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How to use Point of Departure in an Alternative History Novel

If you’re writing an alternative history story and your readers say they find it implausible, this article shows how to make them suspend their disbelief by using a clear Point of Departure.

A True Story

My novel A Kill in the Morning is set in an alternate 1955. In the alternate world, the death of Winston Churchill in 1941 led to the Second World War ending in a negotiated peace in 1943. In the book the Nazis are still in power in Germany.

When it was being reviewed I had a comment from a reader that went something like this:

Duh! First you say it’s 1955, then you say that Hitler is in power. Hitler died in 1945, dummy!

What’s an alternate history author to do?

I could have just dismissed the criticism. Obviously the reviewer didn’t get it. What a moron! But then I thought, if he didn’t get it, maybe other people wouldn’t get it either. I realised the problem was me. I was the moron.

I hadn’t made the Point of Departure clear.

What’s a Point of Departure?

A Point of Departure (or divergence) is a single incident that’s not the same in the alternative world as it was in the real world. Because of that one alteration, more and more things change, creating the alternative history.

The Point of Departure starts with an actual historical event, such as Napoléon losing the Battle of Waterloo. It replaces that event with another, like Napoléon winning the Battle of Waterloo.

That point of departure is the starting point for building a different world. The alternative history is the answer to the question, ‘What if?’ As in, ‘What if Napoléon won the Battle of Waterloo?’

Stamping Butterflies

The changes to real history caused by the Point of Departure should predictable, at least to start with. Later, what are called ‘butterflies’ can come in.

The term butterflies is a reference to the famous ‘butterfly effect’, where a small change in one place can result in huge and unpredictable differences later.

The Butterfly Effect is a name coined by Edward Lorenz, who used the example of a butterfly flapping its wings causing a hurricane several weeks later.

So, if Napoléon winning the Battle of Waterloo means fifty years later Brazil is a world power, that’s a ‘butterfly’.

Example Points of Departure

The Germans successfully invade Great Britain in 1940.

SS-GB  by Len Deighton

Giuseppe Zangara assassinates President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K Dick

Reinhard Heydrich is not assassinated in 1942

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Victorian inventor Charles Babbage makes his mechanical computer work.

The Difference Engine  by William Gibson

The Alternate Timeline

Once we decide our Point of Departure we have to decide how history diverged afterwards, up to the time of the story. We have to research a timeline.

For example, for A Kill in the Morning   my timeline involved spending time researching World War Two. I produced an alternative timeline starting in 1941 and extending to the time of the novel, 1955.

We will go into more details on how to research a timeline in a separate article.

Who cares?

You could just say ‘Who cares why the Roman Empire never collapsed. I just want to write about Roman gladiators fighting on the moon!’

But remember:

  • The only way to sell a lot of books is to make your readers fall in love with your book.
  • To fall in love, they have to suspend disbelief.
  • To convince them to suspend disbelief, your alternate world needs to be as convincing as a real historical setting.
  • One thing that helps to convince is a clear Point of Departure.

Yes, but how?

So how do we make the point of departure clear?

Spell out the Point of Departure twice in the first chapter.

It’s simple really: the explanation has to be up front in the novel, preferably in the first few pages. If the reader is confused they will never get to your great description on page fifty.

I found readers only started to ‘get’ my novel when I mentioned the Point of Departure twice in the first chapter. People do tend to skim a bit sometimes and you can’t be sure they will see your explanation unless you refer to it more than once.

The more advanced technique of how to include all the necessary back story and exposition without stopping the action for a two page ‘info-dump’ will be the subject of a separate article.

How to use a Point of Departure

Summary

So, we’ve learnt:

  • The Point of Departure is a single incident where history diverged.
  • A clear explanation of the Point of Departure helps you make your alternate history story grab the reader.
  • The Point of Departure should be clearly explained in the first chapter of your novel.

Using the Point of Departure will help you be more successful as an author, but there’s still a lot more to learn about writing Alternate History. We’ll cover other tips in further articles in the series.

Agree? Disagree?

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