Without intending to, we sometimes withhold important information about the premise of our narratives in our attempts to be mysterious. The problem with such a strategy is it can lead to confusion. Readers can spend too much time trying to figure out the context of the story. As a result, their attention is kept from the nuances of the character relationships. I still maintain these nuances are the heart of good fiction. A writer being coy with the facts of a story may attempt to create a mystery involving the plot, but it’s usually at the expense of the intricacies of character.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, “A Temporary Matter” opens like this: “The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.” With one sentence, Lahiri gives us the facts we need to know about the dramatic present of the story: five days of no power for one hour each evening. This sentence clearly states the premise of the story.
The next question becomes one of what the main characters, a husband and a wife, carry with them into the dramatic present. We quickly learn that six months prior, while the husband was away at an academic conference, a dramatic event occurred: “The baby had been born dead.” Lahiri makes sure we have that piece of information as the story is getting underway.
The dramatic present is now ready to vibrate against the backstory. What will happen when the electricity goes off each night? How will it put pressure on what the couple carry with them because of the loss of their child? Everything is in place. We don’t have to guess at what’s important as the story opens. We know the problem of the dramatic present (the loss of power), and we know the complication that precedes it (the death of the baby). Our attention is focused, then, on how the story will explore the nuances of a marriage in the aftermath of such a profound loss.
It’s really quite simple. Give your readers what they need to know as the story opens. If you withhold important facts, how will we ever be able to trust you when it comes to revealing the mysteries and nuances of the character relationships? Be clear about the premise of the story and about what’s happened in the past. Let the two rub together so the pressure will bring certain undeniable truths to light.