Draw Your Readers Into Your Story

Imagine your story is a sphere. The entire universe of your story is contained within that sphere. You’ve spent days, weeks, and maybe even months and years becoming familiar with every corner of that universe. You know all the characters and most of their backstories. You know what has happened and what will happen. You know the location of the story and where the characters will end up. Sure, some details might be vague to you now, but you know you’ll work through it.

However, with all that knowledge, there is the danger of forgetting your readers don’t know all that information. Remember, your story is a sphere. You are within it, but your readers are outside of it. Each book you write is a different sphere even if they’re all in the same series. Your task as the writer is to pull your readers into your story like you’re reaching out of the sphere from the inside and snatching the readers to pull them in. This is when the beginning of the story is especially important.

When a reader picks up your book, they are standing outside the sphere, staring at it—maybe they’re circling it trying to determine whether or not to actually invest all that time and energy to become completely engrossed with the story. Is it worth their while? They may give it a chance and open their mind to the words whispered by your tale. They draw closer to see the images of the story flashing across the surface of the sphere. If the images are too blurry or unclear and just glimmers of light, the readers will likely withdraw because it’s too confusing. They don’t want to take the time to sort through a poorly constructed beginning. However, if the images are flashes of ordinary life with mundane every day conversation without a central character to follow or real purpose, this reflects too much of real life, which is what the reader is trying to escape, so this also will turn him away as well.

When you begin a story, it is crucial to set the environment even if the character doesn’t know where exactly she is. Say the character wakes up in a dark room with no memory of how she got there, and she’s not even sure where there is. Just by her being in a room shows us she’s not in a cave, she’s not underwater, she’s not under snow after being overtaken by an avalanche. She’s in some kind of building. There might be no windows, so she could be underground. If there’s a light, then that informs us wherever she is takes place where there’s technology. If it’s a candle, we’re could be led to believe it’s sometime before electricity. There might be furniture or a lack thereof, and this also informs us a bit about the environment. You see, the first question you ask when you wake in a strange place is, “Where am I?” The reader asks the same question when they step into a new story, and you have to give them something concrete to grasp onto if you expect them to follow your lead.

If your story starts off with a chase scene, you still must establish (in brief passing mentions) the environment. Are we in a modern-day city or a medieval village? In a forest? In the desert? On a snowy mountain? Or on the beach? Where are we? When are we? The character you’re following may know exactly what is happening and why, and that information may not be indulged to us readers immediately since there isn’t time for that, but we trust as soon as there’s a pause in the action, we’ll get some kind of information even if it isn’t a lot—at least it’ll be something. We may not even know if the person we’re following is the protagonist or the antagonist. So, set the setting but in passing. If they’re running through an alleyway of a major city, have the character that’s being chased grab some garbage bins and throw them into the alleyway as obstacles for his pursuers. This immediately tells us we’re likely in a modern city. Gunshots could be fired, and this confirms the thought of it being in modern era. Have them race across a street, dodging cars at a stoplight, and the character could look down the street, recognizing a major landmark of the city, and this could identify the location without having to tell us where it is. But keep the action going because we don’t want the character to get hit by a car or shot.

If you’re starting in a full-fledged battle where everyone is fighting, it is important to set the scene. Maybe a soldier is sneaking through buildings or alleyways. Show the destruction of the city—this helps establish the location. Show the lives lost although you don’t have to go into gruesome detail. Maybe the soldier stumbles upon this child that’s hiding, and they have a brief whispered conversation of the child asking for reassuring that everything’s going to be okay, and the soldier says it will be, but then you show in his own mind how he’s doubtful of this and hates that kids have to witness things like this. Even if we don’t know what the fighting is all about or who is fighting whom for what reason, we get drawn into the story because there are concrete images we can relate to.

