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.

46 thoughts on “Tossing your reader in the deep end

  1. This ties in, I think, to a post I recently made about what I am calling the invisible character in fiction–the Listener. If a work of fiction is the Narrator (1st or 3d) telling a story, then the story must be told to someone. The Listener is distinct from the reader in the same way that the Narrator is distinct from the writer.

    In my opinion the bloat of exposition and info-dumping in modern genre fiction is, in part, a consequence of authors having no clear idea of the Listener in a story. The Narrator isn’t talking to anyone in particular, and so the author has no idea what to include and what to leave out. Consequently the tendency to explain everything.

    Anyway, my thoughts:

    1. Reading the latest Weber was an exercise in info-dump surfing. Not just technical details, but names and places. He’s gotten a lot worse over the years, as I suspect his editors fear irritating him.

      What he really needs is somebody to go through there with a chainsaw and delete every single instance of: “As you know, Bob, the Mark XXVI anti-missile missile was developed by Blork Blorkington of the Farnfiddler Union in response to…”

      Because I don’t need to know about Blork, or the missile, or even Bob. The whole thing is an excuse for another three-page info dump because he’s going to use the Mark XXVI as a plot-point to win a battle later.

      So I skipped page after page of info, pausing to read the character interactions, and waded on through. The only reason I did that was “but it’s Honor Harrington!!!” and I wanted to find out what happened to the poor bitch this time. He made me work for it.

      1. the names were the worst. “Hey look i can type authentic Polish names and titles, and keep using those titles and expect you to keep them straight!”

        1. I resemble that statement! And I will never, ever use full Polish and Czech nobility titles ever again if I can help it. Pinkie swear.

      2. I gave up on Weber a while back, but in the books I read, he went through an interesting trajectory. The first Honor Harrington book had several, “Let’s stop the narrative to infodump” points, but I figured those were the result of him being new at this. The first Bahzell Banakson book did much better, not perfect by any means, but we got explanations of things from the main character at the point where it made sense for him to be thinking about these things. The first Hell’s Gate, novel, on the other hand, came to a screeching halt several times in order to describe the mechanics of interdimensional travel and the economic implications of the same. Eventually, the book got walled and I haven’t picked up anything by him since.

        1. in what I am working on now, my plan to avoid these is to emulate David Drake and provide infodump chapters between acts a la the first Hammer’s Slammers compilation. May end up moving it to the end, tho. Its largely going to be a long-form version of my background info anyway.

        2. I, too, gave upon Weber. Completely. If ever Reader’s Digest condensed books make a return, he’s a prime candidate. I’m pretty sure there are some darned good 150-200 page novels buried in his doorstops.

          Odd thing is, I don’t miss him at all.

      3. There really are readers who simply love to hear all the technical details of the Mark XXVI anti-missile missile.

        It might come under “knowing your readers.”

        1. I have ALL the Honor Harringtons. He used to be really good at the nerdy detail thing, how sensors were arranged could change battles, missile ranges, speeds, relative acceleration, orbital mechanics. I always enjoyed me some technical specs on things. I like knowing how things work.

          But all the fun seemed to go out of it a couple or three books ago.

          I do it myself a little, like bothering to explain why a Mobile Infantry battle suit has a plasma gun -and- a 30mm rifle with a mechanical firing system. (Its because one of my characters is paranoid, and wanted a gun that couldn’t be remote-hacked by super aliens. She wanted to be damn sure it would go BANG when she pulled the trigger.) Or making sure I know how long it takes for a terra-joule plasma bolt to get from geosynchronous orbit to Hudson’s Bay, and knowing how far a dragon can fly in that time.

          1. Up to Honor among enemies and the sequel, Ashes of Victory? They were fine. After that I bought them on the momentum of the series.

    2. As you know Watcher From The Darkness, humans do not make sense in any sane frame of reference. But my researches lead me to suspect that in this case they operated off of a certain mad logic, as follows…

  2. Heh.
    I recommended Snuff’s adventure to someone just last month. (For obvious seasonal reasons.)

    It’s one of his best.
    It’s positively criminal that it’s at such a high price point, with no digital version. It’s like the publishers don’t WANT people to be able to read it. (Which would make sense. AFAICT, they’re inclined to support the villains of the piece.)

    1. I’ve been meaning to track down a copy, so a recent publication is quite welcome. I’ve most recently purchased textbooks, and was somehow thinking of this as research. I processed the price in that context, and thought it quite reasonable.

    2. I bought it when it came out, ground through it with increasing disgust, and it left in the next trade pile. It was a waste of tree pulp. When Zelazny missed, he missed hard; it was just another of his misses.

      A couple of decades later I listened to the audiobook, mainly because there were no better alternatives. It was read by Roger himself. Because I remembered enough of the book to know that the pieces would eventually more or less fit, I was fairly entertained… but a bit of information at the beginning, or even a paragraph or two of prologue, would have helped things a whole hell of a lot. So the book is still a miss; as far as I’m concerned.

      There are two other factors here. One; I’m not a fresh new reader any more. I’m crotchety and cynical, and I’ve seen variants of almost everything before. Two, I’m mostly “reading” by audiobook now, that fitting my available time better than text. Since audio is limited by the speed of speech, I have plenty of time to think about things while waiting for things to develop, and I tend to spot a lot of problems that I zipped over before, even on multiple readings.

