint at the major themes of the book, the first chapters should convince a reader he is investing his time in the right book - if he wants to read fantasy, he should get something to evaluate if your style of fantasy is something he likes to read. – Falco Aug 8 at 13:20

I've read books written the way yours is currently set up, and I agree with your beta readers --some foreshadowing would help. However, I think you could afford to be fairly subtle about it.

The first book of Zelazny's famous Amber series begins in the mundane world, and for a while, no events happen that couldn't have mundane explanations. However, the main character, who has amnesia, suspects from the start that there is something odd about himself. He seems to have talents, abilities and intuitions a normal person wouldn't have. There's a point in the book where it could have turned out that he was a super-spy or some other non-magical explanation. But instead, the answer to the mystery is that he's a magical immortal. In the actual Wizard of Oz, the magic world is foreshadowed by Dorothy's wistful daydreams of a fantasy world. There's no reason someone can't daydream in a mundane world, but it does prep the reader for the wish-fulfillment aspect of actual magic. In The Neverending Story, the initial foreshadowing comes largely from the whimsical names of the characters.

The point is this --you don't have to go overboard in order to promise your reader forthcoming fantasy. Your foreshadowing could be a daydream, or a character reading a fantasy book, or a butterfly that reminds someone of a fairy, or an unsolved mystery, or any of a number of things --just enough to give a little flavor of what's to come.

4000 words isn't an awful lot. I understand the need to get the plot rolling, but it's good to establish the mundane that the MC will miss before ripping it from them and taking them on the adventure, and any critic that is complaining about your work solely because it isn't perfectly adhering to genre expectations is frankly impatient and unimaginative.

That being said, there are many ways to tell if you're spending too much time in 'Kansas'. Firstly, ask if it's going to be relevant in the later adventure, either for plot details or for characterisation. I don't want to use my own work as an example, but I'm much more familiar with my own writing process than others.

So, my character has a chapter of 'Kansas' around 5000 words, then at the end of another 5000-ish word chapter, she escapes 'Kansas' and starts her journey to the more magical ends of the world. However, every 'Kansas' scene has a purpose:

  • MC establishes herself as resentful of her neglectful mother
  • MC establishes herself as easily taking things personally and her rebelliousness by ruining her mother's bed; a 'safe environment' method of establishing an otherwise conflict-heavy trait.
  • The city she lives in is established to be urban and apathetic to the needs of the individual, as is her mother.
  • MC's love for her half-sister is established, proposing that should she leave, she would miss something.
  • Finally, she establishes herself as creative (in her pranks and snowman-building) and good at instinctive navigation.

All of these come into play later in the story; her resentfulness towards her mother mellows out into ready acceptance of a foster mother, her rebelliousness and sensitivity to criticism hamper her ability to become disciplined and good at archery, the city and her mother's apathy provides a solid reason for her to run away, her love for her half-sister provides her with internal conflict as she makes her way further from home, and lastly, her creativity and navigation skills are both skills she uses in the climax.

So, when you're constructing your early 'Kansas' scenes, think of it as... a small, sandbox-like area where character traits and motives are set up for later in the story but major, story-turning conflicts cannot come as a consequence.

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    yes, exactly this. Good examples. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 6 at 21:40
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    Wow, I feel honoured. Back when I was a lurker, I always enjoyed your answers, Lauren Ipsum. Is this what it feels like to be noticed by Sempai? XD – Matthew Dave Aug 6 at 21:50

I don't think 4000 words is too long; not at all. I am presuming this is a 100,000 word novel, I think you have 10% (10,000 words) for something "magical" to happen. I base that on the standard Three Act Structure, the first 10% of your work is introducing us to the Real World of your protagonist.

This is a rare case, because the modern reader is buying a fantasy novel, your cover art can indicate this is a fantasy novel, your Title can, and your blurb that hints what the book is about (or advertising hook or whatever you want to call it) can explicitly tell them this is a "fun fantasy romp full of interesting magic", or whatever you find appropriate that indicates it is, indeed, magical. You would put the same thing in your query letter.

Your readers will know they are reading a fantasy novel, and will give you the 10% leeway to develop your character and the "real world" setting. They aren't going to put the book down and say

"Golly, the cover shows a wizard, this was in the Fantasy Fiction section of the bookstore, and the Title says "John Quincy and the Wizard of Fire Magic", and the cover blurb says it is a fun and magical ride, and the endorsements say "imaginative magic". But I am almost done with sixteen of these four hundred pages and there hasn't been ANY magic! What a rip-off!"

No, they won't say that. They will be waiting for the inciting incident, whatever happens that takes your hero out of Kansas. The Title did the same thing for "The *Wizard of Oz", "Alice through the Looking Glass", and even the previews and other marketing did it for "The Matrix"; the equivalent of cover art.

Trust that Publishers know how to sell books to their audience, and Agents aren't stupid and will not reject you for opening a fantasy without jumping straight into magic or any mention of it. And readers, when they buy a book that looks like fantasy, is titled as fantasy, is talked about as fantasy, will read your 4000 words without a second thought, knowing you will get to the fantasy in an appropriate amount of time. You are well within the first 5%, and could even stretch it to 10% if circumstances warranted it.

  • I don't know how many people buy a book by its cover alone - I usually read the first chapter in the bookstore (or in the teaser when buying digital books). And if the first chapter doesn't hook me (and we are talking about a smaller book - not a bestseller with amazing reviews) I will usually give another one of the thousands of fantasy-novels out there a chance to get me with their first chapter. - So yeah you kinda have to get me to see the strong aspects of your writing and story in the first few pages. – Falco Aug 8 at 13:11
  • And this might as well be a different culture of acquiring books than in the past century. – Falco Aug 8 at 13:12
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    @Falco - while I somewhat agree with you here, the thing is: anything can grab a reader. Sure, I might pick up a book because it looks like the kind of story I read from the cover or synopsis, but when I have a look through it (and I'd likely read less than an entire chapter) what I'm looking for is a character who grabs me as interesting enough to read about for an entire book. Just deciding to buy the book I don't really care if the magic system is particularly cool, or if the world the protagonist is going to have to save hangs on a really tiny thread -- I'll give the writer enough... – Jules Aug 8 at 18:27
  • ...credit to assume that they've done something like that (and if they haven't, I'll probably not read any of their books again). But it's the characters that I want to know about in the first instance, because it takes much more time to get to grips with those larger issues, and you can't do that in a book store. – Jules Aug 8 at 18:28
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    @Falco What I mean is that the cover conveys information about the type of story you are reading; not that the cover is great. If there is a wizard with colorful sparks flying in an arc from his wand, and a white and black dragon fighting in the air: Fantasy. You know that, no matter how it opens, the cover is your promise. Likewise the Title, and the endorsement blurbs on the back cover, etc. Given all that, opening on the modern day streets of L.A. with zero magic could make the book more intriguing, you know where this is going and there is already tension: How does it get there? – Amadeus Aug 8 at 19:26

Not a writer, but I did a little research on your examples and it's too long for a comment, so I thought I'd write it up here.

On reading your question, you offered three classic examples: Wizard of Oz, Through the Looking Glass, and The Matrix. The Matrix is an interesting example because it doesn't start in Kansas - it has a startling, high-action, non-Kansas prologue before we see a bit of Kansas. At first I thought maybe, compared to the older books, this might be a concession to digital-age audiences with short attention spans, but then I thought back to Through the Looking Glass and realized I couldn't remember much of anything happening before going to Wonderland.

Looking at the text, it's Lewis Carroll's third sentence where we are clued in that something is afoot, by the White Rabbit speaking and using a pocket-watch. A couple sentences later and Alice is in the rabbit hole, falling down, down, down.

The Wizard of Oz doesn't get there quite as fast, but it does not dawdle. The first chapter has 753 words before we get to

Then a strange thing happened.

The house whirled around two or three times and rose slowly through the air. Dorothy felt as if she were going up in a balloon.

There are surely other stories that take a bit more time, but most of the ones I can think of get to "Oz" pretty quickly - the point of "Kansas" is to be mundane, why would you spend story time there?

Which isn't to say don't spend time in Kansas, but rather to say, make sure there is a strong purpose for time in Kansas. And if there is significant time in Kansas, consider a teaser prologue/first chapter to hook the reader in. These prototypical examples do not make the reader (viewer) wait.

