Hold your reader's attention with precise placement and progression
Two essential elements for readable and immersive fiction
You know I love talking ‘big picture’ but this month I want to come down closer to the line level and explain two types of mistakes I encounter frequently when editing fiction: an inability to physically place your reader within a scene, and a confusing progression of information.
If an agent or editor is reading your opening pages and they have no idea where they are, or have to go back a few sentences to figure out what’s happened/is happening, I guarantee they won’t read on for much longer.
To place, situate or position your reader, you might begin with a series of questions when writing (or, more likely, when revising or editing your own work): Where does this scene occur? Who is there? What is happening and what kind of point of view do we have on the events unfolding?
Perhaps this is something that gets missed because it’s common now to be told to begin your story in medias res. To get straight to the action. But without proper placement, the action will all be a blur. It will be unanchored.
Here’s an example of an opening paragraph that fails to place the reader:
The gun was on the floor. He stood for so long looking at the gun. And then he was outside and running, running. The man behind him found the gun. He had no such reservations. He picked it up. He closed in on the first man. He squeezed the trigger. It’s over, the first man thought. He fell to the ground.
This is not a strong introduction to a scene. We can’t see, feel or smell anything. We don’t have any sense of who these men are. It’s too speedy. And don’t get me wrong; you can still write a scene with very subtle detail and situate us adequately within it.
Let’s add some placement details, including properly deciding on a point of view:
Matt stood for so long looking at the gun on the concrete warehouse floor. Was it his? He didn’t even know how he had got here.
And then he was outside and running, running. The sun was high and hot as he ran between the shadows of buildings and he began to sweat. He was too out of shape for this. He spun his head to look back and there was another man. A much fitter man. He had the gun.
Matt ran so hard spit choked up his mouth. He instinctively ran in the direction of home. But that was where Anya was. He had to turn, spin, rethink. He didn’t want to look behind him. Despite the heat, his neck prickled with cold.
In front of a café a group of women with prams idled. Shit. He jogged toward the road, tripped, came down. His hands and legs scrambled amid noises of shock. The sun was in his eyes.
The gun was in his eyes.
‘It’s over,’ the fit man said.
Okay, it’s not Shakespeare… but now how we have visuals, smells, tastes, temperature; a small idea of the character (he’s unfit and cares about someone called Anya); and a clear and maintained ‘lens’ on the action: third person limited point of view.
Even a post-modern novel like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler intentionally places us (and draws attention to itself doing so!):
The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust.
Progression is linked to placement because the information you have in a scene (or even a paragraph) has to come in the right order. A thought your character has will be prompted by an action or object. The action or object will come into the scene as part of a logical progression (it is handed to them; they look at it). Their thoughts and dialogue, too, will have an associative flow. If the narration is omniscient, the narrator pans around the room, or zooms in from a height, but does not dizzyingly jump-cut from one perspective to another (without a link). The easiest way to show what I mean by progression is to show you a scene where it is ‘off’:
The gun was on the ground. Matt stood for so long looking at the gun on the concrete warehouse floor. Was it his? He didn’t even know how he had got here. The sun was high and hot as he ran between the shadows of buildings and he began to sweat. He was outside and running, running. He was too out of shape for this. There was another man. A much fitter man. He spun his head to look back.
He had the gun.
Matt ran so hard spit choked up his mouth. He ran in the direction of home, instinctively. But that was where Anya was. He didn’t want to look back. Despite the heat his neck prickled with cold. He had to turn, spin, rethink.
The most jarring aspect of this is that he is standing, looking, and then there is sun and heat and he is running, but the interconnecting phrase, which takes us from one motion to the next, is out of place. It comes too late. (He was outside and running, running.) Also, ‘There was another man’ lacks context, and so we cannot picture where this man is, or even when: Does it mean that there’s a man there now? Or there was a man back in the warehouse? Only when we get to ‘He spun his head to look back’ do we realise that the man is chasing him. Therefore, the information in this sample does not progress correctly.
Most of you are probably reading this, going: I would never do that. But it’s easier to muck up progression than you think. We can often picture the whole scene in our heads; everything that’s happening immediately and in the periphery. We often don’t realise we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, left something out, or shifted the camera in a slightly illogical way.
The ideas of placement and progression are linked because one is about having enough detail for the reader to understand where they are and what’s happening and the other is about the order in which that information is given. Taking a break from your manuscript will help you to see these kinds of line issues better. And, of course, getting a fresh set of eyes on it is always useful – whether that’s a beta reader or an editor like me.
For examples of perfect placement and beautiful progression, check out the opening pages of the following novels:
The Well by Elizabeth Jolley
1984 by George Orwell
This is How by MJ Hyland
What am I reading?
I’m currently switching between Eugen Bacon’s poetic speculative novel Claiming T-Mo, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (mind-blowingly wonderful) and the new issue of Overland. Attending ConZealand virtually this week means I’m also adding about a million more books to my to-read list.
Opportunities of the month
Here’s one for playwrights: The Yale Drama Series is seeking submissions for its 2021 playwriting competition. The winner is awarded $10,000, publication, and a staged reading.
And here in Aus, Wakefield Press is publishing a YA short-story anthology, Hometown Haunts: #LoveOzYA Horror Tales. Contributors will receive a $500 payment.
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Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything,