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?