If you’re the kind of writer who wants to take your reader through dream-worlds where nothing is what it seems and the setting can shift with a mere thought, that’s all right, but before you can confuse your readers like that, you must first gain their trust through a more traditional approach. Even the film ‘Inception’, which is all about dreams and subconsciousness, starts in a seemingly normal environment. As you follow the characters, you come to realize things are not what they seem, and then you’re thrown into a world where people build dreams to plant ideas in other people’s mind. Even though that’s a far-fetched and strange idea, you’re willing to go along for the ride because you’ve become intrigued by the characters and the storyline. This is the kind of trust you must establish with your readers in order to take them into such a bizarre tale. It is possible, but it must be carefully and intentionally crafted. It’s not something you can just throw together and say, “My readers are smart. They’ll figure it out.” No—they won’t, and it’s not because they can’t but rather they don’t care to figure it out since you didn’t make the effort to give them a reason to trust you.

So, when you begin a story, although you may be the most knowledgable person about that sphere of a universe, you must keep in mind that every reader who approaches your book has absolutely no commitment to any book you write if the beginning is poorly presented. Even long-time fans may dwindle away because your work isn’t reaching the old standard you set with your other work.

Also, remember, if you’ve written a series, a reader may go to a book that’s later on in the series without realizing there are books prior to it, but it shouldn’t make a difference. The reader should be able to read that book and slip into that world without a problem. They’ll just have a different viewpoint of the entire story since they started in the middle, but the story should still be clear enough for them to engage with it without a problem. I will discuss recapping from previous stories later, but here we are focusing on the opening of a story.

Keep it clear. You may use all the flowery language you wish, but if it’s not clear, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying to write ‘simple’ and to dumb down your writing, but rather fine-tune your opening presentation and confidently captivate your audience. It’s a skill—not some superpower you wake up with one day. Sure, for some people, beginnings come easy to them, but even those people need to make sure they start sharp because any skill can rust given time.

Next week we’ll discuss how to recap events from previous books in a series without boring the reader.

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Your Readers Are Smart People

Readers are smart people. They are not to be belittled, but they are to be challenged. However, the way readers are included in the story these days is not the way they should be employed. Too many times, the advice comes down the line, “Oh, just leave that to your readers’ imagination,” and while readers do possess an incredible imagination, this piece of advice is merely a cheap excuse for an author to write lethargically. What do I mean? Let me show you:

Hannah and Jacob raced into the house and slammed the door shut behind them.

You sure we’re safe here?” Jacob asked, and Hannah nodded.

Yeah—as safe as we’ll be anywhere else in the world at this time.”

So take that snippet of a scene. It’s easy and extremely plain. You could say, “I’ll let my readers fill in the blanks of what’s happening in the scene because, after all, they are intelligent people.” However, this use of the readers’ intelligence is insulting. It’s like giving us baby food when we want steak. Now, let me show you another version of that scene:

Hannah and Jacob raced into the house and slammed the door shut behind them. With heart still pounding, Jacob slid down the door to the floor and clasped his hands together to keep them from trembling. He shot Hannah a look and saw her pacing around the room, and he swallowed hard. “You sure we’re safe here?”

She hugged her arms close to her and paced back and forth as she bobbed her head. “Yeah—as safe as we’ll be anywhere else in the world at this time.” She didn’t know if Jacob got her real meaning, but she wasn’t about to spell it out for him.

In this version of the scene, we see more how the characters respond to their situation. Yes, the actual setting isn’t painted in fine detail—we just know they’re in a house at the front door. While even more description could be added to bring the setting to life, what is focused on is the characters’ reaction. By this, we can see they’re terrified, but at the same time Hannah knows something Jacob doesn’t know, and she doesn’t care to tell him.

By bringing the readers into this bit of mystery, they feel included in the story. They don’t know all the details, but they know something is off. They’ll be looking for hints and trying to solve the mystery before it’s revealed at the end. If they get it and are proven right, they’ll be excited. Of course, you, as the author, may think, “But I don’t want anyone to solve the mystery beforehand.” This is something you’ll just have to accept, but keep in mind that your readers might not figure it out. It’s a gamble, but it’s worth it if you want your readers to really engage with the story.

Also, be careful. You can make it complicated and try to trick your readers, but keep in mind that not all readers are trying to solve the puzzle. They’re just along for the ride. If you make it too complex, you may lose them.

