Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Am I Confusing You?

I don't get around to blogs as nearly as I want to anymore. If I hit them all once a week I'm doing well these days, but I had to check out Patti Nielson's post today entitled "The Phone Call." And while it wasn't a phone call from an agent, it was a great blog post posing the question, how much information is necessary to dole out to a reader right away?  If you want to know how that relates to a phone call, go read the post!

I've been thinking about this lately because in one of the packets I sent to my advisor this semester, I included a prologue to my book. I know that prologues are not in vogue with agents these days, but they do always say, "Figure out where your story really starts and begin there," and my story really starts ten years before my character comes back to her home town. And also, I wanted to avoid the opening scene being a girl driving back into town reminiscing.

So I started the prologue by dropping the reader into a scene, just like I've seen agents say readers want. There is immediate conflict, immediate action, immediate drama. I liked it.

I sent it off to my advisor with the question: Does this work as a beginning to my story?

Her answer, because she is just this wise, was "I can't tell you that." And then she proceeded to ask me all sorts of questions to help me answer my question myself. It's a Socrates thing, I guess. Which is totally working for her, because the things she ask teach me - not just about this particular book (which is what would have happened if she just said, "Yes. By all means make this your prologue!"), but she's made me think about beginning any book, and what needs to happen in those opening pages.

While she does say the scene absolutely needs to be in the books, she also pointed out that it didn't necessarily need to go first, even though that's where it fits chronologically. (I'm learning a lot about this from her... how to fit all my character's history in with vivid scenes that don't feel like backstory.)

But also, you not only have to hook a reader in the opening pages, you also need to not lose them.

Don't introduce too many characters we can't keep track of.

Release information on a need-to-know basis. Only include what is necessary to know; don't clutter the scene with information the reader might think is important that actually isn't.

On the flip side, if the reader needs to know something, give it to them! Don't drop them so suddenly into a scene that they don't know where they are or what is happening. Not that you should take away the suspense factor, but you shouldn't leave them confused either.

This is what she said:

"You want your prologue [or first chapter] to pull the reader in by raising questions that we really want to get answered....What you don’t want it to do is leave us wondering, sentence by sentence, what is going on here? In other words, you should be in control of what questions will arise in the reader’s mind."

I think for me the only way I can check if I'm doing this right is asking someone else to read the pages for me, and then asking them, "What do you think is going to be important here? What do you wish you knew? Were you confused by anything you wish I'd clarify?" 

It's a delicate balance, I think, between giving the reader enough information that they aren't confused, but little enough to entice them to read more.

As a reader, how much lack-of-information are you willing to tolerate at the beginning of a book, and how long will you read before you need the blanks filled in?


  1. I like to know the main character right away and perhaps one or two of her friends. We should probably know the antagonist in the first chapter or two as well.

    Too much info does bother me and could keep me from completing a book.

    It is a delicate balance for sure.

    On a side note, I actually wrote a blog post today.

  2. Thanks for the shout out.

    I wrote a prologue for my book as well, but in the end just took the information and dispersed it in my novel. Since mine is fantasy and set a thousand years before my book starts, one of the people I had critique my book said it gave the reader the impression that it was a different kind of book, since I jump in time.

    Plus it made my query really hard to write.

    I liked the advise your advisor gave you about raising questions and since we know the answers already the best way to know is to get someone who doesn't know the answers read it.

  3. Ugh, as always, I leave your blog more intelligent, but also more frustrated! HAHA I mean that in a good way, if you know what I mean. Loved this!!

  4. I love when advisers ask questions rather than tell us what to do.

    As a reader, it really depends on what I need to know. If it's important and pertains to what's going on, or is a side note. Take The Hunger Games for instance. She starts out talking about the Reaping. I of-course had no idea what this was. Part of me wished she'd just tell me, but then she showed me and although it was irritating at first not knowing what she was talking about exactly, showing it to me was better. :)

  5. The Lighter SIde of Life and Death was a great book (if a little sexually explicit for teens) BUT the first chapter was a whirlwind of characters, and people, and it was a LOT to keep track of.

    I just started one on Monday morning with this big deal, and then the next few scenes go back through the weekend so you can see how she gets to this spot. I'd opened the book a million different ways, and I'm not always fond of flashbacks right up front, but I (think) in this case it works.

    Good luck figuring out where to put your scene. OH! Another series that did a great job with flashbacks is The Summer I Turned Pretty - it's an easy read, and I've read it twice now, just to see how easily and seamlessly she did her flashback chapters. Genius.

  6. Uh...man! You've raised some really interesting points. I guess I will tolerate SOME lack-of-information--I like the mystery part of it, the anticipation of figuring out what it all means--but my attention span is limited, so it can't go on for too long!

    And now this is me whining: "Heeeeidi, I wanna learn 'how to fit all my character's history in with vivid scenes that don't feel like backstory.' You're so lucky!

  7. That's a hard question and I think it totally depends on the book and how the author writes it.

    I recently finished a book where I really had no idea what was happening until the end. Once the end hit, I had some answers but more questions. Still, I was oddly satisfied. More then just satisfied. It's one of my favorite reads in a long, long time. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.

    There are other books where I didn't know enough and couldn't finish, so it's hard to answer that.

    PS I too have had trouble hitting all my blogs lately. Lots going on.

  8. I like the questions you advise to pose to your readers. Lack of information can be just as irritating as too much action, and too many characters introduced too quickly. Good writing is a balance between 'too much' and 'not enough.' As a reader, I may drop a book after the first two chapters if frustrated by lack of information or confused by the characters. I will then go read the reviews of the book just to see if I'm missing something! Sometimes I just need another perspective to give the book a chance.