This is the second of six observations on writing craft
In the previous post I focused on dialogue, because that’s where the power of leaving space for the reader is most immediately apparent to me as a reader. However, another place I’ll notice whether I’m invited to participate in the story or not is in the opening scene – the opening lines, even.
We all want to nail the beginning of our story, because we want the reader to stick with us. I think writing for an investigative reader is a useful tool for doing this.
The beginning of a story is when we have to introduce a lot of brand new information to the reader. With every solid piece of information we tell the reader – the markers that give them a sense of where they are – we have a choice about whether we give them room to start putting the shape of the world together themselves, or whether we draw it for them.
There’s a fine balance between statement and question in writing, which I don’t fully understand, but which I’m aware of navigating while I write. When is it more powerful to make a statement – to ‘just say the thing’ – and when is it more powerful to ask the reader to figure it out? But for this post I’ll say, simplistically: Each question arises from and is anchored to a solid fact.
Stating the fact and the answer together (and thus leaving nothing for the reader to do) might look like: She needed to feel bold today, so she wore her brightest lipstick.
Stating the fact that gives rise to a question might look like: She’d chosen her boldest lipstick.
Readers will immediately start to think about why she’s wearing her boldest lipstick. The most obvious reason – that she wants to feel confident – will occur to the reader, almost unconsciously. Even just working on that level, it’s a detail that will invite readers in, rather than shut them out.
But what if she’s meeting her mum and as soon as her mum sees the lipstick she becomes disapproving? The reader connects those two pieces of information and comes up with a world of detail.
Yes, she needed to feel confident, but she was also intentionally rubbing her mum up the wrong way. It shows us how she feels about that relationship (like she’ll never get her mum’s approval, like she desperately wants her mum to see her). It raises questions about their relationship (what went wrong between them?). It shows that what she tells us and what’s true aren’t necessarily the same thing. It leaves room for some really tender emotion to enter the narrative.
This thought process can be applied to every new detail that is given or purposely omitted at the beginning of the story. Some of those details are character details, like the example above. Some will be plot details, where we have to think about how much solid information the reader needs to feel situated in the story and how much we want to leave for them to guess at – which questions we want them to be asking.