I remember a rule from an undergraduate fiction workshop. Looking at my transcript, I must have learned it from Bret Lott. I worked with the poets Carol Ann Davis and Paul Allen, and the writing lab expert Bonnie Devet, but Bret was my only fiction teacher. Honestly, what I remember could have come from a book I read around the same time. Let’s say this advice definitely came from a book. What matters is, Lott emphasized it: introduce important characters early, as soon as possible.
In a short story, a writer has … What, thirty-five hundred words? Five-thousand? In flash fiction, one thousand? There are stories to read everywhere. This article from December 2013’s The Atlantic comparing the Internet to James Joyce’s Ulysses points to the fact the Internet will never be finished, so that a reader might never stop reading, might never complete the story. Applied to fiction, constant new character introductions pose a real loss of sustenance akin to clicking on URL after URL, a new thread in a reader’s initial query. About containers, shapes of stories solidified only in revision: once a writer discovers a story’s intent–whether that intent is revealed in a thousand or five thousand words–it needs to be for good reason that a character worth naming lives only in the second half of it, which is why attention must be paid to the geometry of a story. Everything rests upon it. Without marking these character introductions through revisions, attention deficit looms reduces the reader’s mind to that of a web surfer. Surfing is fun, but it is not why we read fiction. This is a very basic rule.