Tossing your reader in the deep end
‘I am a watchdog. My name is Snuff. I live with my master Jack outside London now. I like Soho very much at night with its smelly fogs and dark streets. It is silent then and we go for long walks. Jack is under a curse from long ago and must do much of his work at night to keep worse things from happening. I keep watch while he is about it. If someone comes, I howl.
We are keepers of several curses and our work is very important. I have to keep watch on the Thing in the Circle, the Thing in the Wardrobe, and the Thing in the Steamer Trunk – not to mention the Things in the Mirror.’ A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny, 1993
To some authors drowning one’s readers may have a certain attraction… I mean, if you think your customers are deplorable idiots who should read your work because it will help to ‘educate’ them on the correct attitude to the cause du jour, I can quite understand it. After all, they fail to respond correctly most of the time. But while it may well be a very fashionable desire these days, it’s got serious drawbacks, besides wet paper.
The first of these drawbacks is that they don’t tend to be return customers, and the second is that ‘glub glub glub…’ is not much of a commendation to get others to read your books. (Which is why this course is so attractive to the people who think readers are deplorable idiots needing ‘education’ – their customers don’t return anyway, and ‘glub glub glub’ would be politer than usual.)
But let’s assume you actually want return customers and commendation. Let’s assume you want to attract readers, rather than editors… so why is Dave – whose goals are the same – suggesting tossing your readers in the deep end?
The reason is brutally simple. You have very little time to get them to love swimming in your book. If you make them learn all about water, water safety, and keep them in the kiddies paddling pond – nine times out of ten they will get bored and walk right out of it, and never come back to the book, or, quite possibly, the author. At least when you toss them in the deep end, get things moving, and get them fully immersed and loving it even if they are not sure if they’re swimming or drowning… you have a good chance they won’t drown but will swim. Of course that ACTUALLY requires substantial amounts of quietly ensuring there is sufficient, easily at hand floaty devices. Literary pool-noodles as it were.
Now that I have literally thrown you in the deep end with this start, with a few pool-noodles of humor, let me clarify slightly. Mud will be nearly as transparent, I assure you. It all comes down to the paragraph I quoted at the start: Zelazny at his finest,leaving the reader straight into the deep end of the story. It actually takes most of the book before the reader quite knows what is going on. There is no explanation, other than what is observed by the dog – a dog who knows a great deal and doesn’t devote the first ¼ of the book to explaining the scenario. He does, however, subtly – there are other animals – familiars you might call them, who know less or different information – and in the dialogue between these, you do realize finally what the author is doing.
(the picture is a link)
BUT – the book starts moving at once, actions are rapid and dramatic, and the reader might be in the deep-end but can no more stop reading than Milankovitch cycles can stop progressing. The author in fact uses your not knowing, but being fascinated by the hints and characters who tease you into wanting to know.
On the other extreme… Well, the same author wrote a YA/middle grade sf novel, a book called A DARK TRAVELLING which took me about 10 tries to read. And it is short and I read fast. I only bothered because I have been a Zelazny fan for many years. I wish I hadn’t because there was little to redeem it in my eyes. And what irritated me was that the author – one with enormous talent for doing this well, decided to forego tossing his readers in at the deep end, and spent 55 pages of 109 basically explaining the concept of other parallel universes. Largely by the first person narrator telling me about it…
Look, this is a standard sf trope – we don’t – as sf readers — need it explained. I get it, younger readers would not perhaps have come across the concept – which didn’t stop Diana Wynne Jones using it with huge success as the foundation to her Chrestomanci books. (which I highly recommend). She effectively threw the reader in at fascinating deep end and most readers just love the swim. A DARK TRAVELLING has several other weakness, but my worst was the lead character, POV narrator – who not only told (not showed) me this background, and also failed pointedly at actually doing anything much. Ya know, if you’re going to write a kid’s book from a kid’s POV don’t make it mostly about the adults with the kid as a narrator.
Anyway: so the lesson for today, in my opinion you are better off to start your story with the reader having to pick the background, the settings, the McGuffins as you go along, than trying to explain it all up-front. Let them think or thwim. You can and must fill in that background later, mostly by showing.