When readers pick up a novel, or even a short story, they are making a conscious decision to let slip their own, everyday reality, and to immerse themselves in an alterative, virtual reality. This they subconsciously build from anchorage points - flashes of solid information into which readers can safely tether their imaginations as they enter the fiction.
For example: a character turns into a street and notices a derelict car and litter floating in an overflowing gutter. Readers, depending on their own real and secondary experiences, might extrapolate that street to include care-worn terraced housing with peeling paint and boarded windows, a growling dog and weeds growing between paving slabs.
None of this is mentioned in the text, but until the text offers an alternative this could be the virtual reality those readers run with. It might be transient, but it is surprisingly real to readers. If they mis-step, their virtual reality, and their faith in the solidity of your fictional world, comes crashing down. The best way to avoid this is to ensure that enough anchorage points giving the correct information are available as soon as the fiction begins.
There are four main anchorage points that readers subconsciously seek at the opening of a story. These arrive in no particular order in the text, but tend to come in quick succession: time, place, focus character, and an intimation of the problem.
Time. If there is no indication of time, readers take for granted that the time is ‘now’, a fluid construct which equates to whatever year the reader interfaces with the story. Bearing in mind that it usually takes a year to write a novel, and perhaps a further year or two to bring to publication even if taken immediately, and that the reader might have borrowed the book from the library three or so years after it was published, it will be appreciated that the story needs to be written in such a way that it does not date.
There are exceptions. Chicklit is one genre which revels in its specific time-frame, using popular culture as a main ingredient. The downside is that its shelf-life is short because popular culture moves on, and any novel not taken by a publisher almost immediately soon becomes unpublishable. Science Fiction set in the future – Stardate 17:571 – doesn’t so much rely on setting a specific time-frame as ensuring that readers are totally removed from their own.
On the other hand, historical fiction, or fiction set in the close future, should intimate its time-frame very early on so as to offer readers a specific anchorage point they cannot misinterpret. Where is the benefit in going into detail about a young man leaving his family for war if readers pick up from the choice of dialogue and descriptions that he is leaving for World War 1, only to discover three chapters on that he is in training to be a paratrooper?
Finding that their virtual reality is thirty-five years out of date is a big shock to readers’ fragile belief systems. Not only are they jarred to a halt in the forward momentum of the storyline, but they feel a need to go back in the text to determine where they went wrong. If there is no specific line they can identify, they will then distrust every word that story offers. Thirty-five years or five years makes little difference to readers. Double-checking each nuance in the storyline interferes with their ability to build an alternative reality and seriously detracts from the reading experience. Often the answer is to bin the text and pick up another.
Place. Fiction set in a real place is the current fashion due to the way reality entertainment has moved across mediums. This is understandable; modern readers travel and so are no longer satisfied with bland settings which could be anywhere in the country, any city in the industrial western world. What they don’t want is a descriptive info-dump reminiscent of a page from a tourist guide. Deft touches threaded through the conveying of the storyline is all that is required to enable readers to produce a three-dimensional effect in their burgeoning virtual reality.
Gaining a sense of place doesn’t just apply to the big picture. When the focus character enters an office building, or a corner shop, or his garage, readers want to be there at his shoulder reacting to these settings as the character reacts. Readers don’t want to feel they are being whisked from one hermetically sealed cube to another. Think in terms of the five senses and marry these to the focus character’s emotional status, observations and movements.
Focus Character. By default, readers accept that the initial named character will be the focus character for the entire work, and they start to dissect that character for mood and motive, age and appearance, and the 101 other attributes that make up a living person.
To find several pages later that this character is a mere walk-on is to make readers stumble unnecessarily, and often leads to a double beginning. This leaves readers in a quandary. Do they discard the virtual reality they have so far created and start building a new one, or do they keep the original on a mental back-burner in case they are being misled and the initial character is the main character for the story? While they are juggling these concerns they are not concentrating fully on your fiction.
Readers are perfectly able to carry several main characters, such as an ensemble, and create intertwining virtual realities for each, as long as these are introduced with deliberate care so that they remain individuals.
Problem. As stated in a previous post, we all might like to lead happy and carefree lives, but reading about such paragons is boring. Every focus character, and in a novel often most of the subsidiary characters who will be supplying the subplots, need a set of problems to mirror real life, and an over-riding problem to be overcome which is at the heart of the story. To baldly state this on the first page would ruin the credibility of the work, but there needs to be some inkling telegraphed to readers early on to keep them turning the page.
Humans are emotional beings able to pick up the transmitted feelings of other emotional beings. We do it every day in real life and use the same skills when reading. For instance, anxious people worry, not just about the main problem, which often they cannot identify, but about everything around them, and this translates to a tone which colours their view of life. The tension carried reverberates back at them from people they interact with, creating an atmosphere. In turn, readers pick up on these ethereal qualities in the text and use them to colour the virtual reality they are building in their minds.
It doesn’t matter what the problem is, or how minor it appears at the opening of the story, it is enough for readers to lock onto and so set in motion the hope/fear see-saw which will develop as the story progresses: hope he escapes the burning building / fear he won’t; hope she finds the love of her life / fear she’ll be misled.
Virtual realities do not appear fully formed, they have to be built and they are constantly being rebuilt and adjusted in response to the twists and turns of the storyline. But the faster readers are able to grasp the anchorage points in your fiction, the faster they will feel confident enough to let slip their own reality, build a three-dimensional virtual reality, and emotionally immerse themselves in your fiction.