How Much Should You Explain in a Story’s Beginning?

One of the trickiest parts of any story is the beginning. And one of the trickiest parts of a story’s beginning is figuring out how to balance the need to keep the story moving forward with the need to explain lots of important background details to the reader.

This is a balance that will be a little different in every story. A leisurely literary tale can get away with pages of exposition in the first chapter, but most fast-moving genre books aren’t so forgiving. And yet sometimes it’s vital that readers be filled in on important details, so they’ll understand who’s who and what’s going on.

Generally, I recommend erring on the side of too much description in the first draft. At this early stage, when you’re still discovering the story yourself, it’s often best to just get all the explanations out of your system—if only to explain it to yourself.

Write yourself a killer opening line, then give yourself permission to write lengthy physical descriptions of all the characters, to explain the protagonist’s entire backstory, to describe the settings at leisure, or to explain how your characters have gotten themselves into their current fix.

Once you have all your information laid out in front of you, it’s often much easier to see what’s really necessary and what’s not. And since you can now see the information, you’ll have an easier time moving it around on the page, interspersing it with action and dialogue, and playing with it until it fits.

Keep your delete folder handy, so you can save whatever you cut in the first pass. Much of what you cut from the first chapter will find a better place later on in the book, after you’ve hooked readers with the conflict and foreshadowing in your first chapter.

Never be afraid to include information you know is vital, but you’re also likely to be surprised with how much info you can safely cut from your story’s beginning without confusing readers.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Is there any information you could cut from your story’s beginning without confusing readers? Tell me about it 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.

Comments

  1. Great idea! It’s always hard to find that balance, but I love the idea of adding too much information, and then trimming it down.

    Thanks for all your advice over the years.

  2. I tend to open in action. If readers are confused, that’s okay–I give enough clues that they know all will soon be clear. My western/romance/mystery opens with the death of the sheriff. Readers don’t need to know why until, possibly, the “summation” in the second to last chapter. One important thing: make the characters clear quickly.

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