19 November, 2010

Ease or Throw the Reader?

Some books put the reader straight into the setting the story is based on. Others try to ease you into it, through discoveries made by the main character.

I prefer the kind of book that puts you straight into the setting without preamble, another reason SF/F are my favorite genres most of the time. There's no preamble, and things are usually described in the first chapter or so, as you get used to the character's surroundings. Or they're just stated, and the reader is shown how the world works.

Easing the reader into the story--sucking them in, even though there are just clues as to something bigger that may or may not be around the corner--can be hard, and it's easy to bungle. A lot of authors pull it off well, but some do not. I find this especially with books where the protagonist is finding out something about another character, who typically has some sort of secret behind his/her existence, or when the secret's about the MC him/herself.

One problem I find with simply putting the reader into the story is because some things just don't make sense at first. I can occasionally get lost in Science Fiction with the technology--the books appeal to my geek side, but sometimes it's hard to understand the jargon, especially when it comes to things like gaming. (I know little about gaming.) And sometimes the terms are completely made up, and you have to guess what they're talking about, which can be annoying.

But easing the reader into the story can be jagged and feel wrong. The discovery has to be smooth and not terribly obvious, so that the reader has something to actually guess at. Otherwise, that part of the magic is lost. It can work if the reader already knows what's behind whatever's happening in the story, but if the character is unrealistically reacting to things and saying something that fit their character (or general common sense) then it doesn't. And when the MC finds out the secret . . . well, they can't be all "ooooh, goody!" or "I still trust you besides the fact you can kill me and I know practically nothing about you!" because in good ol' Real Life people don't do that. They freak out and tell their friends the person's insane.

Hopefully, anyway.

I could be being too literal with this . . . it's just fiction. But if the world isn't presented right, or if there's something I don't understand, it bugs me. I like my books wrapped up tight, and if they're not, then I tend to get frustrated.

What do you think? Ease, or throw the reader into the story? Do you prefer either? Does it affect your opinion of a book if the beginning events aren't explained completely, or if the protagonist is reacting in a way that's not true to life?

-----The Golden Eagle


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Judging from a recent review of my book, I guess I just dump the main characters right in and let the readers hit the ground running.
Speculative fiction is difficult sometimes because there are so many new and unfamiliar words. I really tried to limit that in my writing.

....Petty Witter said...

What an interesting post - you have me thinking.

Hmm, I think I'm going to have to sit on the fence with this one as it really does depend on several other things for me. What i will say though is I get so annoyed when plotlines/characters take over long to develop.

Sangu said...

This is a great post because it throws up so many questions. I think I'd have to say that either way can work for me. I hate being flung into an opening action scene that's been written just to be an "explosive opening" (i.e. isn't actually relevant to the later story, feels too contrived, doesn't seem like a natural start), but I do like it when authors suck you straight in and do it well. I also love 'easing in' openings if they're done well too: if a writer is good enough, they can make ordinary daily activities seem interesting, and far more compelling that a straightforward 'blockbuster' opening.

Brian said...

I agree with you, I get lost if something happens several chapters in and there were pieces in the first chapter. Then again, being lost is somewhat normal for me!

Julie said...

I need to care about a character, at least a little bit, before they are thrown into the Great Meat Grinder of the story. If bad things go a'swirling too soon, I never connect because I feel the risk to the characters is too great for me to really go with them. And nothing kills a read like not caring about the characters. So, I say, a little lead it works better for me than instant story.

Lydia Kang said...

interesting post, especially since I'm writing a sci-fi right now. I just dumped my people in there, because there was no easy way to "ease" them in!

Sun Singer said...

I used to read tons of ScFI, so I know what you mean when you say that sometimes there's a lot of techie jargon that the reader has to try and figure out.

Both kinds of stories appeal to me, the quick start and the slow start, and both--I think--can be compelling.


C. N. Nevets said...

@G'Eagle - I think this is one of the most important questions any writer needs to address. The best example of world-building I've run into in years is in Tim Stretton's The Dog of the North, a fantasy novel set in a world with its own unique geography, culture, religion, politics, the whole enchilada.

He builds the world with no preamble, no lengthy exposition, no tedious descriptions or ponderous digressions into the wheres-and-whats of the world. It's all done in how he describes things within the natural narrative, and in his careful crafting of the characters.

I never felt bored, and I never felt lost.

Truly amazing, and I think reading that book really changed me as a writer.

Rachel Morgan said...

I like to throw the reader into the story, BUT... I wouldn't want there to be TOO many unexplained things right in the beginning. Because that might confuse the reader, and then irritate the reader, and then... well the reader might put the book down!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

My books are very character-driven, so I have to reveal a lot about them up front so the reader will identify with their struggles. Since info dumps are frowned upon, I have to do this with interaction. Only once really used an action scene to get things rolling.

