By Ellen Behrens
Ever read a book but run into spots where you scratch your head, then flip back a few pages, thinking you missed something? Me, too. I recently picked up a nearly 500-page paperback novel set in South Dakota. I like reading books set where my husband and I have traveled, and I was looking forward to a rare Black Hills novel. Alas, I nearly gave up on page 5.
The author had me with an intriguing opening line: “Didja ever notice old folks’ homes smell exactly like funeral homes?” Hmm. Never thought of that. The narrative voice sounded sassy and honest, and I liked that.
I overlooked being introduced to the main characters by their first names only, assuming the author had a good reason to break with the convention of using full names.
Then, on page 5, I bumped into a reference to another character, this time by last name only. I couldn’t remember reading anything about that character, so I interrupted the flow of the story to thumb through the first four pages, hunting through each paragraph in search of the reference to this character I must have missed. When I couldn’t find it, I re-read the sentence that had catapulted me out of the story: “Also very much like Martinez’s various security setups.” Yep. That was the full mention of this “Martinez.”
So I started over again, looking more closely for an explanation of who Martinez was and what I was supposed to know about Martinez’s “various security setups.” Nothing. At this point, I’d read the first five pages at least three times.
Frustrated, I scanned the back cover of the book to see what (other than the setting) had compelled me to buy it. And there it was: a reference to Martinez as the main character’s love interest.
The back cover is not where I should have found the missing details. I realized the book must have been part of a series. Earlier books no doubt filled the gaps I kept falling into, but nothing on the cover said I should read earlier books to make sense of this one.
Five pages into a 500-page novel, I was disoriented. Not a promising start. I really wanted to like the book. I’ve been traditionally published, but now I’m self-publishing my own mystery series and wanted to financially support a fellow novelist. I know from my own frustrating experience how much blood, sweat, and gut-wrenching determination it takes to finish a novel (and I’ve never written a 500-pager).
Sadly, my “suspension of disbelief” was gone – I was paying more attention to how the book was written than to the story itself. But it was a valuable reminder of why certain fiction conventions are still valid, and why they’re especially important to follow in series books:
1) Introduce characters by full name early on.
2) Re-introduce characters from earlier books if they reappear. Don’t assume readers know the characters or their backstories.
3) Never, ever confuse your readers. They’re more likely to abandon the book without finishing it if they get disoriented or become more aware of how a story’s written than the story itself.
4) Oh, and if you catch me doing something that fouls up your appreciation of one of my books? Let me know. Please!
Yuma Baby, the second in Ellen Behrens’ Rollin RV Mystery series (following Pea Body) featuring Walt and Betty Rollin, full-time RVers who solve mysteries, is coming soon. A former fiction editor and the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship, Ellen and her husband have been full-time RVers since 2009 – living and writing back and forth across North America. Learn more about her books at www.ellenbooks.com or drop her an e-mail at ellenbehr[at]aol[dot]com if you’d like. She loves mail!