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
I set my novel A Kill in the Morning in an alternate 1955. In the alternate world, the death of Winston Churchill in 1941 led to a ceasefire between Great Britain and Nazi Germany. Eventually the war between Germany and the Soviet Union ended in a negotiated peace in 1943. In the novel, the Nazis are still in power in Germany and are fighting a three-way Cold War with the British and Soviets.
When I was first getting feedback on A Kill in the Morning, 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 I was the moron. The problem was with me.
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?’
(For more on Alternative History, see What is Alternative History?)
The changes to real history caused by the Point of Departure should predictable, at least to start with. Later, what they call ‘butterflies’ can come in.
The term butterflies is a reference to the famous ‘butterfly effect’, where a slight change in one place can cause 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
What if the Germans successfully invade Great Britain in 1940?
What if Giuseppe Zangara assassinates President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933?
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
What if the Czech resistance fail to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in 1942?
What if 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, writing A Kill in the Morning involved me producing an alternative timeline, starting in 1941 and extending to the time of the novel, 1955.
Point of Departure: 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!’
- 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 Do I Write a Point of Departure?
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’ll never get to your grand description on page fifty. And people skim a bit sometimes, so you can’t be sure they will see your explanation unless you refer to it more than once.
Major publishers Transworld bought and published my alternative history novel A Kill in the Morning. It has had lots of great reviews, and not one has asked why Hitler is still in power in 1955!
You can read the opening here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning.
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.
- Why you should clearly explain the Point of Departure 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.
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