The Five Ws
Having worked for a newspaper, I learned early on that it’s crucial to orient your reader. As soon as possible, we were taught, we needed to let the reader know who, what, when, where, and why. And if we could also include “how,” so much the better.
The same is true of fiction. Maybe not the “how.” We have to save something for later, but grounding the reader, and orienting him to the story world, is extremely important. The worst thing an author can do — aside from boring the reader — is confuse him. In fact, when I teach classes, I tell my students there are only two rules that govern writing fiction: 1) don’t bore the reader and 2) don’t confuse the reader.
Let’s talk about grounding the reader. You don’t want your opening to become an information dump, but you do want to tell the reader enough so that he becomes part of the story world. It’s not that difficult to do. Let’s say your protagonist is a reporter, and she has driven from her home in upstate New York to the Cleveland, Ohio area to interview a famous singer. It’s January, the roads are treacherous, and a wet snow is falling steadily. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, but soon it will be dark. Our heroine has to get to Cleveland by six; the singer has made it clear that if our reporter arrives later than that, she won’t get her interview. Our heroine’s job is on the line; she knows that. Her newspaper has been losing money and readers. If she’s to be one of the reporters kept on, she needs to prove her worth.
All right, we can’t say all of that in the beginning, but we can give our reader a pretty good idea of the importance of our heroine’s mission (the what and why). Showing the reader what’s at stake goes to motivation, which goes to understanding and sympathy. So let’s treat this as an assignment. Write an opening paragraph that gives most of this information to the reader in a way that will not bore him, not confuse him, and make him want to read on.
Here’s how I would write that opening:
Carla Jacobs gripped the steering wheel harder. It was nerve-wracking driving the New York Thruway in January in blinding snow. She wished she could find a motel and get off the road for the night, but if she didn’t get to Cleveland by six — and it was already three — she wouldn’t get the interview with Harry Clark, and if she didn’t get the interview with the singer, she might as well kiss her job with the Syracuse Sentinel goodbye. Her boss had made that abundantly clear.
Now the reader knows everything important that they need to know. They are oriented and part of the story world. So remember the five Ws and incorporate them into your opening as quickly as possible.