These People is a way to start a book not with immediate action, but in a way that makes us interested in what is going on because these people aren’t the sort we meet on our regular walk around the park.
These people grabs with the sheer weirdness of what these people are thinking/doing/talking about.
Mind you, after that you have to hook them with your plot, because, well, you can just keep flashing fascinating people in front of the reader, one after the other. Or rather you can, but then nothing holds together and even the fascinating people become boring after a while.
If you are, as young, fledgeling Sarah was, someone who writes from the character out (the only thing in which I am a stereotypical woman, I think. Well, that and the collection of shoes) one way to think of plot is that plot is your way to display the character. No matter how fascinating your character is, if you only have him sitting there and thinking interesting thoughts/saying interesting stuff, people will get bored. Even Nero Wolfe (at some point we need a post about naming characters, no?) had things happen to and around him for him to react to. And not just going up to the orchids and cooking, mind you. Even Rex Stout found it necessary to poke his immovable object out of the house now and then to make some facets of his personality more obvious.
So after you make us interested in your fascinating people, you must poke them out of their comfort zone and make them do things. With plot!
For now, though, how do you convey their fascinating character right up front?
I once accidentally wrote a “these people” opening. Stop laughing. This was my first functional novel written not-in-my-first-world. It came to me while pregnant with first son, but didn’t get set down till second son. (And note that in between we moved three times.) (Functional is relative, btw, since I crammed three books in one and my plot remained notional. It was good enough however to win me some contests.)
So by that time I’d lived with the world for a few years. And it shocked me when it won a contest and my conference with the editor who judged it yielded this “I wanted to read more, because these people don’t seem crazy or psychopaths.”
That’s because I opened with a man and a teenager sacrificing a bull. For their system of magic it made perfect sense, since magic was performed by a symbiont who got fed by “spirit essence.” They weren’t crazy, they were worried by rumors of war. (Yes, I have to rewrite that eventually. Now I know how.) BUT opening the book straight out you go “Who are these people, and why are they doing this?)
One of those “these people” openings is Simak’s City, in which we’re in the head of a dog who informs us he doesn’t know if cities or men ever existed. Yes, it’s also in a way a “Wait what” but it’s too slow for that, and you’re going along going “These… people?”
Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber:
It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.
I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded. I was sprawled there in the hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.
I squeezed my eyes shut, and opened them, three time.
The room grew steady.
Where the hell was I?
Then the fogs were slowly broken and some of that which I called memory returned to me. I recalled nights and nurses and needles. Every time things would begin to clear a bit, someone would come in and jab me with something. That’s how it had been. Yes. Now, though, I was feeling halfway decent. They’d have to stop.
The thought came to assail me: Maybe not.
These people…. why is this man in a hospital. Are the nurses and doctors treating him or making him worse?
And to prove this opening goes back a long while, Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:
It was in Warwick Castle that I came across the curious stranger whom I am going to talk about. He attracted me by three things: his candid simplicity, his marvelous familiarity with ancient armor, and the restfulness of his company–for he did all the talking.
We fell together, as modest people will, in the tail of the herd that was being shown through, and he at once began to say things which interested me. As he talked along, softly, pleasantly, flowingly, he seemed to drift away imperceptibly out of this world
and time, and into some remote era and old forgotten country; and so he gradually wove such a spell about me that I seemed to move among the specters and shadows and dust and mold of a gray antiquity, holding speech with a relic of it! Exactly as I would
speak of my nearest personal friends or enemies, or my most familiar neighbors, he spoke of Sir Bedivere, Sir Bors de Ganis, Sir Launcelot of the Lake, Sir Galahad, and all the other great names of the Table Round–and how old, old, unspeakably old and faded and dry and musty and ancient he came to look as he went on! Presently he turned to me and said, just as one might speak of the weather, or any other common matter–
“You know about transmigration of souls; do you know about
transposition of epochs–and bodies?”
So, can you have interesting people, or people whose motives aren’t immediately apparent, to draw people to where the action starts?
Give it a spin.