      I loved the story of Amber. I had to wait for the last two books – the Hand of Oberon and the Courts of Chaos – to come out. I’d have a hard time guessing how many times I’ve read the series. Like an old friend or a movie I’d seen many times, it was comfortable… until I listened to the audiobook. Funny, I’d never realized how much time Zelazny spent recapping what happened before. Way more than necessary to maintain continuity over episodes. So much that a careful editor could excise the fluff and bring five volumes down to three short ones or two longer ones. Yeah, five was probably better than two on payday, but I think I’ve finally outgrown Amber; too much of the structure of the story is poking through now.

      And finally, if you’re any kind of Zelazny fan,’s pulp magazine has a ton of Zelazny, from his very first sale to the serials of some of the Amber books, including a bunch of short stories that, as far as I (and ISFDB) can tell, have never been anthologized. And those three Ambers… they’re about 20% larger than the novels, so chances are, there’s some of Corwin’s story you haven’t read yet. Bon appetit!

      1. It looks like there’s another book with a similar title (missing the initial ‘A’) by Richard Laymon that’s on Kindle, but the Zelazny seems to be only in paper.

          1. “This title is not currently available for purchase ” from Amazon US. Maybe it’s available in another country?

  3. The paragraph

    “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.”

    seems to have nothing to do with the rest of your discussion. You give a fine discussion of in media res, but that appears to be unrelated to whether the story is a political propaganda potboiler in best Atlas Shrugged Stalinist Realism style. (Those nouns-as-adjectives were not meant as a positive reference to the style.)

    1. It introduces us to the subject. There’s a fraction of the audience here that is more for the political angle than the wordsmithing, and needs to be drawn into the wordsmithing. There’s also people coming here from a wide range of writing traditions. I’m not sure how familiar you are with recent fanfic written by fashionable teens for fashionable teens. Imagine if the story of Eclipse, Nanoha Takamichi or Sakura Kinomoto introduced their adventures with a lengthy list of trigger warnings, starting with the fact that the young girl is not always in circumstances that are entirely safe.

      1. I am not entirely sure I understand the trigger whining concept, but wonder if the list in Eclipse would be longer or shorter than the novel itself, which is only 172,000 words. I might also have to populate her body count, with an appropriate paragraph showing I cared about each of the deceased, this yielding some thousands of additional paragraphs. While I did have politics, it was real politics in her world, though I did gratuitously populate comments on genre fiction (it gets the Nobel Prize) and literary fiction (it gets fan awards named after writers no one outside of this microscopic fandom has ever heard of) as a leadin to the Heinlein (he was also a divorce attorney after leaving the Navy as an Admiral) Divorce Act.

        I confess I am fond of Weber’s writing.

      2. Dear Bob. You totally lost me in the middle. Yes, I had a fantastic stout. Fuller’s Imperial, but as you no doubt intended, I’m totally befuddled, and resigned to thinking that I should go back to re-reading books written before 1998. I dont think I’ll ever wrap my head around fan-fic unless it is very structured like the stuff Flint lets everybody do in 1632.

    2. I think the political part is a comic interlude, to get people to digest the quote more fully before diving into the actual instruction. I know when I teach I deliberately slow down sometimes for precisely that reason.

        1. Thank you. I sometimes like to your Mad Genius posts on our company’s internal discussion site because some techniques for keeping people’s interest to transfer to non fiction.

  4. Looks like Zelazny could have benefited from Hildick’s advice on writing for children.

    Thanks. Lonesome October is a book I’ve been meaning to read, but would not have thought to track down on Amazon on my own.

  5. I figure as long as you don’t go out of your way to hinder understanding, your readers should be able to figure things out.

    1. You need beta readers to confirm that. I am continually surprised by what they don’t think clear.

  6. I’m interested in the pool noodles.

    All in all it seems that the dog has been very forthright in what is going on, limited by a dog’s understanding. We have a number of things that most readers should know about without explanation. The dog. London. Fog. Wardrobe. Steamer trunk. Mirror. Its Master has a curse and works to keep bad things from happening. The dog guards him and the work. We might not know what the curse is, or even if the dog imagines it, but we’re familiar with the concept of a curse.

    It’s limited, but it’s not confusing.

    I’m currently fumbling around at a beginning, trying to find the action, trying to figure out what anyone is doing or will do. Thought I had it and then realized that I didn’t see how to keep going forward once the door had been broken in and the people solved the puzzle of what had happened. So I tried a different time and place.

    There are some things that I expect the reader to know. I expect them to have a basic mind-space model of a spaceship. I expect them to immediately understand the idea of searching for survivors. I don’t have to explain why someone would want to do that or spend too much time on the consequences of not finding anyone alive.

    I assume that most people are familiar with aircraft identification codes and a majority understand Friend vs. Foe in relation to that, or at least won’t be too confused… or maybe that’s too much already and hints or explanations about the identification of the attackers needs to be later. It certainly *could* be later.

    One of my pet peeves is when someone tries to make their opening *mysterious*. If I can’t tell what’s going on, I’m not going to be intrigued, I’m going to be annoyed.

      1. But still a good boy. Who’s going to help save the world, oh yes he is.

        A demon bound in the semblance, but that semblance includes “man’s best friend”. Loyal, dutiful, and doesn’t want the world to end, he’s not a half-bad (pardon the pun) protagonist. He’s certainly easier to identify with than Jack would have been.

        1. I really don’t remember his being a demon bound in the semblance of a dog being a plot point, except maybe as an abstract explanation as to why the familiars were so knowledgeable about the supernatural and tied to monsters real and imagined.

          (shrug) But I haven’t read it in over two decades.
          I imagine some of your recent books have encouraged you to read it rather more recently.

  7. On fourth read it occurred to me that ‘drowning your readers’ might be meant literally, as opposed to ‘drowning them in moral instruction notes’.

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