Friday, 18 February 2011

Why Readers are like Goslings

Reading is a strange business. We start out with high expectations and long for them to be fulfilled - no one reads hoping that they're going to waste their time, surely. So we latch onto whatever we get given in the first paragraph. Aha, we think, that's what this story is going to be about.

And then it isn't.

It's such a disappointment. As a reader, you sort of commit to the first person you see in a story, just like a gosling hatching from the egg. And as you read further, and the story gets further away from the character you started with, half your brain is wondering when we're going to get our real main character back, the one we started out with, the one we bonded with.

I see it in class time and time again. We begin with character X, then mourn X's absence if X doesn't turn out to be the main character. Feedback invariably starts with 'What happened to X?'

In novels this may not be so important - though in published novels, if the story is going to start with a different character, you often see that chapter being called a prologue, or some such, just to alert the reader that they shouldn't commit fully.

But in short stories starting with the character you mean to go on with is vital. Consider this: I see misleading story beginnings in class fairly often, but I can't remember seeing a story that didn't start with the main character when I've been the final judge for short story comps. That implies that the misleading beginnings get weeded out in the initial judging stages.

So, I'd strongly advise anyone to make sure their opening paragraph concentrates on the main character and call me a goose if I'm wrong.


Jim Murdoch said...

An excellent way of putting it. I can't say I'd ever thought of it before but you're so right. I've not read a lot of detective fiction but I think that's probably the main genre (even in short story format) where we pretty much expect not to meet the protagonist on the first page - we want to see what he's going to solve first.

Kath McGurl said...

Couldn't agree more. I heard a rule of thumb once, that the first name you mention in a story or novel, should be the main character.

When you start reading a novel, it's a kind of leap of faith to put your trust in that first character you read about in chapter one/paragraph one. It's such a let-down if they end up being a minor character, or worse, irrelevant to the rest of the story. Unless 'chapter one' is actually a prologue.

Jan Sprenger said...

I recently read a romantic novel, where it was clear from the outset that the hero was going to be the ex-husband. The set-up was all there, including the couple going on a business trip and winding up in the bridal suite...tres cliche.

Except a third of the way through the book, another guy was introduced. I have to confess, I was a bit bored with the book by then and skipped to the end. What a shock to discover the hero was the second man.

Now...I'm not saying romances must be formulaic but as you say, one does start reading with certain expectations, and when they're not met it's a little unsettling.

Sarah Duncan said...

Good point about not seeing the protagonist on 1st page in detective fiction Jim, hadn't thought of that but you're spot on.

Leap of faith just about sums it up. You've got to believe that the book is going to be worth the time spent reading.

Jan, I imagine, since you were skipping bits, the book wasn't grabbing you anyway. I posted recently how hard it is to have a convincing other man so the reader didn't know which was the main character was going to go.

Christine said...

Not quite convinced by this. Too easy to fall into the trap of writing to a formula. If you know the formula it's too easy to work out what's going to happen. My leap of faith is that if I embark upon a journey with this author, they should give me an experience I will remember. I don't mind having to work things out. That's the whole point for me. I like to participate in the creative process. But the threads should come together. I don't mind an inconclusive ending.... life's like that... in reality we never know what happens next. We just have a series of most likely scenarios.

Sarah Duncan said...

Hmm, not sure putting the main character into the first para is writing to a formula. Seems more like common sense to me.