Assuming your story is not a piece of flash fiction, by the end of the first two paragraphs or first 100-200 words most stories should answer the following questions
(1) Does the reader know who is telling the story (at this point)?
(2) Does the reader know the character’s name and gender? These are particularly important if writing in first person. And if you haven’t answered this, do you have a good story reason to withhold that information?
(3) Have you given the reader a GOOD reason to be interested in or to care about your character? What at that point has made the character INTERESTING?
(4) Does the reader know where the opening takes place, not necessarily in detail, but is there some sense of place? And if not, do you have a good reason not to reveal this? Have you properly oriented your reader?
(5) What have you presented that would make the reader want to continue reading, that is, has something significant or interesting happened (or been foreshadowed) that makes the reader want to read on?
That’s a lot of ask of the first couple hundred words of a story, and on top of it, the prose itself should be compelling and not dry.
In fairness to the many writers whose stories don’t adhere to all of the above principles, I will say–as I always say–that exceptions can exist for good reasons. I’ve already indicated in (2) and (3) possible exceptions to those questions. Yes, there are stories where you want to withhold information, and in some stories, the name and identity of the narrator are irrelevant.
The setting and the character’s name (and perhaps gender) may not be important enough to include in the opening. Maybe those are part of the mystery of the piece. Or they may be irrelevant to the story. Often the mood and voice of the story itself are sufficient.
It’s important, though, that you somehow make the reader aware of this, or else craft a piece that’s so compelling as to make the reader forget these or not care.
Be aware than even if the character’s identity is irrelevant to the story, the reader wants something to grab on to, and you do have to provide that.
One classic example that I’ve mentioned in previous blogs is Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” The story is being told by an anonymous narrator. His identity irrelevant because the story is about Emily. Even then, he’s not totally anonymous. Because the story is written in first-person plural (we), the author clearly indicates that the narrator is one of the townsfolk who is collectively speaking for everyone in the town. Here the voice carries the story, and this is a brilliant example of first-person narration shown and not told.
Setting becomes a bit more dicey to ignore. Without it we have the dreaded “white room” (unless the story really does take place in a white room).
Setting includes not only physical location but location in time as well. Don’t forget to clue your reader, especially if the setting is not contemporary, and don’t assume that historical references alone are sufficient. Mentioning the current U.S. President is a clear reference. Mentioning a particular TV program, product sold at the time may not be sufficient. Younger readers may not know what you’re referring to. In general, if not specified, readers will often assume events are taking place today. If you don’t want to leave that impression, be sure you specify.
Following these principles will help put your story on track. Be careful of exceptions to them.
However, the one principle/rule for which I have not found any exceptions is #5: a compelling reason to continue. Something has to make me, the reader, want to keep reading. Without that, all the gorgeous and perfectly crafted prose, stellar ideas, and clever writing techniques in the world are useless.
All right, I see those frantically waved hands, and I hear those cries of exceptions–published exceptions (maybe even classics). Perhaps some of you are shouting, “Literature for art’s sake! The idea is what matters more than whether a reader finds the character interesting or knows when or where the story takes place.”
Really? If that’s the case, then you have the perfect recipe for a possibly forgettable piece of writing.
Is the “gorgeousness and gorgeosity” (a lovely phrase from a passage by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange in reference to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) of the prose more important than whether the story is actually any good? (I’ve provided the extended quote from A Clockwork Orange at the end of this post.) If you truly believe that, then feel free to ignore everything in this post.
After you’ve dealt appropriately with questions 1-5, new questions come into play, and you still have a lot of work ahead of you.
(6) Have you continued the tension or interest set up in the beginning, or do you lapse into backstory, description, and irrelevant or weak material that does little or nothing to move the story forward?
(7) Does the story make sense to the reader and does it keep moving forward? Do you drop in tidbits that pull the reader along?
All of these questions are independent of the type or genre of the story. It doesn’t matter if you’ve crafted a quiet character study, a romance, a mystery, a fantasy, an action-packed thriller, or a literary piece. If the opening doesn’t promise your reader an interesting read, why should he read on?
From time to time I’ll encounter a writer who justifies or defends a confusing story with something like “it’s all in there” or “it will all become clear later.” Such writers fail to understand the difference between mystery and confusion. Worse, they fail to realize that it’s clear to them because they know what they meant, but that they haven’t made it clear to the reader.
I’ll leave you with a good piece of advice: Anytime a reader says he finds your opening confusing, you need to take a hard, objective look at it. Don’t dismiss the comment, not even if no one else complains. I can guarantee that he is not a lone exception. And if more than one person mentions the same thing, then you definitely have a problem and you ignore it at your own risk.
As promised, here’s the quote from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE that illustrates both gorgeous, artful prose and a voice so compelling that the reader can’t help but be pulled along. It’s also a case of brilliant and justifiable “purple prose.” (NOTE: “Gulliver” is Burgess’ slang for “head.”)
“Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.”
(In case you’re wondering, I read this novel a many years ago, but as I was writing this blog the word gorgeosity popped into my head and reminded me of it, so I looked up the quote. I’ll try not to let my mind wander so much in the future.)