Foggy first page

On March 31, 2011, Jill wrote, How confused do you think readers are willing to be in the very beginning of a story? Most of the time the reason I quit on a book is because I can only handle so much confusion on the first page. I like to be ambiguous in my stories to keep readers interested but I am afraid to do that at the beginning. Any thoughts?

Tastes differ. I’m with you, though. I’m daunted if I have to contend with too much on the first page. I’ll probably hang in a while unless the grammar is bad. If it is, I’m out. And if the confusion doesn’t clear up by the second chapter, I’m done – unless something in the incomprehensibility has charmed me.

Recently I began The Good Son by Craig Nova, definitely a serious novel for adults. I don’t read much literary fiction and the jacket copy got me worried that I’d be in over my head. But the beginning of the book was so welcoming that I jumped right in. Here’s the first sentence: My father is a coarse, charming man, a lawyer, and a good one, and when I was flying over the desert and the German pursuit pilot began pouring round after round into my plane (a P-40), I was thinking of how I learned to drive, and how it affected my father.

What an achievement this sentence is! Three topics are introduced and I want to know about all of them: the father, the war, and the driving. I’m not far into the book, but the learning-to-drive incident does not disappoint.

Some readers are perfectly content not to understand immediately. Some like the challenge and don’t want anything straightforward. When such readers are also writers, they’re likely to write prose of the sort they like to read.

This is fine. Fortunately, nothing is for everybody. It’s a losing proposition to try to write a book that no one will fail to love. You’re doomed to frustration.

However, some books succeed with millions of readers, and some of these are great books, Pride and Prejudice, for example. Some bestsellers may not be beautifully written or the characters well developed, but the theme is universal or the subject fascinating.

If events are very exciting at the beginning of a story, I’ll probably stick around. For instance, I’d keep reading beyond this: Marisette gizoxed down the previo at zyonga speed. If the ashymi didn’t boosheg, she’d find herself and her precious kizage in the boiling svik and all would be owped.

I’d understand that Marisette was in trouble and I’d want to know what the precious kizage and the hot svik were and why I should care. But if the crazy words went on much longer without an explanation in standard English, I’d give up.

Jill, I’m not sure what you mean by ambiguous in your question. If you mean you like to misdirect your reader for a purpose, I’m all for it. Suppose a drapery tie is the murder weapon in a mystery and you’re describing the living room where the drapery tie stays when it’s not strangling anyone. The victim, a high school student named Hope, is only a missing person at this point, but she’s beginning to be presumed dead. Detective Rosalie Swift has been talking to Hope’s teachers, and right now she’s in the living room of Algebra teacher Max Kilcannon, who will turn out to be the murderer. It’s the detective’s curse, Rosalie thought, to look for murder weapons everywhere. She scanned the room, a fuddy-duddy place, she thought – over-stuffed chairs, the couch with cloth protectors at the ends of the arms, side tables in dark wood, a coffee-table book on the coffee table, still lifes of flowers hanging on the walls in ornate frames, heavy green drapes tied back with cream-colored, ties, and a gas fireplace. Why a poker for a gas fire? How pretentious! The poker could be the weapon, except that a poker appeared in so many detective stories that no self-respecting murderer would use one. The coffee-table book, too, could bludgeon someone to death. The good teacher would also have his pick of cushions to suffocate poor Hope with. Or he could just leave her alone in here for a few hours and she’d die of boredom.

There. The drapery ties are shown, but they’re buried in the rest of the description. When the murder weapon is revealed, the reader can page back to this spot and find it.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre I used specters more than once to misdirect the reader, and what fun that was!

But in Two Princesses and in the example above, the writing is clear, nothing ambiguous about it. Clarity is a sine qua non (an essential condition) of good storytelling. We don’t want to throw mud in the reader’s eyes. If you’re worried about catching the reader’s interest from the outset, go with action. Excellent beginnings can open many ways, but action is the most direct, the glucose of storytelling.

Here are some misdirecting prompts:

∙    Hope is in Jim Kilcannon’s living room. Her parents have hired him to tutor her to get her grade up. In this version he may or may not be the murderer; you, the author, haven’t decided yet. Write a scene in which you make Hope and the reader alternately creeped out and reassured by Kilcannon .

∙    On her way home from her first tutoring session, Hope passes a psychic’s shop and goes in. Being behind in Algebra isn’t her only problem. Write the scene with the psychic and mislead the reader about the source of Hope’s danger.

∙    Hope is now a baronet’s daughter in the Kingdom of Kestor. She’s been warned that her life is at risk, and has been invited to tea at the palace of the king’s youngest brother. She has reason to suspect that one of the other guests intends to kill her. Write the tea and make the reader suspect several guests.

Have fun and save what you write!


Before I start, I may be late with the blog over the next few weeks. Those of you who’ve looked at my website have seen our dog Baxter, who died in December. I didn’t mention this when it happened, because it was sad and I was sad. But now we have a new puppy, eight-week old Reggie. When things calm down, my husband will post pictures on the website, but now it’s puppy all the time and I’m having trouble getting anything done. We think he’s going to be worth it.

On January 21, 2011, Susan Lee wrote, Do you have any tips on writing. As in making sure people who read it will understand what you wrote?

Unless you’re writing experimental fiction, clarity is the primary objective, ahead of plot, characterization, setting – any of the elements of story telling. Clarity isn’t even an element! It’s the air a reader breathes.

Being clear doesn’t mean we can’t be complex. We can suggest something that will be more fully explained later. Our reader doesn’t have to understand what we intend at exactly the moment we suggest it. Realization can be delayed. Mysteries delay understanding constantly. That isn’t lack of clarity, that’s simply interesting storytelling.