So, you must strike the perfect balance between making something enjoyable for those just reading to have fun as well as creating something challenging for those readers who like to go deeper—without losing either of them. Too often stories are written for pure entertainment, and we’ve forgotten that some people are entertained by challenging their minds. A lot of times we write merely to provide a simple escape for readers without giving them anything to strive for. Sure, everyone can (and likely will) enjoy this…but for a time. Without something to aim for, without a purpose, we all grow listless whereas stories should rejuvenate us because 1) they’ve provided an exciting escape for us, but also 2) we’ve been mentally stimulated. It’s like coming back from a vacation.

As writers, we should never settle for less or for the easy way out but rather endeavor for more mastery of our craft and be determined to constantly challenge your readers. If this trick worked in one story, you might get away with using it again in another story, but then you need to change up your game. Keep the readers guessing. They think the story is going this specific way, so lead them on in that direction, but then whip them around and show them it’s nothing they expected. The best they can do is hang on for the ride because it’s going to be a wild roller coaster.

So next time someone says, “Just leave it to your readers’ imagination,” stop. It’s a red flag. Look at what is before you and determine if you should keep things the way they are in the story (especially if it’s vague). Yes, there are some things you can allow your readers to imagine (such as all the specific food and drinks on a banquet table and every single décor element in the room). Sometimes the vagueness can work to your advantage, but when you come to a part in your story and realize the scene is unclear, ask yourself, “Am I being vague being it’s absolutely necessary for the scene, or is it because I don’t want to take the time to imagine more detail and write it?” Be honest with yourself.

I am not saying you must write every single detail in a scene! In the example I gave above with Jacob and Hannah in the house, I did not describe the house at all—one-story house, two-story house, or if it’s old or new, abandoned or occupied. Those are details I would slip into the story bit-by-bit as the scene progressed because the last thing you want to do is have paragraphs and paragraphs describing every little thing in the house. That will undoubtedly bore your readers, and you don’t want that. It’s a tricky balance to maintain but one for which you should strive.

We should never stop learning. The moment we think, “This is my writing style, and this is how I write,” that is the moment the quality of our writing plummets. There is always something to learn, always something to experiment with, always something to try, and it is your duty, as an author and creator of stories, to seek to learn more, so—through your writing—you can teach more.

Your readers are incredibly intelligent people, but don’t give them crumbs with which you expect them to build your world in the story. That’s not their responsibility—that’s yours.

To Use a Prologue or Not?

Prologues—to use or not to use? A lot of writers are hesitant about employing this tool in their writing because they’re constantly told, “Don’t use prologues!” So, should we retire the prologue from writing altogether, or does it still have a place? Again, as I often say regarding any controversial matters, yes and no. There is a time and place to use a prologue, but the use of a prologue can often be a cheap way out of a more complex approach to a story. Let’s break this down.

What is a prologue? What is the purpose for it? The opposite of a prologue is the epilogue, and together these two act like the front and back covers of the book—binding the story together. Within the prologue is often information that would bring the readers up to speed on the environment of the story. This is especially helpful in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction novels where strange new worlds and entire systems are foreign to us. Sometimes, though, it is voiced by a narrator who speaks of a time past before we shift to witness the event for ourselves. There are many ways a prologue can be done, but it’s main purpose is remains the same: necessary information. However, it is very important not to make the prologue an ‘info dump’.

What is an info dump? Something like this:

Humans finally left Earth and colonized planets beyond the solar system. Hyperspace streams were anchored by planets’ wells of gravity throughout the galaxy allowing for swift galactic travel. The further from Earth the humans went, the more they forgot about their homeworld. However, while they were busy building new worlds and forging new governments—elements of society the old Earth had already mastered—Earth went on advancing their knowledge in technology. The old planet remained more advanced in technology than the rest of the galaxy, but to show goodwill toward the younger colonies, they would ship tech out to them—just as soon as they’ve developed something even more advanced than what they were sending out. This worked for a long while since all the other worlds were preoccupied with other matters, but then, as their lifestyles began to settle down, people began to notice Earth’s underhand dealings with them, and they didn’t like it…

This is a very crude example of an info dump, but one thing you can notice is, it is ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. Yes, since we’re introducing a new world setting for our story, we need to establish the environment of the story, but is there a better way to do this? Try interweaving the information into a scene. Something like this:

Commander Jaketh marched through the corridors of her stalled ship. They had been yanked out of the hyperspace stream, and that never happened. The streams were anchored by the gravity wells of planets throughout the solar system, and the only way a hyperspace stream could be broken was if an anchor had been disturbed. That was something Jaketh didn’t want to contemplate.

