(The Importance of Grounding Your Readers)
By Joanna Campbell Slan
Imagine this: You open your eyes and have no idea where you are. In fact, you aren’t even sure what year it is. Checking your pockets, you realize you don’t have an I.D. and you can’t remember your name. Pretty disconcerting, isn’t it?
But writers do this all the time to their readers. An editor once told me the #1 problem she found in manuscripts was that the author didn’t ground the reader fast enough.
What did she mean? It’s simple. If your readers don’t know the who, the when, and the where, they can’t settle in and enjoy your story, which is the why (the problem) and the how (the solution).
After reading books for award considerations, judging manuscripts for contests, and editing stories for our Happy Homicides series of cozy anthologies, I have a better understanding what the editor meant. Too often, I find myself muddling through paragraph after paragraph searching for clues, not to solve a mystery, but to figure out where my house landed after the twister hit. Am I in the Emerald City? Or Kansas?
On occasion writers try too hard to be clever and obscure the identity of the protagonist. It’s a fun idea but very difficult to pull off. In fact, I can think of only one novel where the author did it well, and that’s Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. We never do learn the name of the narrator, but she is still an unforgettable character.
Often the author forgets to share the name of the person telling the story, because the main character is so familiar to the writer that he/she forgets we are clueless. Same thing with the location, except that once in a while, an author will assume a place name is familiar when it isn’t. (Think “global audience,” and you’ll see why.) As for the when, I am guilty of starting to write, only to realize I haven’t fully committed to a time of year. While that might not always matter to the plot, it certainly can make a murky environment for my reader.
In editing other people’s work, I frequently discover important details buried too deeply in the story. By the time I reach them I am more annoyed than intrigued. I see myself doing this, too. We worry about boring our readers, so we run on ahead—without them.
It might take a bit of rewriting after the fact, but it’s worth your while to skillfully weave details into the early paragraphs of your pieces. In fact, if you do it properly, those details can introduce a theme or move the action along nicely.
For example, here’s the start of “Kiki Lowenstein and the Shark Bait,” one of my short stories in Happy Homicides 3: Summertime Crime:
I never thought I’d say this—and I’ll deny it to the death if you quote me—but some memories are best forgotten. My name is Kiki Lowenstein. I work in a scrapbook store in St. Louis called Time in a Bottle, so you could say that I make my living helping people to deal with their memories. So asking someone to forget them, well, that’s antithetical to who I am.
In the next few paragraphs, you learn that Kiki is looking back on an experience she had the summer after her freshman year in college. Using her scant savings she flew to Hingham, Massachusetts, to visit her college boyfriend. With that information, you get to compare the grown woman to her younger self, and the story that unfolds explains why she wishes her memories had grown fuzzy.
I encourage to you begin each piece you write with a simple questionnaire. On a scrap of paper, ask yourself the who, what, when, and where. When you finish your work for the day, pull out that paper and check off the questions if you’ve answered them. I promise you that your story will be better grounded, and your readers will thank you for it.