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    But the film version of The Wizard of Oz would be, in literature form, a great deal longer than 753 words long. And that's because they are, really, two different stories. The book is Dorothy literally traveling to a real, physical place. There's not much need for setup. The film is Dorothy having a trauma-induced hallucination, and the extra time is needed to introduce the mundane characters who will later be the fantastic characters she meets in Oz. – Keith Morrison Aug 7 at 22:22

Hmm...how about starting with a prologue which is set in the magical world? Normally, I am opposed to prologues but this might be a situation where one could provide a detail (that this is a fantasy novel) which cannot be provided (early enough) in the narrative.

Aside from that, yes, I think readers' feedback is dead on. People who read fantasy expect fantasy, and if they don't get it right away they may get bored with the story. The only exception is if they actually enjoy whatever type of fiction the story is before it turns into fantasy, but then you still run into the problem of having the readers feel deceived. They started reading a gritty crime novel and their expectations were sent down that path, and then suddenly they are asked to switch directions and go in an entirely new direction. It's not something that people usually enjoy.

One thing you might try is to have your POV thinking about fantasy, even if (s)he doesn't encounter it in the world. A drug addict kid with an abusive, alcoholic father who escapes the world by fantasizing about being able to do magic. That allows readers to empathize, and to anticipate good things to come.

Now, 4000 words isn't too much...maybe a chapter or so. It might be enough to have magic on the cover. People might be willing to wait for a chapter before getting to the magic. However, be aware that as they are reading, they will be waiting for the magic. You need to give them something to anticipate. If, as they are reading, they are thinking "this will make things better for (the POV) once magic gets here" that gives them a good reason to keep reading, and as long as the magic "arrives" by the end of the chapter, you should be good. Longer than that and you may lose them.

Consider an example for a published series: the first novel of Chalker's Dancing Gods series, The River of Dancing Gods, is 101,380 words. The first chapter introduces the two protagonists and consists mostly of dialogue between Joe the trucker and Marge the runaway housewife giving each other their backstories and how they ended up on the same stretch of highway. It's 3,858 words into the first chapter before you reach the first paragraph where the first hint of weird things start to happen. In context of reading the whole book it doesn't seem excessive, and another 142 words wouldn't make or break it.

Of course, the whole point of this is that Chalker needed to introduce the characters because their motivations are important for why they are selected to be taken to a magical world: Marge has come out of an abusive relationship, she has no future and nothing to live for. Joe is just making his way through life. She's desperate for an escape. Joe is, at heart, noble. Neither will, in the grand scheme of things, be very important. Once that's established, then the wizard shows up and takes them to a world where they become very important.

For a 100,000 word novel, you're talking about 4% "mundane" intro, which I don't find to be excessive. If it were a movie, you're talking a few minutes to set things up. The eponymous Kansas scenes up to the tornado from the classic film version of The Wizard of Oz took up 18 pages of the 130 page script, lasted longer than four minutes (out of the 101 minute movie), even taking into account the singing.

Add a Prologue

  • The Matrix starts with Trinity getting chased down by agents, before it starts with mundane Neo.
  • Harry Potter starts with Dumbledore, and McGonagall, and Hagrid discussing the death of Voldemort, before going to mundane Harry.
  • The Way of Kings has a prologue about an ancient magical war fought by gods, and another about the assassin in white storming a castle and killing everyone with magic, before going to the humble beginnings of each main character.

So it seems from example that while humble beginnings are great to anchor the reader's perspective (so that magic is indeed magical), it's also good to start with potentially-confusing-magic/history/lore that starts to make sense as the main character learns about it.

Depends on the reader and probably also on the day they read it, but a lot of people aren't going to have the staying power unless the characters, and their struggles, are compelling and engaging. The Crooked Letter starts as an angsty love triangle foreign holiday for a chapter or two, turns into a horror/murder mystery for about half that and then the world quite literally comes apart for all involved and we're into grand epic fantasy territory. What remains the same and keeps the story moving forward through seven or eight books is the fact that it is always a character centred character driven story with compelling individuals. The world is never at any stage truly comprehensible but the characters drive the story along anyway.