She hastened her steps as she turned a corner and finally entered the bridge of her XT55 Battleship Falcon. She stalked up to the railing and overlooked the activity of the pilots, navigators, and gunners below. “Someone give me a report! What has happened?” As she awaited an answer, she moved to her commander chair and sat down.

Commander, it appears the hyperstream anchor between Tinelo and Heanita has been broken—” one of her lieutenants began, but she waved him off.

I know that! How could this happen?” She saw the lieutenant open his mouth again, and Jaketh glared at him. “Don’t answer that! But who did this? That’s what I want to know!”

Our computers picked up a ship’s signature just outside of Heanita before the hyperstream collapsed.” One of her engineered informed her, and his face grew solemn as he lowered the tablet in his hands. “The ship bears an Earthling signature.”

Jaketh fisted her hand. Of course, it would be Earth. They were the only ones with technology powerful enough to break the connection of a hyperstream. Though Earth was the homeworld of all humanity, hundreds of years ago humans left the planet and ventured beyond the stars to colonize new worlds. In the meanwhile, Earth always grew stronger and more advanced in technology. Now the rest of the galaxy wanted that tech, so they turned their eye to their old homeworld and began moving in.

With equipment beyond anything Jaketh could imagine, Earth learned of the galaxy’s desire to snatch this tech, and the old world put up its defenses. Snapping hyperspace streams though—that was a new one to Jaketh, and she rubbed her forehead. “How much longer until the stream is repaired?”

It could take weeks.”

She growled then fixed her eyes on the pilots. “How are Falcon’s manual controls?”

The pair of pilots exchanged a wide-eyed look with each other, and Jaketh knew why. They had grown used to travel by means of the hyperstreams, which, once the destination had been set, the pilots could sit back and do nothing until they slipped out of the stream and had to land the ship. This was how everyone traveled, and it insured for fewer accidents. However, each ship possessed the ability to fly outside the streams, but it required manual control. Although the pilots had been trained and tested for this, Jaketh hoped they hadn’t lost their touch.

Well?” Her voice boomed through the bridge. “Can the Falcon still fly?”

Y-yes, Commander, but of course we won’t be able to fly as quickly as we would with the stream.”

Jaketh shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. Get us moving and back on course. Once the stream has been repaired, we can slip back into it.” Then she sat back with a smug smile. “The good news is, at least everyone else taking this route will be moving as slowly as we are until the stream is fixed, but keep your eyes open! Now that we’re all out here exposed to space, we can see each other better, and some of our rivals may decide to play a few games of target practice. We mustn’t allow them to get to Earth first. Let’s see what our old world is really like, boys!”

Now, what I wrote isn’t necessarily a prologue but could easily be the first chapter of a story. However, as you can see, the details from the ‘info dump’ have been woven into this excerpt because there’s one thing you need to remember about your readers: Readers are smart people. You don’t have to spoon feed them. If you write something along the lines of, “space ship traveling through space” most people are going to think, ‘futuristic setting, more advanced technology, etc’. They might be wondering if the people are coming from Earth to explore new worlds or if they’re aliens going to Earth, or if it’s a whole different galaxy altogether. These are little details you can weave into the narration as I’ve shown.

So, if you think your prologue is an info dump, try taking all that important information and weaving it into your story subtly. It doesn’t have to all come out in the first chapter but can be spread throughout several chapters. Make it natural though.

