Readers are willing participants in your storyworld. They enter in with anticipation and willingness to let you keep (some) secrets and take them on an adventure.
But readers come with expectations. A big key is not keeping readers in the dark. Many of the items in the list below relate with this. Here are some expectations readers have as they read your book:
· Readers expect a logical flow. Help us see the world you’ve created and the action in a logical way. Don’t take leaps of logic that might lose or confuse readers. Don’t suddenly mention a character who’s been in the room all the time but who wasn’t revealed until he offers a remark (unless you’re writing a suspense). While you’re following a logical path, be careful of not falling into what I call “progressive” steps either. Like: Jon opened the door. Jan walked through the doorway. Jon closed the door. (etc.)
· Readers expect to not be lost in confusion. It’s so difficult to be objective about our own writing. That’s where critique groups come in handy. As writers, we picture exactly what we mean to portray, but sometimes the portrayal doesn't work. Be clear. Step back and read the passage again. Have you kept too many secrets? Be purposeful about the secrets you’re keeping. A confused reader is likely to give up on your book and may not be eager to pick up your next one.
· Readers expect to see a story question so they know why to keep reading. Be clear in your own mind about the story question before you begin the story. Include that question as early in the first chapter as you can. First page is best.
· Readers expect to be hooked right away (some of that is accomplished by introducing a clear story question, some by involving the reader in action early in the story). Work to hook your reader through as many means as you can—story question, action, character sympathy, etc.—as early as you can.
· Readers expect to get to know and like your MC (main character). Help your readers learn about your MC. Help us understand their ordinary world, their coping mechanisms, their main problem, their fears, their goals. Give your character layers via backstory (all of which you know; some of which you’ll share with your readers), and complex emotions. Always answer the question “Why?” when it comes to your character. Why does Jon do this or that? What motivates him? Why? What does he fear? Why? What does he want? Why?
· Readers expect to sympathize with your MC and eventually to love him/her. Help readers like your MC by giving us something to relate (sympathize) with. People relate with what are known as “universal themes.” These themes include, a father’s love, a mother’s love, wanting to protect children, justice, the need for acceptance, fear of rejection, a longing for forgiveness, etc. Through deep POV (point of view), help readers relate with your MC so we sympathize. That will keep readers hooked and help meet their expectations.
· Readers expect to understand your characters’ motives, including those of the antagonist. This ties in with believability, which is so key in storytelling. Yes, readers are suspending their disbelief, but even a fantasy world full of hobbits must have certain elements for believability. That comes down to characterization most times and includes character motivations. Would a character who fights for justice suddenly (and without cause) choose to harm the innocent? Unless you’ve provided clear, believable motivation, readers will reject this thread, come to despise your character, and probably stop reading the book. Furthermore, evil characters have a reason for doing what they do. Demonstrate that and your readers will not only believe in your character and his/her involvement in the story, they’ll sympathize with the antagonist. (Generally the more you can help readers analyze their own thoughts, motives, feelings, the better. It’s one of the ways fiction works to change lives. Giving readers conflicting reasons to sympathize and care helps facilitate this.)
· Readers expect to suspend disbelief for the sake of story (which still involves logical flow). Readers will willingly follow, as I’ve stated above, so long as you keep them engaged without introducing unbelievable elements. Remember, they want to go along for the roller coaster ride. But it’s the writer’s job to keep them belted into the car.
· Readers expect clear point of view without head-hopping. Lastly for our non-exhaustive list, I’ll discuss point of view. Part of why readers get lost or confused in our stories is that the writer includes what’s called head-hopping. Be clear about point of view. Use one character per scene and/or chapter. Don’t switch into omniscient point of view. Take advantage of deep POV to not only give us the elements of the story, but to also give us more reasons to love your MC.
Example of omniscient POV:
The sun shone on the mountain top, highlighting the snowy ridges in pink. Villagers awakened from deep sleep and dreams of holiday celebrations. Everyone anticipated the huge Christmas extravaganza that afternoon. Bakers everywhere mixed up sweet treats to tempt the attendees.
Instead, try helping us get into the MC’s head:
The sun hadn’t even risen by the time Christine Carson found herself in the kitchen. How in the world would she get five pies baked and three cakes frosted by herself? This was her chance to make a good impression. Her chance to get Tom’s attention.
See how we get immersed into the story elements? We can relate with Christine. We can guess what others in the village are doing, but we can’t know unless our main character knows and decides to mention it. (By the way, only mention extra information if in deed, it isn’t “extra.” Be specific about where you choose to use your story’s words.)
This isn’t an exhaustive list, as I’ve said. What are other ways that readers can be lost in the dark, so to speak, when it comes to beginning a story? And how have you overcome them?