N. R. Williams said...

I agree with you Golden. In my high fantasy, the setting and heroine with all the different sensations she faces was number one. It was so important to put the reader in some action first. Since this is a portal story, I had to open in the real world. Missie's real world. She is in college getting a music degree in flute. So it opens with her performance of her flute and how she feels about it. First chapter ends with a bang, she is in the special world. I hope I've done a good job, I sure did try.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Talli Roland said...

I'm with you, because I prefer the book to start with action - something the relates to the main conflict of the story. I don't like a lot of description to wade through at the opening.

Quinn said...

I pretty much agree with everything you said. I like to just start, but sometimes it's easy to get lost in an entirely new world and then I just don't want to continue. It's a tough balance to find.

Holly Ruggiero said...

I like them both. It is all about how it is written.

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

First of all--New Follower! *waves*

I really don't know how I've missed your blog for all this time, but I'm glad I've found you now. I love connecting with other writers.

Personally I *try* (emphasis on TRY) to walk a fine line. I like to start with something already happening, but I also like to ease readers in. So I try to pick something a little small and simple to have going on, that way it's not that hard for everyone to catch up.

It'll be up to my readers to decide if I pulled it off. :)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

It can be fun to be thrown right into the story - James Dashner is a master at it. I don't judge a book poorly if I'm not, though. :-)

Clarissa Draper said...

Oh, good question. I think it depends on the skill of the writer. If they can make the reader feel they've known that world their whole life, it's a win!


Old Kitty said...

Oh I like both! I like to be eased into a story as done with the "classics" (Dickens, Austen etc) and I also like being plunged straight into the action like in lots of SF/Fantasy and others too - I'm thinking the prologue to Lace for instance!

Great post! Thank you, take care

Becca and Zippy said...

I like the thrown-into-the-story ones better. You grow more with the character. Great post! :)

Icewolf said...

I do a bit of both. I ease it in, but I do it FAST. :)

Chris Phillips said...

I like SF for the same reason. You have to be careful not to spoonfeed content to your audience though.

Paul C said...

I like to be enticed into a story from the first sentence. It's the arrangement of words, the nuance, the subtlety of images...

Adina West said...

I don't have a specific preference as I think both methods can work. My WIP is probably more of an ease-into-the-world than the other, but obviously the key with both ways is to do it well. And therein lies the challenge for us writers.

Honestly I don't think we as writers can know if we've got that balance right except through extensive feedback from readers. Are they keeping up? Are we spoonfeeding them too much info? Their feedback allows us to tweak and refine.

Enjoyed the post.

Madeleine said...

Yes this is very thought provoking. I love stories that throw you into the action so long as it's not too violent and tense for too long and yet I also love books that begin with a briliantly meandering description. So I would have to say that it depends on the talent of the author and how receptive the reader is to different styles of writing. I went through a phase of only reading autobiogs and I found it hard to get back into fiction at first afterwards. :O)

The Words Crafter said...

Interesting...I suppose either way is fine with me as long as I don't get lost. I hate going around the block to get next door. If it needs to be set right away, just do it. If ambiguous fits the mood and tone, do it carefully.

Helen Ginger said...

I think I'm more of the know-what's-going-on kind of person, although I want to be thrown into the story from the opening sentence. But I don't want to be lost. I'm thinking of a book I started recently where I was thrown into the story, but quickly got lost. Each chapter focuses on a different character. The characters, though, are too similar. I finally put the book down because I couldn't tell them apart.

RaShelle said...

The three novels I can think of are Harry Potter, Uglies and Hunger Games. I felt eased into the world of Harry Potter and loved slipping into that world. With the Uglies, it just begins with them in their world. He did a great job with it, but I much preferred JK Rowlings style. The Hunger Games was a perfect shock of newness, to me. We were thrown in, but given a brilliant, yet not overly complex description of the world.

ps: I have an award for you over on my blog. =D

Debbie Curran said...

This is a great post - and one we should all take note of. I jsut received a critique on the first third of my MS and was praised for the 'ease' with which I had the MC enter the alternate world... unfortunately he was already IN the alternate, so clearly I've some work to do on that! lol For me, something I really need to watch. Great post! :)

Rachael Harrie said...

Great question. In my wip, I threw people into the action, but I had feedback that it was too hard too fast. So I've wound the clock back a little to give readers a chance to get to know the MC before nasty things start happening to her ;)


Arlee Bird said...

I like to just get into the story and learn things as I need to know them. I start out with too much backstory and explanations, it can be easy to lose interest and it feels too sterile.
It depends a lot on the author's skill of course. Some can pull it off and make it interesting.

Tossing It Out

Jen Chandler said...

I like both. It depends on the tale and both can work really well (or lose you really fast). I tend to write the ease in kind of stories (I do love revealing secrets) but this new one, my NaNo novel, is kind of in your face. No building. Just there. And I'm enjoying it :)


The Golden Eagle said...

Alex: There are a lot of things for a reader to absorb in something like speculative--it's a whole new world.

Now I'm really looking forward to reading your book. :D

Petty Witter: Me, too. I don't like it when characters take forever--it just gets boring/dull, and the books seems to lose its point.

