SCENE

DINNER PARTY. NIGHT.

A newly invited neighbor introduces herself to the hostess’ sister.

NEIGHBOR

Hi, I’m Jenny. I grew up in Chicago but my husband and I just moved here when he lost his job. His old boss was having an affair and my husband called him out on it. We think that’s why he got fired. As for us, we’ve had trouble conceiving, so we’re going through a surrogate. She lives in the area so it made sense for us to move here. I’m determined to give a little one a happy upbringing since my parents died in a car crash when I was two and I was left with my alcoholic aunt and a string of unsavory boyfriends.

SISTER politely excuses herself.

* * *

First impressions are important. While this is clearly an exaggeration of a first impression gone wrong, I would imagine that each of us have encountered people who tell us too much too soon or who pull us into their confidence so early on in the relationship we have nothing left to learn about them.

First impressions in fiction are every bit as important as they are in life. Just as the sister above politely excused herself, our readers will put our books back on the store shelf or delete the sample pages from their ereaders if the story opening does not connect them to our characters. Don’t underestimate the power of holding back information not only as a way to build trust with your reader, but also as a natural suspense tool.

Author, Hyatt Bass, does this very well in her novel, THE EMBERS. From the beginning, she drops little morsels of information that fill the reader’s head with questions and make it impossible to stop reading.

The novel starts on a hillside in the Berkshires. We read about a woman, Emily, and her fiancée visiting a place important to Emily’s past. 

It was odd how quickly nature reclaimed the land. Emily stepped out of the car and headed into the grass. Where the house used to be, there was only meadow now…She could see the whole room in her head—the big wooden table, the fireplace, the old fridge—could practically even see her brother, Thomas, slicing mushrooms at the counter. What would he think of that guy over there?”

The scene is active, interesting, and free of the burden of back-story. We don’t know why the house is important, why the house is gone, and why her brother doesn’t know her fiancée, but we do know that we are interested in the character because she has secrets. 

Another author who has mastered the art of holding back is Therese Walsh. In her novel, THE LAST WILL OF MOIRA LEAHY, she gives us enough to keep us interested but holds back just as much. The book begins:

“I lost my twin to a harsh November nine years ago. Ever since, I’ve felt the span of that month like no other, as if each of the calendar’s thirty perfect little squares split in two on the page. I wished they’d just disappear. Bring on winter…November always lingered though, crackling under the foot of my memory like dead leaves. It was no wonder then that I gave in to impulse one November evening, left papers piled high on my desk and went to where I’d lost myself in the past with a friend. I thought I might evade memory for just a while at the auction house, but I slammed into it anyhow. It was just November’s way. Only this time, November surprised me.”

The mention of a lost twin, the past, and a desire to evade memory all work together to entice the reader to lean a little closer. It’s impossible not to accept Walsh’s invitation to enter into the pages.

In the party scene earlier, if the new neighbor had a bit of mystery—a bit of allure—we’d be curious about her. If she’d acted with introspection, allowed her voice to trail off when she thought she’d revealed too much, or somehow seemed vulnerable, the sister would have connected with her and sought to learn more about her. This connection is vital to establish with your readers as soon as they begin your story.

Take a look at the opening scenes of your book. Is every bit of information essential to the set up? Is there a way that you can turn statements of fact into curiosities or allusions? Can you find ways to intrigue your reader instead of filling him in on what he doesn’t know? Holding back is often what holds a reader fast to your story.

*Photo bybeautifullyWrong at DeviantArt.com

About Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck (@ErikaRobuck) self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Her novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL (NAL/Penguin), was a Target Emerging Author Pick, a Vero Beach Bestseller, and has sold in two foreign markets to date. CALL ME ZELDA (NAL/Penguin) made the Southern Independent Booksellers Bestseller list, and is a Target Recommended Read. Her forthcoming novel, FALLEN BEAUTY, will be published on March 4, 2014, and she is a contributor to GRAND CENTRAL (June 2014, Berkley/Penguin), a short story anthology set at Grand Central Terminal in New York, following World War II. Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel Society, Hemingway Society, and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society.