“Drop and give me fifty,” screams the drill instructor. To his Marines, “fifty” would actually be fifty sets of one hundred. To me, it would be a noodle-arm induced nightmare. I’d rather be on the shouting end than the exercising end. I would yell not at Marines, but at authors. I want fifty pages, and I want it now. In those fifty pages, I’d better be fully immersed in the characters, or the book gets tossed.
Here’s how to avoid the tossing of your book:
Characters should be introduced, and the scene set, immediately in a book. This is my personal preference, but here’s why. I don’t think I’m unlike other readers when I pick up a book; I immediately start to form images in my mind of what the characters, the house, the town all look like, long before the descriptions are actually given.
What I love most about reading is the mental escape and adventure offered between the pages. Picking up a book allows me to crawl inside someone else’s fictional or nonfictional life, and spend some time peeking through the medicine cabinets.
Unfortunately, sometimes character and scene settings take place so far into the first chapter, that I’ve already created a “Jessica” in my mind, and up pops a “Dolores”. Are you with me? A character named Dolores will not look the same in my mind as a character named Jessica. For the scene, I’ve already created what the bungalow looks like with its cozy entry; the growing bookshelves built around the door frame; the couch which has a worn spot on the cushion closest to the fireplace; the woven rug under the couch in its canary-yellow color, with a kitty toy strewn off to one side.
Before I know it, I get further into the chapter and realize the story is not set in a cozy bungalow, but it’s more of a normal cottage. The rug isn’t yellow, there is no fireplace, and the character doesn’t like to read, thus eliminating the door frame bookshelves and endless stacks of books.
In college I was taught to “show, not tell” while writing. Another cliché phrase was to “trust the reader”. The first phrase means to write detail that describes something intimately. An example would be the rug in the aforementioned cozy bungalow. I could have written that there was a rug under the couch, but instead I wrote that there was a woven rug in a canary-yellow color. Do you remember the other detail? There was a kitty toy on the rug.
How would you view the rug differently if not given those details? Maybe you would have come up with a plush plum-colored rug, or a multi-colored Asian-themed rug. Still with me?
Show, not tell.
The second phrase, “trust the reader,” means that, although detail is essential, there is no need to go overboard to the point that the reader cannot use his or her own imagination. Finding a balance of enough detail is essential. Enough clues must be given in the beginning of a book to set the framework in the reader’s imagination. If no boundaries are set, a reader may use their imagination to create images and characters that are quite opposite of the author’s intention. The chance of your readers being disappointed could be high at that point. Tread carefully.
Are you ready?
(Yelling.) “Drop and give me fifty!” (End yelling.) That’s all you’ve got; fifty pages to capture me as a reader. Fifty pages to “show, not tell”. Fifty pages to introduce your character and setting correctly, so that I don’t ignore your character description, or toss your book aside. I’m in control. Trust me.