Another way prologues are used these days is how I mentioned in my last post—opening the story with a bang. For instance, a writer may want to start in a suspenseful, action-pack scene, but this specific scene isn’t the beginning of the story. Rather, there is such a scene that happened prior to the beginning of the story that may mirror a future scene and therefore foreshadow an mystery, so the author includes it by making it the prologue. Is this the right use for prologues? Personally, these types of prologues are not my preference because this can become a cheap way to begin your story. I don’t like being yanked around in a story—especially when the prologue deals with characters that aren’t even mentioned until 20 chapters later.

Let me illustrate:

Let’s discuss apples and how they’re not oranges. You see, oranges are, of course, orange. They have peelings that can be easily peeled by hand. When the peeling is completely gone, oranges can be broken into eight or so pieces, and this makes them so much easier to eat. So you see, apples are not oranges.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “That said nothing about the apples! You were talking about oranges the entire time.” And that is what it is like when you introduce a character at the very beginning of a story (in the prologue), and that character doesn’t show up until much later either in person or just mentioned in conversation. By then my brain has completely forgotten about that character because I’ve gotten wrapped up in these new characters and the situation they’re facing, so when you yank back something from the very beginning of the story that you hadn’t constantly woven throughout the story, I’m left standing there like, “I feel like I should know these people, but I really don’t know them…or care.”

Is there a way to introduce a character in a prologue and not bring that character back until later on in the story but at the same time not give the readers a whiplash? Yes, and that is done by constantly weaving little details and hints here and there, so when it does come to light, the readers can pull on that thread and see how it’s all tied together. They’ll feel smart for seeing the connections, and then they’re impressed that you, the author, managed to weave together that masterpiece.

So, is it yay or nay for prologues? Again, it is entirely up to you, but you need to keep in mind what is best for the story. Also, consider why you want to include a prologue? Is there any other way you can write the beginning of the story without a prologue? If there is a way, take that route. If there is absolutely no other way, and it is the beginning of the story, then use it.

The ‘Big Bang’ of Writing

The ‘Big Bang’ of writing has absolutely nothing to do with evolution. It has everything to do with the ‘hook’ of the story. It’s commonly said in order to hook in your readers and captivate them, you must use the ‘shock and awe’ approach. In other words, start with something drastic and loud. This could be a lightning strike, a gunshot, a scream, a crash, or simply absolute chaos. Is this wrong? No, but there are two aspects to this kind of beginning which makes it unfavorable. For one, the action might not be where the story begins, so you might have a prologue or have a story that begins after the first chapter with “12 hours earlier.” Or, due to its tendency toward chaos, this also leads to confusion, and confusion at the beginning of a story is incredibly delicate.

Sometimes the real beginning of a story can be rather boring. It could be two people meeting in a coffee shop just having a chat, but you’ve been told to ‘start with a bang’ in order to hook in your readers, haven’t you? And you know that there’s an event far in the past that is much more intriguing than a simple conversation, so you might opt for a prologue to explore that. Of course, this isn’t the only use of prologues, which I will discuss in more detail next week, but this is one reason people might include such a thing in their story. And this, honestly, is a very poor reason. You can do better.

Now, say the story begins with the seemingly ordinary conversation in the coffee shop, but you know later on in the story the girl who is meeting with her friend there will be kidnapped from her own home later that night. Now, that’s much more interesting, isn’t it? So, you may be tempted to begin the story with her walking into her house at night, hollering, “Mom, I’m home!” No answer, so she continues calling out until she notices the backdoor in the darkened living room is slightly ajar. Going into the room (without turning on the light), she creeps forward, watching for someone or something out the window. Then from behind her, someone grabs her, clamping his hand over her mouth, and pulling her back into the darkness as her screams are muffled. And then you have “12 hours earlier.”

Every time I see this “12 hours earlier” I feel cheated in a way because it’s not natural for us to time travel. Yes, there are times when this is best for the story and really the only way to begin it. However, most of the time, it’s done just because the writer really wants to capture the reader’s attention, and this is a cheap solution. In that regard, I challenge you not to use this method but to find another way to hook in your audience.

