Wednesday, December 9, 2009

WRT: Importance of First Words – Context, China Rabbits and Cold Blood

Following on the heels of last week’s post about Prologues, I wanted to expand on the importance of first words and the things you, as an author, must do with them to make a reader (i.e., agent/editor and, eventually, the buyer) want to invest time in your book.

What must you accomplish with your first words? In simple terms, hook your reader. Sounds easy, but the HOW of doing that ends up being a bit tricky. Why? Because no two readers are alike, and it’s impossible for you to satisfy all of them all of the time.

However, there are a few basic things you can do to increase your chances of helping the reader quickly connect in some meaningful way with your story. I like to think about CONNECTING with your reader in terms of four more C-words: CONTEXT, CHARACTER, CRAVING and CONFLICT.

Today, I’ll talk a bit about Context.

So, what is it and what do I mean by it? Context is essentially the basic information your reader needs to orient themselves in your story. Not providing it is, well, disrespectful. Why? You don’t want your reader feeling lost and adrift from the very start of your story, do you? There’s nothing more disorienting than picking up a book, begin reading it, and having to wait to find out where the heck the thing’s set. Stories that begin with a whole bunch of dialogue and very little else fail in this way.

Think of it this way: You’ve just thrown reader into a whole new world. Whether it really is a different universe, a different planet, country, town or mindset, without providing context, you’ve essentially blindfolded your reader. Not good. You reader is bringing a lot of baggage along with him, all his worldly belongings of preconceived notions and a moving van of expectations. And if there’s no place to put that gold and purple couch with the silk tassels in your story, your reader is going to get awful tired real quick and leave. So, whether it’s in a submarine, in the mind of a comatose eleven-year-old, or a distant planet, you must provide some immediate clues to the setting so your reader knows where he can stand and put his stuff. Or, more importantly, where he can put your character.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as saying: "This story takes place here at a time when…."

Boring. Here’s your best opportunity to put your reader in the proper frame of mind, without letting them know you’re doing it.

Let’s look at a couple very different examples. I’ve chosen Kate DiCamillo’s THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE and Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD.

Here’s the first sentence in EDWARD TULANE: "Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a rabbit who was made almost entirely of china."

We know immediately where we are and can pretty much guess a lot more than DiCamillo provides: this is a house in which a child probably lives or once lived. We can guess that the family that owns the house is fairly well to do, perhaps well traveled, given that the address is somewhat exotic and the rabbit is made of china rather than plastic or fabric. We also know that this will not be a story set squarely in the real world, but probably somewhere where the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred. Why? Because this is a world where a made china rabbit lives.

IN COLD BLOOD begins: "The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’"

Brr. Can’t you just feel that cold wind blowing? Capote provides such a sense of utter isolation and desolation so extreme that even those who live nearby have difficulty saying much about it. But this lack of detail has the complete opposite effect on the reader: it provides all the information you need to understand the story as it unfolds.

Let’s break it down a bit more: The use of ‘village,’ for example, is intentional. It evokes images of a cluster of buildings, loosely connected. An outpost. It is also an old word, connotative of pilgrims, of simple living under harsh conditions. And harsh they are. The village ‘stands,’ as if in defiance. This is not going to be a touchy-feely story. But unless you’ve been living under a rock and bought the book without a cover, you already knew that.

Which is actually beside the point. The point is, the writer invites the reader into a different world, provides clues as to the type of world it is and the kind of story they’re telling. That’s context.

Next time I’ll talk about introducing your Character(s) to your readers.

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