What’s in the Beginning

I keep changing my mind about today’s topic! First an announcement. Recently agent Rachelle Gardner ran a fun contest, which she does with some frequency. This one was a 100-word story based on a writing prompt—a picture of a young girl seated on a small suitcase. Today she posted the finalists, and wonder of wonders, my story made the cut. Thing is, Rachelle’s blog visitors are voting on the winner, so if you’re inclined to read 600 words (6 finalists), I encourage you to click on over to Rachelle’s site and vote for your favorite teensy-weensy story.

Actually, the finalist thing plays into what I finally decided to talk about today. I read an article in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, and the author, Steve Almond reiterated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Even at the beginning.

Initially this may seem to clash with the advice I’ve heard, often from those with literary leanings, that writers don’t need to put everything up front, that readers are far more patient than we think, and, in fact, enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much back story at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it wil happen if a reader is confused.

So what about it? Take a look at those shortest of stories (you can read all contest entries here). The ones you liked best—did the writers ground you quickly in the what and wherefore? Or did they leave you wandering—and therefore wondering—a bit?

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. I ran into that exact problem when writing my entrant. I wanted it to be somewhat intriguing that the main character had both gifts from her father (the suitcase, and, inside the bloody corpse of Yuri the communist party official) which she was dragging across the fields of the Ukraine, but I didn’t want it to be unclear.

    I think I failed at the latter, but didn’t have time to fix it.

    When clarity and intrigue is the object, not concreteness and confusion, you end up with a better attempt.


  2. Writing my entry. Entry. Sheesh.


  3. Xdpaul, that was my first concern when I sat down to write a 100 word story. How much could I tell readers about my character and setting so that they would understand the plot? I think my story came up short on plot as a result, but it was fun trying. And now that I’ve read that article, I have a new goal: create no reader confusion! 😀



  4. Particularly with fantasy or sci-fi the reader is confused about what’s going on. I think the trick is to explain what needs to be explained as you go along. IOW in a fantasy you can’t just give a fifty page description of the world before you start the story. The reader has to trust that you will describe what needs to be described as you walk through the world.

    Where the problem comes, I think, is when you are late on a description and the reader has pictured something else already. That bugs me no end. I’ve pictured someone with blond hair because I was never told what color hair she had and then at page 78 I’m told she has black hair. I hate that.

    There is a difference between not knowing something and being confused about something. There are plenty of things I don’t know and I can wait to find them out. Confusion sets in when we have seemingly conflicting facts. We don’t know then, which thing is true. That’s unsettling.

    And HEY! Congratulations on placing in the teeny tiny short story contest. Yikes! How can you write a story in 100 words. But I read them all and they were all very good.


  5. I love hundred word stories. They really pare your words down to say exactly what you need. In fact, I always shoot for exactly 100 words when writing flash: no less no more.

    A few have been published in anthologies: one about the downfall of a dot-com bust executive, one about a farmer’s stroke, his broken marriage, and his selfish ambition to change his life at any cost, another Christian revival in a nuclear wasteland, another about a robot vampire who attacks a robot town only to discover that the citizens have developed organic parts, rendering her powers useless and one about a pod of abandoned nuclear submarines that patrol the ocean, looking for a living megalodon.

    You can squeeze a lot into exactly a hundred words. I love those kind of stories.


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