“A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down- in the most delightful way.”– Mary Poppins
In some of the writing forums I frequent, a very common situation comes up. A new (usually young) writer will come on, and ask if people will look at the first couple chapters of their new science fiction or fantasy novel and tell them if those chapters are any good.
Nine times out of ten (and I’m being generous with that statistic), the answer is that the chapters in question are complete crap. One of the more common reasons for this (especially with Sci-fi and Fantasy stories) is that usually the writers are usually so in love with their “unique and special” setting that they can’t wait to tell the reader all about it. So, inevitably the first couple chapters of what they write are basically all about the setting: sometimes pages and pages of setting/background material that go on and on in excruciating detail.
Sometimes, if they’re feeling clever, they’ll try to make it more interesting by framing it in a conversation, or have a storytelling character relating it to others, or maybe structure it as a briefing of some kind. But, while this can (rarely) work, it still has a fundamental flaw in it- the writer is still first and foremost dumping setting information on the reader.
I know where this comes from- video games. Video games, which don’t have a lot of time for build-up and want to get the player into the action ASAP, love to have a detailed history/setting description at the beginning of the game to set the scene before the action starts. And in games, it generally works fine, so young writers often make the mistake of thinking it will work in a novel too.
It doesn’t, and there’s a good reason why.
In a video game, we sit through (or click through) the background/setting information because we know we’ll be rewarded for it. We know that once this is done, we’ll get some cool cut-scenes, and then be immersed in interactively battling enemy hordes until 4am. That’s the promise that a video game comes with, and it’s a clear reward waiting for us once we’re done learning about the setting and situations. (Keeping in mind that most video games are about setting and situations, not character to begin with!)
But, what about a novel?
What reward does the reader know is waiting for them after they get through all this setting and background information? A video game says, “read this, and I’ll let you kill aliens”. Which is a pretty good motivation! What does a novel say to its reader? What guarantees can a novel (especially one by a new writer) give that there is actually something worth reading here once this infodump is finished?
The answer is- none.
When I read the first chapters of a novel, unless I’ve had previous reviewers reassure me that it’ll be worth it, I have no idea whether or not this journey is one I want to take. I have no evidence that I’ll like it, or a reason to keep reading. So, when I hit a pile of boring information that I don’t care about, or find interesting, I put the book back on the shelf (or delete the sample) and I go looking for something else that can hold my attention better. As a reader, my time is limited, and I’m not going to spend it reading crap.
So, how do experienced writers get readers to not only read background/setting information, but actually love it and want more? How do you get people to consume chapter after chapter of detail about Middle Earth, or the list of all the Stark Bannermen in Westeros for twenty pages?
Just like in video games- you need to offer the reader a reward.
The reward in video games is time spent “in action”, and in books it’s pretty much the same- what the reader wants is interesting characters doing interesting things. Once a reader is hooked on the characters and events of a story, they will read through huge amounts of extra material just to get more of that reward they crave.
If you want to see a perfect example, go read a Dan Brown novel like the The Davinci Code, or Angels and Demons. Brown’s books sell millions of copies, and each chapter of one of Brown’s meticulously researched books follows the same formula- 1 to 3 pages of character action, then 5-7 pages of information about some piece of geography, history or art, and then 1 or 2 pages of character action ending on a cliff-hanger to make you want to read the next chapter.
Now, Brown’s case is pretty extreme (he’s writing textbooks wrapped in a plot), but if you pay attention you’ll see that almost every successful writer is doing this. They’re alternating interesting dialogue and character action with less interesting (but necessary) background and setting information as a way to keep the reader motivated to read and keep reading even the slow stuff. The reader knows that if they can just get through the exposition, they’ll be rewarded with more of what they really want.
This is where most beginning writers fall flat when they start writing.
They put the less interesting stuff first, and then expect it to somehow hook readers. It’s a bit like giving someone something sour before you give them something tasty, and still expecting them to keep eating. Does that make any sense? No. And that’s why it doesn’t work.
The truth is that readers don’t care about settings or history, or art, or any of that stuff, unless it’s directly connected to a character they DO care about. So, whenever you write, you always need to start with story and character, and then once you’ve got them hooked, you can start to introduce less interesting bits of information that they need to know, but will be reluctant to read. Even Dan Brown and George R.R. Martin spend many chapters setting up the characters and situations before they start their history lessons.
- Generally wait at least 4-5 chapters before you try any kind of information dump on your readers of a new novel. Only tell the reader what they absolutely need to know to follow the story, and save the detailed information for later when they’re hooked and want to know what happens next.
- The bigger/harder the information will be to digest, the bigger the reward you need to offer the reader to get through it. A few paragraphs about a mining colony your space adventurers are about to visit doesn’t require more than general interest in what will happen to our heroes when they get there. Three chapters about the history of the royal family of Exotia XVI and their love of rare Terisan Opera sung by space slugs will probably require a main character about to die to motivate a reader to get to the end.
- Don’t be afraid to break big pieces of information down into little ones, and scatter them throughout the story. Tell the reader what’s needed, when it’s needed. Don’t overwhelm them without a good reason, and a good payoff.
- Remember that what’s interesting to you as a writer isn’t always interesting to your readers. You might think the inner-working of the Magnos-Tsaichovski Stardrive and its effects on space warfare are fascinating, but your reader may think it’s the most boring thing ever unless it’s presented at a time when it’s relevant to the story.
- Never forget that a reader is always asking the question- “Why should I keep reading this?” Make sure you always have a good answer.