Orient Your Readers

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Sometimes when I read the opening of a manuscript, I’m totally confused.

Trying too hard to grab the reader. These openings start with something startling. OK. Nothing wrong with that, except that often the event comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. It’s only there for shock value and the reader is left wondering where we are and why we are there. And why s/he should care.
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Not enough context Part of the problem is the reader isn’t oriented. Where are we? Think of time of day, time of year, geographic location, stage of a relationship.

Action/reaction sequence out of order. Finally,the events can be out of order. The normal sequence of events is action-thought/emotion-reaction. In an attempt to catch a reader’s attention, though, writers are tempted to give the reaction first.

Terry screamed.

The reader has no idea why someone screamed and in order to explain, you must backtrack. Not good.

Walking down the wooded path, Terry tripped. She screamed.

Now, the reader has the action-reaction in a clear sequence. Not confused and just as hooked. Notice that we also have a hint at setting.

If you want, you can add an emotion.

Walking down the wooded path, Terry tripped. Falling, she thought of her new ballet slippers waiting for tonight’s rehearsal. She screamed.

Now, events are in correct time sequence, we know where we are, and why we should care.

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1 Comment
  • Andrea
    July 26, 2010

    Darcy, this is such a valuable point! I get a bit tired of reading opening scenes that introduce action before I know anything about the characters or setting – it seems like a formula sometimes.