Alternate Universe Tips

by Junior

Question: I would like to write a story that takes place in an alternative universe. The differences between it and ours are very small and almost nonexistent, aside from different history and perhaps how the government is run. I don't want the alternate universe part of the story to be part of the whole plot, but I want my readers to know they are reading a story not taking place in their own city. What is a good way to establish this?

Answer: I assume you mean that the physics and the geography of your fantasy world are similar, but the culture/social order is different?

I think you want to be very upfront about the fact that the story takes place in a world with an alternative history. The reader should know what type of story they are getting into.

One good technique is to choose some key difference that's important to the story and use it to hook the reader in the first paragraph by creating a little suspense.

I've used these examples before, but...

Consider how in The Hunger Games, the Reaping is mentioned in the very first paragraph as something Prim is afraid of. The reader's curiosity is aroused because the Reaping is a threat that frightens a little girl and because the reader doesn't know what the Reaping is. The term is unfamiliar in this context. So the reader will keep reading the first chapter to find out what's going on.

Similarly, the first paragraph of Divergent introduces the strange fact that people of Tris's faction can only look in the mirror once a month. This lets the reader know the story takes place in a very unusual community. It makes us curious to know why such an odd rule exists.

The opening also lets us know that the story world is divided into factions, but doesn't explain immediately what these factions are, so we keep reading that first paragraph to get an explanation.

Another example: in the second paragraph of Uglies, we learn that the main character has recently lost her best friend because he "turned pretty." Again, this term has a unique meaning in this story, which the readers don't know right away. It tells them that this is a different world, and it makes them curious to learn what is meant by the term.

Note that in all these cases, the explanation of the odd term is given within that first chapter, or at least within the first few chapters. So the reader's curiosity is satisfied fairly quickly. However, in the early pages we also learn a lot about the main character and her inner and outer conflicts. In most cases, we meet some other characters and witness some relationships, and we learn more interesting features of the story world.

Explaining the odd term fairly quickly ensures that the reader won't remain confused for too long and give up on the story. However, delaying the explanation for a few pages gives the reader the opportunity to become invested in the character and the story, which makes it more likely that he/she will keep reading.

Best of luck.

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