Fur Boys, by C.A. Newsome (10:10)

IOD score card

Today we see that the opening of a story is a triple balancing act between three kinds of detail: too little, too much, and irrelevant.

What I gleaned about the story: Lia Anderson and her friends are going to a concert, but oddly, the doors are still locked. Since this is a murder mystery, I suspect foul play. But it could just be a gas leak. Hopefully we’ll learn more soon.

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Note: The story opens with a prologue which didn’t seem to serve much purpose. My usual rule of thumb is that a prologue should only be provided when A) the events of the prologue are crucial to understanding the story, B) they have to be witnessed in order to properly inform the reader’s later experience, and C) they involve a markedly different time, setting, or cast of characters, and so cannot reasonably be included as simply Chapter One.

Having read this particular prologue, my immediate sense was that there didn’t seem to be much of importance going on, so neither conditions A nor B seems to be met. It did suggest something was off-kilter, but only in a very indirect way. Unfortunately, this is a mystery, so I’m not sure if my rules about prologues apply. I’m not going to throw a WTF here, but I reserve the right to throw a hissy fit about it later, if it proves to have been unnecessary after all. :-)

Note: This is a just a pet peeve, so I’m not charging a WTF for this either, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. Personally, I find it hits a sour note when the opening of a book introduces the protagonist by their full name. My sense is that modern readers hear the narrator’s voice as being filtered through the narrator’s POV, and most people don’t think of themselves in such formal, first-name-last-name terms. So when I read the narrator doing exactly that, it strikes me as entirely alien, pushing me out of the story before I’ve even sunk into it. What do you think? Do you find it weird that Lia Anderson tells us that Lia Anderson rubbed her arms in the cold night air? Or is it just me?

WTF #1: Introduction overload

Analysis: In the three opening paragraphs of Chapter One, we are introduced to Lia Anderson, Peter Dourson, Brent, Cynth, a Chevy Blazer, the Spring Grove Cemetery, Brent Davis, Peter’s partner, District Five’s pretty boy, and Peter’s dog, Viola. There are so many people, places, animals (and references to same) that I can’t keep any of it straight. I got exactly one half of one sentence in the presence of the protagonist (Lia Anderson) before other people were brought in and started crowding her out of my headspace. So by the end of three paragraphs, I’d completely lost track of which one was the narrator, which one was her boyfriend, who owned the car, who owned the dog, or anything.

I’ve always thought that characters should be drizzled into the mix slowly, like the butter in a cream sauce, so that the reader has time to absorb and understand them before they form useless clumps with the other ingredients.

Note: To me the word ‘zinger’ implies more than just an insult. It also implies funny, or at least clever. But here it’s used to describe a fairly bland, garden variety bit of mockery. It’s not exactly wrong, but it does set me to wondering whether the author and I either have different definitions for the word, or if our senses of humor might not be aligned. Shrug. Too soon to render a verdict. Guess I’ll have to wait and see.

WTF #2: Intimacy miscue

Analysis: For the first page and a half, I’ve been under the impression that the two couples are close, long-time friends. There’s a degree of familiarity and intimacy to their banter — both within couples and across the pairs. So at the bottom of page two, when Lia observes that the other couple behave like married people and that, “There’s a story there and one of these days I’m going to dig it out of her,” I was left scratching my head. These people behave far too intimately to not know the basic story of each other’s marital situations. That single line reads far more like two couples who have only just met. And when I found myself scrolling back, looking to see if I’d misread the previous cues, I realized I was no longer immersed.

WTF #3: Unanchored details

Analysis: At the bottom of page two, our lead characters are trying to get into Norman Chapel for a performance, but the door is still locked and a bunch of patrons are milling about, waiting for the doors to open. Our protagonist sees someone she knows who should be able to provide some answers, and refers to this woman as “Hopewell Music Conservatory’s administrative secretary.” Okay. But so what? Is that important?

Given the storm of extraneous details I noted earlier, I have no confidence whether this detail is relevant to the story, or just more introductory label-pasting. There was one previous reference to a “professor at Hopewell,” but I still don’t know what Hopewell is or how it connects. The building they’re standing at is Norman Chapel. A few paragraphs later, I’m also told that our protagonist’s acquaintance with the secretary is what led to her current project at Hopewell, but I still haven’t been told what Hopewell is or how it’s connected to the event I’m trying to follow. Is Norman Chapel part of the Hopewell campus? Is the concert they’re attending being put on by Hopewell Conservatory in some way, or is it just an event at some other location that musically inclined folks, such as the good folks at Hopewell, are attending and supporting? So many questions.

Anyway, I had to jump back and look to see if I’d missed previous Hopewell references, and if I’m jumping around and scratching my head, I’m clearly no longer immersed.

Note: This raises a really important consideration for authors at the start of a story. Remember that readers are voracious sponges. At this point of the tale, they’re sucking every detail up and trying to connect everything to everything else, trying to build that initial world-scaffold so that they can get themselves oriented quickly to whatever facts will unfold later. So your job is to help them with that.

Make sure that any time you introduce a new detail, you’ve already laid the groundwork for it so that they can just pick it up and keep moving. Otherwise, they’re like the country bumpkin cousin arriving on track 23 in the downtown Big City terminal during rush hour. They may not make it out of the station alive.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.