by Marina J. Lostetter
“Lost” is an interesting topic to pick for a theme issue, because the concept is truly universal. We’ve all been lost at some point in our lives. Perhaps it was at a shopping center as a small child, or during a road trip as an adult. Most people can remember getting physically lost at least once, but many of us get mentally lost on a much more regular basis. Every time we, as readers, open a book or start a new short story, we enter into a state of limbo--we don’t know where the writer has put us, and we don’t know where the writer intends for us to go. Essentially, we’re lost.
In most cases there are a few sign posts: genre indicates what literary continent we’re on, and the subgenre suggests climate; a blurb might hint at what kinds of potholes and roadblocks are ahead. But beyond that we’ve been dropped into the middle of nowhere with a blindfold on and a cell phone that only dials one number: the author’s.
The author’s job is to get the reader to understand their surroundings as soon as possible, so that they can navigate the story’s terrain without distraction. Grounding the reader, while inviting them to explore, is the key to a good opening in fiction. Conciseness, clarity, and balance are the cornerstones of writer-to-reader communication, and these are achieved through a synergy of reader-questions and author-answers.
When I write, I try to touch on the basic who, what, when, and where, within the first three to ten percent of the story. These are the first items of interest that pop into a reader’s mind. Who is this story about? What is happening (in particular, what is the conflict)? When is it happening? Where is it happening? Why and how usually rear their heads not long after, but they aren’t as crucial when first introducing a reader to a new piece.
Some authors find themselves getting bogged down in the where, which leads to the type of beginning that’s all about setting. In this instance, all the reader sees is scenery.
Some writers get stuck on the who, which often results in the author failing to acknowledge that there’s a world beyond the internal dialogue rolling around in a character’s head.
Writers who get consumed with the what have a tendency to open with The Epic Fight Scene, The Hunt, or The Scientific Conundrum without acknowledging that their characters are anything more than vehicles for the action.
The when focus becomes a trap with historical settings, as the author might have a tendency to try and over-authenticate.
Why and how-centric authors are all about back story--an aspect which is often irrelevant to an opening, even if it’s relevant to the greater plot.
And then there are writers who, instead of becoming hyper-focused on one question, purposely evade the four key questions. They believe that withholding information is how one creates mystery, but it doesn’t. It creates confusion.
The answers don’t have to be given in their entirety right out of the gate--that is where the author shows their skill in regulating the flow of information. The trick is achieving balance--making sure that one element doesn’t overshadow the others. It’s how these components work together that ensures the reader is secure enough in the basics to let the author lead them through the more abstract parts of storytelling--transforming a lost audience member into an engaged voyager. Other gratifications can be delayed if the four immediate questions of who, what, when, and where are answered as soon and as skillfully as possible.
Marina J. Lostetter’s short fiction has been accepted to venues such as Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Writers of the Future, and Penumbra. She currently lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex.
To learn more about Marina, please visit her website and follow her on Twitter.