In both fiction and nonfiction stories, as a writer avoid confusing your readers from the start. Keep their momentum and absorption in your story.
So… maybe I have too active an imagination. Or I jump to conclusions way too fast. But the moment you, as an author, introduce a person in your story, I immediately picture them as a certain age and with other character traits … unless you tell me otherwise. Not necessarily an exact age — but I at least imagine a middle-aged person, or a teen, preschooler or toddler.
If a few sentences to a few paragraphs later you clarify their age, and I have to radically correct my original perception, I feel dumb as a reader.
What did I miss? I feel compelled to go back and reread from the beginning. That distracts me from your story and frustrates me a bit.
For example, in the opening sentence of one story, in an otherwise excellent chapter in a very good book, I read something similar to this:
Cindy ran across the lawn at full speed. “Sam!” she yelled.
So…I’m picturing Cindy around my age, for lack of other info. Middle aged. A bit overweight but in OK shape. Then I read:
Sam, her grandfather, turned just as Cindy took a flying leap and landed in his arms. They often played this game.
Then I read that he flings her high over his head. I’m thinking, Wow! That is one strong grandpa! And I can’t recall the last time I took a flying leap!
Oh, wait, this must be a younger person. Then I read, four paragraphs into the story,
“’Gin, ‘Gin!” and “Whee!”
OH. This must be a preschooler.
I reread the story from the beginning. Now makes sense, but the author lost my momentum as a reader. Worse yet, I kept a lookout for similar problems in other stories in the book, since I didn’t want to feel dumb again. An unnecessary distraction.
This is a common problem for writers, with natural causes. The writer fully pictures the character/true person in his or her head from the start, in at least a general age range. So it’s assumed the reader will too.
This is where critique groups come in so handy! Your pro-writing friends will catch potential hitches with character traits. That’s because they, too, are readers, and if they themselves feel momentarily confused can tell you so honestly.
And as you become sensitized to this, you’ll be less likely to do it ‘gin.
(Image courtesy of potowizard / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)