In everyday life, we keep our promises after we make them. If I say “I promise to paint your fence by Friday,” you can tell whether I’m a man of my word by Friday night.
But the kind of promises I want to talk about are kept before they’re made.
Suppose I begin an paragraph like this:
“In the novel Jim Gets Pwned, when Jim finds out that Alicia is assigned to be his lab partner, he begins to worry. After all, they haven’t spoken to each other since the big incident.”
There’s a big problem here: the reader is going to think “Huh? What in the world is ‘the big incident’?” That’s an example of a promise not kept. As an essay writer, you promise your reader that you will introduce things that you present.
Many of my students who make this kind of error protest “but I’m about to tell you!” But you don’t want to leave your reader hanging. You don’t have to describe everything about the subject in question, but at least give the reader something to start with.
In truth, I’ve presented Jim and Alicia too, and I haven’t told you much about them. Is Jim the title character? Perhaps I could have said “the title character” instead of “Jim.” On the other hand, I have told you that Alicia will be Jim’s lab partner, so at least you know something about her.
You can see that it can be hard to draw the line where you’ve introduced enough. Just don’t leave your reader with that “hey – what?” feeling. If those opening lines were placed in the middle of a paragraph, my poor reader would be looking back to see if he missed something about “the big incident.”
What kinds of things do you need to introduce?
The answer is important nouns. You know that a noun can be a person, place, or thing. Of course, Jim and the big incident are examples of a person and a thing. But you don’t have to introduce trivial nouns.
“Cursing, Alicia grabbed the sponge and began wiping up the spill.”
Obviously, I must have introduced the spill earlier. But I don’t need to tell the reader any details about the sponge, because it’s not important.
You also don’t have to introduce famous people and things. If you say “Mr. Barrett’s face reminded her of Benjamin Franklin’s” you can assume that your readers know who Franklin was.
There’s bad and there’s awful.
Suppose I want to write a paragraph about the first Harry Potter novel, and I begin:
“In the novel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, Dumbledore drops Harry off at the Dursley’s. Harry has a miserable childhood, until one day…”
That opening sentence breaks four promises. The poor reader wonders who Dumbledore, Harry and the Dursleys are, and she also wonders where the Dursleys are.
“… an elderly wizard named Dumbledore drops baby Harry off at his Aunt and Uncle’s suburban home in Little Whinging, Surrey.
That’s better. At least the reader knows something about the characters and location.
Does this guideline apply to all types of writing?
No! It applies to some kinds of writing. But in other genres (particularly fiction), an author may leave his readers hanging intentionally, as a literary device. For example, an author may describe a character’s quiet life in a quiet town, and then end the chapter with a sudden shift in mood:
“And then the soldiers came.”
That makes the reader eager to continue. “What soldiers? Are they enemies? What’s going to happen to the hero?”
In my humble opinion, many popular authors overuse this technique.
But in your essays and other academic works, don’t leave ’em hanging.