What does it mean to ground your reader?
It means you should give your reader enough clues at the start of a story or scene so that they can imagine the setting and protagonist.
Many of my students start straight into the action of their stories, leaving such things as the name, sex and age of the protagonist and where the action is taking place, a mystery. They say they like to reveal these things as the story goes on.
However, while this may work in film when the audience can see a character and setting in action, readers of prose are left scrambling in a dark void, trying to find something, anything, to base their experience of the story upon.
The writer has a clear image of the scene in her mind. The writer knows where and when and who, but the reader can’t find a way into the story unless the writer shares some of this knowledge.
You can still keep many aspects of your story mysterious, but please, let the reader in on the essentials.
Where are we? When?
Who are we with? Name them.
What’s going on?
Why – you can let that unfold more slowly.
For instance, instead of
She rolled over.
“Get up!” a strange voice said.
She got up and ran as fast as she could in the other direction.
By just filling in a few important details you could have:
Rosemary rolled over in a pile of leaves, deep in the forest. She had no idea how she’d got there, but she recognised the forest as the place her grandmother took her to collect mushrooms in Autumn.
“Get up!” a strange man’s voice said from behind her.
Rosemary bolted upright and leapt to her feet, running as fast as she could away from the voice, along the secret paths her grandmother had shown her.
The mystery of how and why Rosemary has found herself in the forest, and who the stranger is, are still intact. But in the second example the reader can envisage the scene. Not only that, we have an idea how old she is, younger rather than older, and we are more likely to care about her because she has a relationship with her grandmother.
Because all readings are subjective, with the reader imposing her own world view on the story world the author created, the forest may not be exactly the same as the writer envisaged, but the reader has somewhere to place the action, a protagonist to relate to, and is much more likely to keep on reading.
It only takes a line or two to fill in those important specific details to give the reader enough clues to enter your story world at the beginning of your story.
You’ll need to do the same work of grounding when you start a new scene as well. This can be as simple as, Three long years later… Or … Back at the busy cafe Fred stood in the line for coffee.
It only takes a few telling details to set up your story world and protagonist in time and place so your reader isn’t left flailing in the dark, struggling to find a way in.
Yes it’s a writers job to keep secrets from the reader and reveal them slowly to keep the reader hooked, but some things, like who the protagonist is and where the story is set, are essential to establish right at the start so that the reader can even begin to enter your story world.
Hope that helps!
Take care and keep smiling. Remember writers need never be bored stuck at home, there’s always more stories to write.
Now get writing 🙂
Lots of love