Sherwood Smith November 6th, 2006
An interesting discussion came up with someone I do a lot of writing talk with. Sheâ€™s been studying openings very closely, and has come up with some extremely fine observations on what works and what doesnâ€™t in genre, but she will choose the time and place when she shares the insights sheâ€™s still gathering.
But this particular discussion came up generally, over on Hatrack River.Â (I havenâ€™t read the discussion–no time, though I do have an interest–only her summary.)
The topic was of pertinence especially to genre writers, I thought, and that is, readers at the beginning of a new book want less to know what is happening than to find out what is happening next.
It took me some time to wrap my tiny brain round this concept, but once I did, I thought, hoo boy, this is a toughie, at least for me.Â Especially at the start of a sequel in a roman fleuve storyarc. What is meant is this: so many of us are anxious to get the reader oriented in our world, and how it works, that we tend to shove too much up at the front.Â We donâ€™t want to risk losing the reader, but also, we are so invested in our world and its workings that all our details are fascinating to us.Â Until the reader gets invested, itâ€™s just more detail to try to figure out, while one is also trying to pick up character clues and hints about whatâ€™s going on.Â Thus a reader might get overwhelmed with stuff that will hopefully mean a lot to them as they get into the story–but at the beginning, one doesnâ€™t know whatâ€™s important and what is just setting or backdropÂ Gulp.Â Holding hand up in guilt.
This is a particular bugbear for sequels in genre, because we can’t just blithely add in a quick phrase here and there: “MrÂ Detective Hero, who was raised on the streets of New York…”Â “Ms. Ongoing Love Interest, a professional masseuse…”Â Each quick phrase provides us with braink-links to all kinds of data, but similar phrases added to the opening of book two in The Dragon-Vampires in Space trilogy (“Captain Thundernuts of the sporble-craft Stenchpuff…”Â “S’llot’ta the zipril of famed Klusterduk”) don’t clue us in to anything–just pile on the questions.
Readers want to know whatâ€™s happening and who itâ€™s happening to.Â Thatâ€™s first.Â And then why, and where.Â Trying to remember that now as my mantra, and I thought Iâ€™d share it and see what others think.