But we don’t want to confuse the reader accidentally, and we can do so especially effectively by making technical mistakes. In dialogue, for example, the reader needs to know who’s speaking, and this isn’t the place to delay understanding. Each speaker should have her own paragraph, along with any body language. When two people speak in a single paragraph, even if the speech is attributed (using said or asked or the like), the reader has to work too hard.

You don’t always have to attribute speech. If only two people are present, you don’t need to name the speaker every time. In fact, you shouldn’t or the writing won’t flow. But don’t wait so long that the reader has to go back and count, as in, that was June speaking, now it’s Jake, June, Jake, June, Jake, June. Ah, Jake said this. I hate that.

I’ve written about dialogue in more detail in previous posts and in Writing Magic, so I won’t repeat it all here, but dialogue often makes the reader muddled.

So do loose pronouns. If I write, The food was overcooked and everybody was arguing. It made me sick. the reader doesn’t know what it refers to – the meal or the arguing or both. And sick is vague, too, although it’s not a pronoun. Heart sick or stomach sick? Explaining in later sentences helps, but being specific from the beginning is even better.

When two men or two women are together in a scene, or two distinct groups are together, clarity can be hard to achieve, as in, Jack waited an hour for Justin to show up. When Justin finally arrived he was very angry. Well, who was angry? Jack for having had to wait or Justin for some other reason? And yet When Justin finally arrived Justin was very angry. sounds terrible. What to do?

Recast it. Jack waited an hour for Justin to show up. New paragraph. Justin entered the restaurant pale with anger. “If I have to sit through another three-hour meeting about the wording of a mission statement, I’m going to…” No confusion.

In A Tale of Two Castles the dragon character makes the pronoun business easier. Masteress Meenore is an IT because dragons rarely reveal their gender, so IT can be in a scene with a male character and a female character and, unless another dragon is present, confusion is impossible, and since IT is capitalized IT can’t be confused with an inanimate object, like a bowl of soup or a shoe.

Finnish, I’m told, has no masculine and feminine pronouns. A man is an it and a woman is an it. I don’t know if this creates a problem for writers writing in Finnish, but I’m told it makes translation difficult, and examples of sentences like the one above, When Justin finally arrived Justin was very angry. are sometimes unavoidable.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White is a slim book about style and English usage. For a guide to clear writing it can’t be beat, in my opinion. I recommend it for middle school and above. Children of any age can read it, but I don’t think it will be helpful at a much younger age.

It’s a good idea to make friends with an English usage book. Usage means the way a word is used, and a usage books explains how a word should or shouldn’t be used. The usage issue that gets me into trouble every time is the difference between take and bring. The examples that a usage book provides makes me understand for at least five minutes. Often – almost universally – people misuse lay and lie, a pet peeve with me. I’ve recommended Garner’s Modern American Usage before. Some readers on the blog are reading from outside the States, and you may find Fowler’s Modern English Usage more helpful. Usage books are arranged alphabetically, dictionary-style, a cinch to figure out.

Misplaced or wrong punctuation can also make trouble for the reader. A book has been written on this subject, which I confess I haven’t read. I know it’s for adults, but I can’t assess the level. Still, it might be worth picking up: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. If anyone reading this post has read the book, I’d welcome your comments.

In A Tale of Two Castles there is what seems like an addition mistake. (If you read the book see if you can find it.) The people who were recording the audio version called me to ask if they should change it. I panicked because it’s too late to fix the book, and I told them to make the correction. Then I emailed my editor, and she said I had made the mistake intentionally to provide a little subtext between two characters, and she had noted it in one of her edits and she likes it and hopes I won’t change it for the second printing. I thought, Whew! At least we all know how to count. But, alas, I don’t remember what I intended. So that’s muddiness I inflicted on myself. I guess the lesson is to try to know what you’re doing!

Loose pronouns and sloppy usage and incorrect punctuation are micro problems, but there can be macro ones as well. If I’m reading and I can’t see where the characters are in the setting I get confused and start having trouble following the plot. When I’m writing and the locale is complicated, I often draw a chart. Sometimes I worry that including setting slows down the action, but we have to put it in, although we probably want to establish the place before a crisis hits.

Too many subplots can make a story hard to follow and even dull. My husband and I started out as fans of the TV series Lost, but when back stories and new directions started to pile up, we both lost track and stopped caring. We never watched the last season.

When characters abruptly switch their natures I feel at sea and I don’t know what the author intends. In general, character is particularly tricky because everybody sees people differently. A few years ago, one of my critique buddies was writing a family story. She thought the mother was loving, but I saw her as harsh. I was able to point out why, and she softened the mother’s interactions with her daughter. I’ve mentioned in other posts that I sometimes have trouble making my main characters likable even though I want them to be. I’ve needed my editor to point out the spots where my main is unsympathetic.

So it often helps to have other eyes on a story or just on passages that you think may not do or say what you want them to. I’ve written about writers’ groups in other posts, but for getting clarity all you really need is  a good reader who can say where he got confused.

Speaking of confusion, life with a puppy is full of it. I don’t know what he wants, what he needs, what would be best for his growth into a happy, responsive dog. Sometimes he might as well be a Martian for all I understand him. So for the prompt, an alien encounter. Your main character seeks out another creature, could be a Martian or an elf or a dog, whatever. Each needs something from the other, but they don’t speak the same language, or maybe they do but the cultures are so different the meaning is quite different. They may not even think the same way. Write their meeting and their attempts to get what they want. See if you can work the story around so they are able to figure each other out, but don’t make it easy.

Have fun and save what you write!