Sangu: I don't like conflict that opens the book up incongruously with the rest of the story, either. Sometimes, after I've embedded myself in a book, the opening scene will make me go "Huh?" since it just doesn't make sense.

Brian: It can be frustrating, getting lost in a story. Too much to take in at one time.

Julie: I don't mind not connecting completely with the characters in a story, but yes, if there's too much conflict/action at the start it can interfere with getting to know the people who are experiencing the conflict.

Lydia: Cool! I love SF. And I'm sure that you'll find a way for the reader to grasp everything about the new world.

Malcolm: Definitely. There's no one way when it comes to something like the beginning of a story; it depends on the writer, the reader, the setting itself . . .

Nevets: Writers who can pull off something like that have to be really, really good writers.

I'll have to look into The Dog of the North--it sounds like a fascinating book.

Rachel: Precisely! I don't usually skip a story if there's too much at once; I just try to figure out what they're doing/talking about on my own until it's clear, but it can be annoying.

L. Diane: Interaction is definitely a part of getting the story together. If there's not much interaction, the book can fall flat, even if there's action, etc.

The Golden Eagle said...

Nancy: Now that sounds like a fascinating story, especially since I'm a musician--I don't think I've ever been transported into a different world while performing. :D

Talli: If the description's done well, then it can work, but action that relates to the plot is a big help for a story; the reader is immediately placed where they can start thinking about the bigger picture.

Quinn: Yup. But I guess that's what editing/revisions are for. :P

Holly: I agree.

Shannon: *hugs* Hi, Shannon! Welcome to my blog! I'm very glad you found me.

Good strategy. Something small can lead up to something big . . . which can really get the story going!

The reader is so important. :)

Shannon: I've never read anything by James Dashner, but he sounds like he opens his books well. I don't put a lot of judgement on the opening, either; if the rest of the book is good, then the beginning isn't such a big deal for me.

Clarissa: Yes, it's definitely a win if the writer can make the reader feel like that!

Old Kitty: I'm not a big fan of the classics, but a beginning that eases the reader in definitely has its benefits.

I've never read Lace--is it good?

You too! :)

Becca and Zippy: The reader can have the chance to grow with the character if it starts out with action--but, as Julie said, if there's too much it can end up too jumbled and the reader doesn't connect.

Icewolf: Excellent plan. :D A balance between both ways of opening a book.

The Golden Eagle said...

Chris: Spoonfed information doesn't really work, I agree.

Paul: The way the language is used is important for the story--if the writing isn't good, well, then it's a big detractor.

Adina: The reader does play a big part in deciding whether or not a beginning/opening works or does not work. Feedback is a must, if you want a story to really work. :)

Madeleine: Too much violence deters me from reading a book, too; if it's gory/graphic, I drop the book. I did that for Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan--just too violent.

I go through phases of reading, too--one genre this month, another for the next, etc.

The Words Crafter: I love your analogy. :)

Careful writing can influence a book a lot.

Helen: I don't like it either, when characters are all the same and there's no way to tell them apart definitively. It's annoying--I probably would have done the same thing that you did.

RaShelle: Uglies really did throw the reader into the story. Westerfeld did a good job of that, I think--Harry Potter eased the reader in very well.

You do?! Thank you, RaShelle! :D I'll acknowledge it in a post coming up.

Debbie: Oops! Well, maybe it could be changed so that he's put into the other world? But good for you for having a good opening--even if it wasn't exactly what you'd been aiming for. :P

Rachael: A good example of what feedback can do for a story.

I hope for the sake of your character that there aren't too many nasty things happening. ;)

Lee: Sterile, stagnant; it does depend a lot on the writer and their skill.

Jen: Oooh, secrets. :D

But yes, easing the reader into the story can be a very effective tool.

I'm glad you're enjoying your NaNo novel! Good luck with that sudden opening.

notesfromnadir said...

Throwing a reader right into the story is a popular method of gaining interest but it can be challenging for the writer. You have to establish a lot of information at the start of the book ranging from your main character[s] to the setting to the story.

The slow & easy method can be preferable to a certain type of writer who has to establish the place & time for the reader.

Both are very effective & as a reader I don't really care which method's used as long as I get engrossed in the story.

jewelknits said...

It depends .. I have written books where there was intense action or happenings right at the beginning and loved them. I've also read books that are more 'lulling' (that isnt' a word; I made it up)and kind of draw you in slowly. If it's well-written, I like both (and it also depends on my reading mood). I think waht I'm not so fond of is books where really nothing interesting happens with the plot or characters for the first half or more; even if the last half is great, I tend to give it a lower rating. Many readers won't read long enough to get to the interesting part if the interesting parts don't start to happen in the first 50 pages or so.

Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

The Golden Eagle said...

Notesfromnadir: True, as long as the reader gets involved in the story, then how a book opens isn't so much of an issue.

Julie: Slow books get a lower rating when I rate them, too; too much lack of action and too much attention on the environment the character's in (especially if it's like the reader's) just loses appeal pretty fast.

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