Some rough rules of thumb:

  • Your first sentence must set the theme of the novel. (Williams, The Moral Premise)
  • No backstory in the first chapter. If you can, no backstory before page 100. (Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel)
  • Begin with the inciting incident, or let the first chapter end with it. (Provost, How to Tell a Story)
  • The first page introduces the protagonist, the setting, and the protagonist's circumstance in that setting. (from multiple sources)

If Kansas is your backstory, the "rules" tell you not to start in Kansas. That said, I am sure you have read more books that break these rules than books that follow them.

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    This doesn't seem to answer this specific question at all. – Chris Sunami Aug 6 at 20:47
  • I find the 1st sentence comment very interesting. It is the theme of the novel, but the reader just has no way of knowing what it means until chapters later – Andrey Aug 6 at 20:53
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    Where are you getting these rules from? Who set them down? Why are they important? These are declarative bullets with no reasoning behind them. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 6 at 21:41
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    @FredBob By all means, add your citations into your answer; they are helpful. And I did cite my source (the Hero's Journey), which should also be "common knowledge." But I'll certainly add more direct citations if you think it's useful. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 7 at 9:44
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    Reciting generic "common knowledge" without citing sources, giving examples, or directly connecting it to the immediate question is not an adequate answer for this site, particularly since it could be equally applicable or not applicable to practically any question. And undercutting your own advice at the end may be meant to be profound, but --for me-- it fails to have the impact you anticipate. Downvoted. (However, I would reverse that if the explanatory material from the comments were edited into the body of the answer). – Chris Sunami Aug 7 at 12:37

It's not about the magic, it's about the action, and about fulfilling promises. You have promised the readers magic; if you don't deliver, don't be surprised if they get bored and leave. But, it depends on expectation. If the blurb says:

Tim was a mighty enchanter, but not even his magic could defeat the ancient dragon

Then you need to have Tim showings some magic pretty much immediately. On the other hand, if your blurb is:

Tim never believed in magic. His life was ordinary, and he liked it that way. Until one day, he encountered something that would change his life forever

Then it's fine to have the first chapter - or even the first few chapters - open slowly, establishing his normal routine before you introduce the disruption of magic.

Similarly, the story has a plot, and you need to get that plot started! If the first chapter is all setup, describing the world without actually having anything significant happen, then it doesn't matter if the magic is there or not - people will get bored, and want to skip to the real story.

On the other hand, if you open with a dynamic, exciting scene, and the readers get a real sense that the plot is advancing, the lack of magic doesn't matter.

It sounds like your beta readers are confusing lack of story with lack of magic. They're thinking that you are spending too much time on the setup, without getting to the story. And just from your description, it sounds like even you know that's the case. Everyone knows what a mundane life is like, they don't need to read 4000 words describing it. Instead of starting by laying out their current situation and then changing it, maybe consider starting with just a couple of scenes to show "I am a typical normal person", and then (if necessary later) drawing comparisons to 'how it was before' to indicate the change.

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    Tim the Enchanter reference? – barbecue Aug 7 at 20:06
  • While your points are valid in context, a story should work fine if the book jacket is lost. It needs to stand on its own. – Joe Aug 8 at 8:24
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    @Joe Context is everything. A book doesn't need to have any fantasy elements in it at all, and plenty of books don't - but they are not considered part of the fantasy genre. Pride and Prejudice "works fine", but I think you'll agree it's pretty awful as a sci-fi novel, and not that great of a western either... The question is very much about matching a book to its readers expectations, and expectations don't come from thin air. – Benubird Aug 8 at 9:36

I've read some books that open by introducing the main characters in their mundane lives by beginning each sub-section of chapter 1 with something like "3 days and 17 hours prior". For instance, that would be followed by a couple pages that introduce main character and setting, then another subheader "2 days and 4 hour prior" begins the introduction of character 2 which goes on for a page or two, etc. until all necessary 'Kansas' characters/events/concepts have been introduced.

Some might think that heavy-handed, but I think it's an elegantly simple solution that could involve practically no re-writing, builds anticipation, and unambiguously let the reader know "hang on, the payoff is coming".

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