In my current concept, I have a “steampunk” world that is centered around class-based slave labor, in which “modern” ideologies about freedom either never happened (history splits about 1600-1700 AD) or are severely suppressed by the established powers. As an “extreme” amateur, I do not trust myself to effectively get the story off the ground, and was wondering how to get the story off the ground, without being too cliché, as in “oopsy, this resistance person accidentally lets these incriminating documents fall into the hands of a 15-year-old “Worker” (slave)(the main character),” but does not go beyond my scope of experience in terms of literary/intellectual complexity.
My experience is considerably limited, as I am only a high schooler with a keen interest in the literary arts. I am not handy with prose or very complex plots, and my personal brainstorming has really only come to very cliché things, like him getting something he shouldn’t, or outlandish and obviously beyond my abilities, like aliens, and post-apocalyptic government conspiracies, etc. I am looking to find a way to convincingly establish the plot away from the menial opening sequence, and establish the main plot of cat and mouse across the American countryside.
Hey Paul, thanks for writing in!
Getting a story started is surprisingly difficult, as every writer discovers when they first put hands to the keyboard. There are a number of different methods available, but the key is to start by giving your protagonist an important problem they need to solve. In some stories, you can introduce the main plot right away and just get going. In other stories, that doesn’t work, and so you need a smaller problem that will lead into the main plot. It sounds like your story falls into the latter category.
With that in mind, I recommend looking at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for inspiration. While not a perfect book by any means, Sorcerer’s Stone does a great job in this area. It opens with the problem of Harry being miserable with the Dursleys. After strange letters start appearing, Harry eventually solves his problem (for the time being) by going to Hogwarts. This leads into the book’s main plot, which is about Harry learning to be a wizard while the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone builds in the background.
You could adopt this to your story a number of ways. Perhaps your protagonist spends long evening hours after his work shift searching through junkyards for valuable salvage. As slaves, they and their family likely don’t have enough to eat. Pickings have been worse than normal lately, forcing them to travel further afield, and this day they discoverer the wreck of a steampunk vehicle, the pilot barely clinging to life. The pilot hands your protagonist a set of documents critical to the resistance, then dies. This links your opening problem with the main plot, assuming the main plot is resisting class-based slavery.
The important thing is that whatever problem you open with has to feel related to your main plot. Otherwise, readers will feel like it is a waste of time. Sorcerer’s Stone does this by having its opening problem center around Harry getting weird letters delivered via owl: something that’s clearly magical. It wouldn’t have worked if the beginning was just him feeling bad about school and then getting his Hogwarts letter.
My partner Chris also wrote two posts that might be helpful to you:
One other thing I’d advise you to keep in mind: in any setting where slavery exists, slaves will want to be free. While ideas from the Enlightenment period contributed to European abolitionism, slaves wanted to be free long before that. While it totally works to have a setting where slavery is widespread, it’s important to remember that slaves don’t need complicated ideologies to know their situation is bad.
I hope that’s helpful.
Do you have a question you’d like answered by Oren or Chris? Submit it here. Q&As are only made public if you give your permission and we decide to feature it. If you’d like more than an answer to a general question, you can hire us to look over your story.