So, the truth is, I read a lot of writing samples. A lot. And sometimes, when I get going on a stack of them, I recognize the same problem over and over for maybe 80% of what I’m reading.
Though I can objectively tell that the writing is sound—correct grammar, solid use of language, nice turns of phrase—I can also tell that I’m just not into it. At all. And Logical Kelsey starts wracking her brain, trying to figure out what’s wrong with these technically sound stories. And then, finally, I had an AHA MOMENT.
Honestly, I can’t even take credit for figuring it out. I actually read a blog post by Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds, in which he said (among lots of other awesome things):
“Do not build a wall of words.”
And BING! The lightbulb went off. Because that’s exactly what it feels like, especially after I read about a dozen of them. An entire brick wall of words completely blocking me from the main characters, from the story, from the world. And let me tell you, after a while with that metaphorical brick wall, I want to pound my head on a real one.
The wall of words is particularly and tragically common at the very beginning—in many cases, I have to fight through the first few paragraphs to get to something that really catches my attention. That something is usually the point when the protagonist surfaces and reveals his or her drives, desires or emotions. And that’s when I click in.
The thing is? Most of the time, you’re giving too much. Too much setting, too much world-building, too much hey-look-this-is-what-my-protag’s-life-is-like-before-event-A-leads-to-castarophe-B.
In the first few paragraphs, I honestly don’t care that your main character is from the faery realm and that the faery realm is in direct opposition to the gnome realm and that the faeries and the gnomes both hate the elves. I don’t care about the room that houses your main character or the wind rustling through the trees outside or your protag’s entire backstory up until this point.
What do I care about? The character. I want to be thrust into the character’s world right away, and not because you’ve spun an entire page’s worth of exposition telling me about her favorite set of pearl earrings. I don’t want to climb the wall of words. The details of the world can come later; the character’s past experiences that led him or her to this point can come later. I want to feel connected to your protag and grounded in the moment he or she inhabits. Otherwise, how am I going to be convinced to read a couple hundred pages?
For example, the kind of intro I’m talking about would introduce a woman who’s waking from a coma after fifteen years like this:
“Kelly had a life once. She had a little boy and a husband and a farmhouse on a hill that swept up over the otherwise flat landscape. Their fields stretched out for miles, dotted with crops that needed to be tended. The dog would run between the legs of her son while her husband went off to work in those fields, his tools heavy on his back. The echoes of her child’s laughter rang through the kitchen as she plucked chicken feathers in preparation of dinner that night.
The ghost of that laughter is in Kelly’s ears when she opens her eyes. The machine to her right beeps in time with her heart. The room is sterile, the sheets white, the pillow flat behind her head. Outside, doctors in white coats and nurses in scrubs bustle past her open door. She shifts and feels the pull of cables connected to her wrist, arms, chest. She pulls harder and the machine beeps a warning.”
In this type of intro, I don’t get a feel for the main character at all. For one, we’re not in the moment with her—we’re backtracking to the house and the son and the husband, without yet knowing the importance of that information. Then, when we do get to Kelly, it’s from a distant perspective. She seems almost calm as she (or the narrator) catalogues her surroundings. The wall of words is there.
Instead, it would be more engrossing if we didn’t know anything about Kelly—just like she doesn’t know anything about herself or her situation. If we start when she wakes up and the way she feels in that moment, the reader will connect more, so the impact hits harder when the story reveals her husband and child.
Kelly jerks awake. Her pulse pounds in her ears, and a machine matches the pace with a staccato beep. She struggles to move but can’t—finds herself pinned down by cables connected to her wrist, arms, chest. Her stomach roils at the cold sterile smell of antiseptic, and she yanks at the cables binding her to the bed. They wail their mechanic warning, but she doesn’t care. She claws at the IV in her arm and the sticky tape holding the wires to her chest, and one thought rises through the dim fog of her brain: she has to get out.
My example is by no means perfect, but you can see how much closer we are to Kelly’s fear. The revelations about the family and the 15-year-coma can come later. The reader already knows something is up, that Kelly is confused and possibly injured, and her desire to get out of the hospital gives her a propellant.
You have time to dole out information about your character—if you can get your reader to continue reading. There’s no need to throw everything at once in the story, and that goes for every part, not just the first page. Knock down the wall of words.