Here's what OSC has to say about vital information, at the start of a story. I think he's right.
quote: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.
I agree with OSC 90%. The 10% where we differ is that the information must be in the first paragraph. I say the information must be presented before it's needed. That could be the first paragraph or the third. It depends a lot on the voice and style of the story. My 2-cents.
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The key words here, of course, are "vital" and "necessary", and that's where I think many openers fail. It is extraordinarily difficult for a writer to tell what information is absolutely necessary, and what is merely important. The defaults are to avoid the question entirely and start off with something blatantly trivial (ie, the weather), or to panic and front-load the first paragraph with important but eye-crossing detail.
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.
Okay, I have a question related to this topic. What if there is important information that the MC is not privy to until some point well into the story? Is it kosher to reveal this information to the reader at the same time the MC finds out, or should the reader know about it up front before the MC knows about it? Posts: 97 | Registered: Aug 2005
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In my opinion, letting the reader know information before the MC finds it out is a way to build anticipation. "Oh, ho! Wait until Character X finds THAT out!!" There are exceptions, however... you wouldn't want to spill the beans on the central plot of a mystery, of course.
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.
"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."
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."
quote: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.
Calligrapher, I suggest not presenting a story for critique until you've written it. If I can't do that with a story in under 40 days I know I'm not ready to write it yet. Don't worry how bad it is, just write. Make all your notes you want beforehand, just not in story form (even as exerpts), and continue making all the notes you want after you start writing. But if you find yourself constantly rewriting a story before you even finish than you're not ready to write it yet.
Posts: 136 | Registered: Jun 2005
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rustafarianblackpolarbear, I'm actually in the process of doing something similar to what you have described: I have some of the story written and some in note format. I know pretty much how the story will end, with some possibility of variation as I get closer to finishing it. But each time I sit down to write more, I start reading from the beginning and then start revising what I've already written rather than finishing the story.
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!
Frag and Feed can be used for getting an idea of how much success you're having with your wordcraft. You can get a bit about lots of other things too, but mainly it's a way to select a few readers who feel at least some interest in the story rather than hitting it cold.
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This is an interesting topic. I'm currently reading "Strangers" by Dean Koontz, and there is much that is withheld.
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.
KatFeete, I believe you hit exactly upon my one reservation in reading the quote from OSC -- vital vs. important. I don't want a background hstory of your world. I don't want a rundown of your main character's exploits up to now. At word one, I just want to see something I can edge into the story with. VITAL information is only that information which is necessary for me to edge in. The bare minimum. Yeah, maybe knowing that your MC is a runaway prince who has been cursed by an evil enchantress is important, but if the first paragraph involves him running from some guards then all I need to know vitally is that he stole an apple.
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!
I'm afraid you can't say what works best. I know a lot of great stories where you find out things that happen at the same time as the protagonist, I also know tons of lousy stories where the same thing happens. At the same time, I know great stories where you know pretty much everything at the start and it's still a good read, and stories written in the same style that are dull as dust. I find it very hard to tell what is the best way to go.
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."
Lazer, I believe what we're talking about here is a bit more subtle than what you're suggesting, although of course you are right -- there are both good and bad stories in which information is revealed at the exact same time. Here are some questions to ask:
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.
I'm only trying to say that you can't point out that the one is good and the other bad. It all depends on the story, how it is written, what the story is about etc.
For the questions asked:
1. Yes. 2. Yes. 3. Both.
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.
Beginning with information is a tricky proposition. You have to make the information interesting. Riveting, even. A sober catalog of facts usually falls flat.
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).]