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I'm coming up with an outline for a cyberpunk story. I want to establish (at some point) that the main character has marksmanship proficiency by starting my cyberpunk story with a VR sequence, in which the character is firing arrows as an Elf/Orc/some other fantasy race (akin to World of Warcraft).

At first I thought this would be a fun, from left field way to establish this as opposed to simply making my character a mercenary or such, but I'm concerned it may be jarring to the reader.

QUESTION: Is starting a novel with a non-real scene too jarring or confusing for readers?

I plan on going from this VR sim to the "regular, Cyberpunk world" after the first chapter, and basically never returning to that specific game.

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There's nothing wrong with starting your story with a fantasy VR sequence. This is known as a Fake-Out Opening (TV Tropes link warning!).

What you want to avoid - and what you do seem to be concerned about - is confusing the reader. The last thing you want is them picking up your cyberpunk novel, getting a few pages in, and putting it down because they don't realise what's going on and think you lied to them in the blurb. "I came here for cyberpunk, not World of Warcraft!"

I'd say you have two options:

  1. Make it immediately obvious that the scene takes place in a VR world (up to you how to do this).
  2. Make the scene short enough that it ends before anyone becomes convinced that your story isn't actually cyberpunk. I understand that the intent of the scene is to set up the protagonist's aiming skills, but devoting an entire chapter to that, in a VR setting that will never be mentioned again, seems a little excessive.
  • Thank you! You're right that I was concerned that a reader would be annoyed with the fake-out opening (thanks for the terminology too) if they were looking for a Cyberpunk novel. I think I'll do a combination of both of your options: Make it obvious that the scene is VR, but still make it short enough that it doesn't distract from the main plot much (less than a chapter). – Ninjalah Oct 4 at 0:44
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ANSWER: It Depends.

I think this is what you'd call a prologue. It might not be structured like one, but it probably could be and therefor is.

In almost all cases you don't need prologues. The common advice for newer writers to avoid them. The reason for this is that its common these days for stories to start "en media res" which means in the middle. Lot's of novice writers start with a prologue, but its distracting, uninteresting, or creates false promises. It can cause a reader to lose interest.

However, prologues are really common in certain forms of literature. In certain forms of literature its harder to find books without them than it is with them.

There's a lot of literature on this. You can do it. It is done. But, it is as successful as it is engaging/relevant to the story.

Just to nit-pick, all story is fiction on some level; none of it is real. Pieces of stories matter if they are engaging and cause the reader to turn the page and not give up. So as long as you aren't turning readers away, you can do whatever you like (if your goal is to keep people reading).

This answer felt pretty tautological to me to write, so hopefully its helped in someway.

The things you have to consider are the things you always have to consider. What is the tone you're going for? Who is your audience and what do they expect, what will they tolerate? How relevant is the dream/vr scene to the whole of the story? If its not related to your book's primary mission, you probably don't need it.

  • This answer was definitely helpful, especially about skipping the prologue altogether. Perhaps it's best to start in the middle of things, and maybe move this VR sequence to a place further in the story, and keep it short and sweet. – Ninjalah Oct 4 at 0:55
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I don't think it's a good idea; when a reader opens a book they expect to learn some things about the characters in their normal world. If you open with a VR, the reader will assume that IS the normal world, and real. Orcs and other fantasy beings are only known because in some fantasy (like Lord of the Rings) they were real, how are readers supposed to guess the VR is a game?

The jarring aspect of finding out it is a video game will most likely cause disappointment, not delight, and turn your story into something different than they thought they were reading, and perhaps put the story down.

At best, they might re-read knowing it is a game. I wouldn't do it, the opening of a book is to show the actual normal world of your Main Character, and quickly (like within four pages) have them interacting with some one else, even a walk-on we won't see again. The point is to know their normal world and have the reader sympathize with the MC, at least understand something about the MC, before you put the MC into a meat grinder and change their normal world.

I think you can fix this with a line.

Jake put his goggles back on and un-paused the game.

Better yet, leave the marksmanship for later, show us Jake in some way doing what he does every day in his normal world, interacting with real people, perhaps getting ready to play a game, or getting into a "pick up" game while visiting someone else.

Playing a game may indeed be a daily occurrence in his normal world, but tricking the reader into thinking the game is reality is not a good idea. And even your MC does not think it is real, nobody playing a game thinks it is real. So your narrator is intentionally lying to the reader by narrating as if it were real.

  • While I came to the conclusion from @F1Krazy 's answer that I'd like to shorten this section and make it obvious that the sequence takes place in VR, I think you have a good point about maybe placing it a bit later in the story rather than opening with it, and instead opening with an intro to the character instead of the character's RPG character. – Ninjalah Oct 4 at 0:47

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