Another way someone might begin a story is without a prologue and without skipping into the future briefly but starting the actual story at an eventful moment. For example, a character is being chased. This is an intense scene with lots of uncertainty. The readers are thrown into this without any knowledge as to where they are, when they are, and what exactly is happening and to whom it is happening. They have no details to go on, so they’re putting full trust in the author to masterfully handle the scene. The problem is, action-pack scenes—in and of themselves—are always difficult to write (regardless where in the story they’re located). Most people struggle writing something like a chase scene. It’s just hard. So, why would you want to make such a scene the opening of your book?

Let me put it this way, say you’ve never been in a fire, but the beginning of the story your character is trying to rescue people from a fire. This is a very intense setting, and there’s a lot that can be uncertain. You must use the full strength of your imagination to make the scene real. If you are at all unconfident about any element in the scene (as in having a complete, vivid mental image of the setting and how the character moves through the environment and reacts to the fire), then it will show in the writing. Yes, these scenes are loaded with confusion, but when the reader has a hard time envisioning what is happening and who the characters are and what is exactly at stake, it’s not as captivating as most people might think.

When a reader opens your book, you are asking him to invest his time into the story, and there are only so many hours in a day. So is beginning your story with confusion and uncertainty really a good idea? The reader hasn’t even had time to grow attached to the character, so he won’t care what happens.

Is it wrong to begin a story with such an action-packed, completely confusing scene? No—of course not. If that’s the best way for your story to begin, then do it. However, if the only reason that is your beginning is because you’ve heard the advice, “Begin with a bang,” then I would challenge you to review that scene and determine if it is really where the story begins.

It is okay to begin with a slow scene because it is all in the presentation of the scene which snatches the reader’s attention. Do you recall that scene I mentioned of ordinary conversation between two friends in a coffee shop? Sure, it has the potential of being boring—especially if you keep it completely ordinary—but how can you use such a scene to hook in a reader? Dangle a slight mystery in front of the reader.

Her iPhone buzzed again, and though Judith knew who was texting her, she still lifted her phone to see part of a text message displayed which read, “I know what you’re doing. I’m asking you, please, reconsider. Don’t…” That was all the preview of the message showed, and Judith wasn’t interested in reading the rest.

Instead, she set it facedown once more on the small table where she sat near the window in this small town coffee shop. She drummed her fingers. Lillian was late. She was always late. The one time Judith needed her best friend the most, couldn’t she just show up on time?

The chime above the door behind her sounded, and Judith let out a sigh then turned to greet Lillian, but the smile on her face froze when she realized it wasn’t Lillian. It was him. Even now, her mind went blank on his name though she was sure he had told her at one point.

However, he didn’t look at her but headed straight for the counter to order his coffee. Judith spun back around to keep her back toward him. Maybe he hadn’t seen her. Maybe she could slip away before he noticed her, but she wagged her head. He knew she was here. He knew that when he sent her that text message, and she shot a glare over her shoulder only to find him meandering the merchandise near the counter.

As if feeling her stare on him, he looked at her then smirked.

She quickly looked away just as the door chimed again.

Judith! I’m so sorry I’m late!” Lillian hastened around the table to sit across from her friend, and she dropped her purse on the floor. “Are you okay? Is everything okay?”

Yeah, I’m fine,” she answered quicker than she preferred, but then Judith paused and considered her friend…

And the scene would continue with the mysterious man lingering about and Judith fully aware of his presence, but she also knows that he is hoping his mere presence will keep her from telling Lillian her real reason for meeting with her. However, Judith is unconventional. She would likely couch her words with her friend to show this guy that he doesn’t control her.

So, in order to hook in your readers, do you have to begin with a ‘bang’? No. They say ‘hook them in’, and most people (some red neck fellas aside) don’t fish with shotguns. Rather it’s a skill that must be crafted, and this requires patience and trust in your approach. Sure, your story might require an abrupt beginning, but on the other hand, that might not be the best beginning for your story. So, when you’re trying to decide how to start your story, and if you have a ‘shock and awe’ approach, ask yourself why you’re using that method. Again, it’s not a bad method, but if your reason is at all based on “Because they always say begin with a bang!” then reconsider it. I know you can do better.

Next week, we’ll focus on prologues.