Are You Giving Readers the Tools to Understand Your Story?

One of the reasons story beginnings are so tricky is the sheer volume of information the author has to share with readers, just to make sure readers understand what’s going on. This grows all the more true when your story is presenting unusual or unexpected characters or settings.

The trick is sharing the information without bringing the story to a screeching halt. Writers come up with all sorts of clever tricks such as dialogue and inference to try to get the info across without being obvious about it.

But sometimes the best way to accomplish this is to be obvious. For example, in the fantasy Magic Lost, Trouble Found, Lisa Shearin wastes no time sharing salient facts about her first-person narrator. She doesn’t beat around the bush; she just states point blank that her character is an elf from a crime family who makes her living “searching” for lost goods. She could have spent paragraphs weaving this info into an explanatory scene. Instead, she wastes as little of readers’ time as possible.

Let’s break this down and see how she makes this work.

To begin with, she’s succinct. Her matter-of-fact explanations are accepted by readers because she doesn’t bore them. She tells them only what they need to know, then moves on to the action.

Secondly, she’s prompt. Everything she shares is information that will shape readers’ perceptions of the character, so Shearin gets the grunt work out of the way first.

Third, she shares the info in a way that’s both true to the narrator’s voice and entertaining. Of course, this method isn’t always going to be the best choice, but because its simplicity makes it attractive to everyone involved, it’s always worth considering.

In our attempts to please our readers, we can occasionally out think ourselves. Sometimes simple really is best.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever found it made more sense to tell readers information rather than trying to be subtle? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. This is an online conference? It looks like it could be really interesting. Is it geared more toward non-fiction?

    As for beginnings, they are so hard! I’ve spent two years with a completed novel and all I’ve done is re-write the beginning a thousand times. There is such a fine balance between letting the reader discover your world and giving them the info they need (I write sci-fi). All I can do now is hope I found the right mix.

    And yes, sometimes it saves a lot of time to just tell something important. 😉

  2. Good question. It’s a difficult balance between giving info and allowing readers to discover bits and pieces for themselves.

    The majority of the reading I did as a kid/teen had a lot of narrative in the beginning. Now, the action begins in the first paragraph and if it doesn’t most agents move on to another manuscript.

    Because of this “drop me in the action” it makes more sense to tell readers info.

    But I’d give only the most titillating bits of info to pull the reader into the story. After that, the subtle info can be uncovered throughout the story.

  3. Hmm. This is actually very timely as I’m outlining/beginning the writing of a dystopian novel where there’s a lot that needs to be explained in a short period of time. Thanks!

  4. The online conference looks very interesting!!

    Thanks for sharing about beginnings. It came at a very good time for me since I am having a difficult time with the beginning of my story and I believe that this will help.

  5. I had this problem recently in a story – I was a little too mysterious about what a certain object was, and how it was used, because I thought its use would become apparent through the rest of the story. WRONG. Turns out, I needed a blatant explanation right from the get go. I’m rewriting the opening scene with that now. 🙂

  6. Great post! My editor is always pointing out that I explain too much or that I tell the reader too much. So this is something I need to work on. However, for my first book, The Dragon Forest, I felt the need to describe the setting: a castle.

    I felt the need to provide a prologue in order to tell the audience the history of the mythical land they would be reading about.

    But I can see how in other genres that might not be necessary.

    Thanks for pointing this out!

  7. @Charity: I believe Michael’s expertise is primarily non-fiction, but his seminar should offer great tips no matter your genre.

    @Alvarado: A related aspect is the need to figure out *what* info is crucial and what can wait. Often, readers need much less info upfront than the author originally thinks.

    @Tomorrow: Spec fic usually has twice as much info to impart as a modern day story – since readers aren’t familiar with anything that’s going on. Studying how the pros pull it off is always helpful.

    @Mrs. B: Glad the post came in handy! Good luck in the drawing.

    @Lauren: I’ve written myself onto both sides of the fence in early drafts: either I dump too much info, or, more likely, I assume readers will understand more than they’re actually able to. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!

    @Ruth: I recently read a fantasy that told the reader almost nothing upfront. The author just dumped the reader into the story and started running – and it worked surprisingly well. The learning curve was steep, but not so steep that the story wasn’t comprehensible. And, in the end, I understood the world just as clearly as if the author had taken the time to spell it all out.

  8. I generally try to give the reader enough information so that he/she can understand what is going on. At times, I will give very little information to add a sort of “mystery” to the action.
    (btw.. please don’t add me to the list of prospective winners.. there’s no way I’d be able to make it.. even though I’d really like to go)

    Thnx for another great article. 😀

  9. EDIT.. ^
    I realize it’s an online course. I suffer from a lack of bandwidth..

  10. Strategically withholding information is not only a great way to avoid information overload, it’s also a prime trick for luring the reader in with further questions. Sorry you won’t be able to participate in the drawing!

  11. Great post. I have written openings both ways. In one the reader comes in during the middle of an arguement that intrduces the characters and gives a tease toward the plot. In another I didn’t use dialogue, but I did use the actions of a terrified woman making it home safely. Both seem to work for their individual story lines.

    Thanks for the opportunity to try and win a ticket to the on-line conferance.


  12. Different stories require different techniques. The simple telling that works in one story may be better replaced with a subtle screen of dialogue in another.

  13. I like my beginning, I really do. I think it has been edited and re-edited to near perfection. Yet…sometimes I wonder if I am being to subtle, or throwing too much in at once. Maybe I do need to simplify. At this point though, I am already rewriting the end, so one thing at a time 🙂

  14. Only to way to know for sure is to call in the beta readers. An objective reader is invaluable for helping you know where your story works – and where it still need work.

  15. This is a tricky situation. It’s easy to err on the side of caution and underestimate the reader’s ability to understand and keep up. I’ve put down books(at a high rate of speed toward a brick wall), that explained the obvious and felt condescending.

    For my own story-immersion/identification with protagonist, I only really like straight information if I absolutely need it to keep up with the physical world in this pit-of-action I jumped into on page one. I don’t even necessarily have to understand all that occurs there, and it’s actually better for me if I don’t. As a reader, I like the process of discovery. I like having burning questions.

    However, don’t think I want to be told aspects about the character’s personality, though I can only think of one example for this and when I was told something about the character’s behavior/personality, I disagreed with it. I’d rather to see her in action, and reach my own conclusions.

    The conference does look cool.

  16. Steve Mathisen says

    I need all the help I can get. My genre is somewhat unique and I would like to see if his method would help.

  17. I’ve never usually been subtle when trying to write things in like that, and I do end up creating a massive halt in the story when I write :/

    Maybe looking at how that writer does it would help…

  18. @Amalie: Showing is always preferable to telling and burning questions are the life’s blood of a good story. But sometimes we have info that it does us no good to withhold and no good to drag out.

    @Steve: Good luck in the drawing!

    @Aimee: The trickle effect is always good too keep in mind when you have to introduce large amount info. Instead of bringing the story to a halt with multiple paragraphs, we can sometimes weave in a sentence or two over the course of an entire chapter.

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