if there is vital information that is necessary for us to care about the story or understand ANYTHING AT ALL about it, best to put that right up front. I mean in the first paragraph, which is, as I've said elsewhere, "free." So if you have two English speaking characters meet but the department store is in Nairobi, you BETTER TELL US that they're in Nairobi because if we find it out later we (the readers) will feel fooled. If the main character is blind, then TELL US he's blind, since it is information known all along to everyone in the scene, and we feel like fools finding out later. (It's not a clever trick -- since the audience knows only what we tell them, to withhold vital information isn't clever, it's either lazy or mean.) But once we have the vital information -- which most stories don't even have! -- the rest can be laid in when we need it.
What is absolutely necessary to the story is also individual to the story. This makes any advice general and forever subject to exception.
However... a good first step is to identify what kind of story you're telling. I generally break stories down into four categories - character stories, plot stories, idea or setting stories, and style stories. They're all going to be present... but there's usually one thing that you think will draw readers most of all, one element that is strongest. It is necessary that this element appear in the first paragraph.
It is less necessary - but generally advantageous - to have other elements appear as well. The point of this first paragraph is to let readers know what kind of story they're getting into, and the easiest way to cover that is to give them a glimpse of who, what, where, and perhaps even why. Or - in story terms - to identify a character, a situation, a setting and time period, and perhaps a bit of the stakes. The important thing to remember is to keep your most important element central. So if this is a character story, the setting is only important in terms of what the character is doing to it; the plot is only important as something that the character is doing. If the story is about a setting or idea, the character is only important as an observer or thinker. And so on.
What specific details about the plot, character, et cetera are suitably vital is so story-specific that it can't be generalized. I can offer a few rules of thumb only:
1) Don't start with inconsequential details. Even if this is a character story, "She had green eyes" is an inappropriate start.
2) Don't start with backstory. No one cares enough to read the backstory yet. If backstory is absolutely necessary, in your opinion, then you can disguise it as as a prologue or epigraph (as people expect these to be infodumps), but be aware that at least a third of readers will feel free to skim or skip either one. If you're lucky they'll come back and read it later.
Explaining directly (that is, telling rather than showing) a device, a place, a situation, or a character's history is backstory, because it is static; it's already past, not changing. In this first paragraph, you want change, lest the reader decide that the entire story will be nothing but one long lecture.
3) Lists ("There was a road which lead through the forest, with a river to one side; on the road were three men, on horses, wearing swords, carrying....") are generally a bad idea, because they are dull.
4) Likewise - and this is a particular problem in speculative fiction - avoid frontloading your first paragraph with a lot of new words. New words include character names (particularly unfamiliar ones), place names (ditto), technological terms, slang, and any other word that has no meaning save for that your story will attach to it. Many writers include tons of these right off on the theory that it makes the story sound exotic or interesting, and about one percent of them pull it off well enough to get the desired effect. The rest cause information overload and an overwhelming desire to skim. No one likes feeling ignorant.
About the only other thing I can say: there is absolutely no point - NONE - in thinking about any of this until the story is finished. I've seen way too many people go over the first half of their story a dozen times, preening and fussing, when they should have been writing the second half. A story with an awkward opening can be a hard sell: an unfinished story is a bloody impossible one.
I used to withold information, believing it would be a fun surprise for the reader. The surprise was mine when I learned this doesn't intrigue the reader, it annoys them. I had only to critique a few other people's stories before I began to see what sorts of information can be withheld without penalty, and what MUST be revealed up front.
It's a fine balance, to be sure. But it is a mark of skill if the writer can know when to hold the cards close to the chest and when to lay them on the table.
But I do tell the reader everything the MC knows, that's relevant.
[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited December 28, 2005).]
KatFeete, this is where I've been stuck since beginning to participate in this forum. I have re-written the first page of my short story many times, trying to incorporate all I've learned from the many knowledgeable participants who have helped me immensely. Now, I need to finish the story so I can post it to the Fragments and Feedback section. I'm almost there. Right now, I'm on my third draft. It usually takes me unti draft #10 before the story is "finished."
Because you have to switch POV, unless you're doing omniscient, which I don't do for now.
Why? Because it's difficult to write well, it is usually not appropriate to most stories, and it's difficult to maintain through a large word count, and it's not always well received. As a writer who has penned one good story in omni, I can attest to that. (How successful a story remains to be seen.)
Omni must be a conscious choice and always foremost in your mind if you use it. It's a lot like golf, the concept is simple, but the actual mechanics are rarely mastered.
Sorry to hijack the thread.
I need to concentrate on creating the story rather than editing it. But focusing on the "first 13" really puts me into the editing mode and its difficult to get back into the creative mode.
Sorry if this is off topic, but the subject got me going in this direction!
I'll read it when it's done if you want, no matter how bad you think it is.
At first it worked perfectly -- the reader was kept with only that knowledge which the MC and other supporting characters have. They're trying to unravel a mystery (of sorts), and you're not given anything more (or less) than they are.
But suddenly the characters responsible for the cover-up are introduced and there are sections told from their POV. This has started to get a bit frustrating because Koontz has coyly avoided having them reveal specifically what it is they're covering up. I can see that finding out when the MC finds out would be great, but getting into the head of the folks responsible for the cover up and not knowing all that they know is very annoying.
I know at least one person here has read that book...anyone have thoughts on that? Why is it okay for Koontz to withhold information? I can see arguments for or against...so I'll just sit back and listen.
And while I do agree that people get so caught up on beginnings that they never finish a story, I also have to say that the ending is rooted so firmly in the beginning that you can't just dismiss it or give these discussions zero relevance. I don't know how often I've struggled through the middle and climax of a story only to discover that the problem is on the first page!
My thought is, though, that you need to hook the reader in the first few lines. Say something very interesting are very funny. Give the reader a reason to continue reading. When I buy a book I read the blurb and the first one or two pages of the book in the store, and then decide if I buy it or not. (Do other people do this as well?)
I also think, you need a twist in the story. So, you might even want to give the reader some false information, make the reader believe something so your twist works better.
But in the end KatFeete pretty much said it: "What is absolutely necessary to the story is also individual to the story. This makes any advice general and forever subject to exception."
1. Was there ever an info dump?
2. Was there ever information missing that kept you from understanding the story or enjoying it?
3. If either one of the above questions is a "yes"...was the story good because of this or DESPITE this?
Stories can be good with all kinds of crappy storytelling techniques in them. I enjoy stories all the time with things that annoyed me, and in my mind this kept them from being GREAT. But, despite those elements, they were quite good and enjoyable.
For the questions asked:
An info-dump can work, when there has been a whole new universe created. For example, in some Sci-Fi stories. On the same time the keeping the information back can keep the reader turning the pages, because s/he wants to find out what is going to happen, or why something DID happen. Personally, I rather have a story that hints a bit instead of paragraph after paragraph with the boring information.
If you can find some angle from which to tell the facts...that works sometimes. Just get them out of the way of the story as fast as possible. In fact, that may be the only excuse for beginning with information.
Sometimes you need to put a few very crucial facts right up front to keep from having to waste word count with scenes to show them.
But all that is pretty obvious.
[This message has been edited by arriki (edited January 25, 2006).]
This is a good discussion too:
[This message has been edited by kings_falcon (edited May 30, 2007).]