On the importance of baby-ducking…

I suppose I should first explain, for the sake of those who don’t know, what baby-ducking is. It’s a term we’ve tossed around in several of my workshop classes to describe what happens when a reader sees that first name, that first character introduced in a story.

Baby ducks – and other baby fowl, for that matter – tend to imprint on the first face they see after they hatch. Whoever that is, that’s their mama, and their mama can be Mama duck or a human or a great big hound dog nosing around in the grasses. They imprint on that first face they see. Readers are a lot like baby ducks in that, when they open a book or a short story or what have you, that first person they get a sense of – through the mention of a name, the use of “I” narration, dialogue, or other characterization techniques – is the person they baby-duck on. That’s the character a reader will automatically assume is vital to the story. It’s very disorienting to introduce someone other than the main character first, because readers expect to be introduced to characters in something close to their order of importance in a story.

When writing, I feel like this is one of the most important things to remember, especially for beginning writers. In literary prose, your characters carry all the momentum; they give your stories energy. Starting off on the wrong foot can just derail the whole thing, or at least send your reader down an emotional rabbit-trail, chasing after that minor character who had one cool line that made you think it’d be an excellent opening sentence.

*Thanks Tita for teaching us about baby-ducking!


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