Give Everything a Reader Needs and No More


I recently was at a con where I gave advice to an aspiring writer based on a short work he submitted. A few months ago I did the same thing at another con for several writers in a workshop. i was thinking about the experience and wondering if there was anything that could be distilled from the experience as a sort of “universal” piece of advice. (Universal is great until it’s not–basically rules are there to be broken. With a a Price Tag. See Edmund’s post on just that. ) While these writers shared a number of common issues, I think the most important was a combo of two issues–the first is beginning in the middle of the acction (en medias rez) and the other is too much backstory/worldbuilding crap before it’s needed.

This one from the other day repeated what several of the earlier stories had. They began with a character  and then putzed around for a few too many pages before they got on with the story. Essentially they didn’t get to the problem or the conflict of this story until they were halfway through or more. Frequently that leads me to the question of–what’s this story about? Sometimes they can tell me; most often they can’t. When I ask that question, I’m not looking for something vague, like: it’s about a girl who is forced to do something she doesn’t want to do. That doesn’t tell me anything except the setup. The real issue and the real story is about how that girl comes to terms with it–what choices does she make? Does she change? Grow? What happens? You see, stories aren’t about the action or the plot. The action and plot tell the story. So if you have a lot of action, but no real characters or no real character investment in the situation, then you don’t have a story.

So what does that have to do with beginning in the action and too much worldbuilding crap? (I love worldbuilding. I just smacked the crap out of my hand on a doorjamb today and have a knot the size of a plum on the back of my hand and so am a little surly. Sorry.) Anyhow, you begin in the middle of the action because that means you are beginning in the middle of the character’s conflict. The action might not really be action. It might be someone cringing in her seat because Professor Snape is standing over her, pointing in face and calling her all sorts of names. Or it might be tripping over a dead body. Or it might be chasing down the kidnappers of your child. Whatever it is, it has to matter to your character and be something that precipitates him or her into doing something. If someone is beating your character up for the 12th time and your character does nothing but let it happen, there’s no story there. Your story should start at a pivotal point–where conflict explodes.

It used to be, and frequently more literary styles of stories still do this, that you would develop the character for chapters before you actually threw the major conflict at them (hello, Henry James). Commercial fiction readers won’t put up with that (generally, that is–see Price Tags). They are smart readers and will put together clues and understand that you will reveal your character as you go, which means you’d better do just that. But they want the pacing and the conflict to come quickly. Which leads me to the too much worldbuilding crap.

Frequently when you start a book or story, you tell everything about the world you know. Pros often do this too. It’s a mechanism of sorting through your world and figuring out how things work. Later you come back and decide what’s important and then you “prune generously” to quote one of my editors. You go back and ruthlessly cut anything that doesn’t impact this story. You give things only on a need-to-know basis. Don’t give things they don’t need, especially early on in the book when the reader is still figuring things out. Give them everything they do need, and nothing else.

I love worldbuilding and I love reading about a world. But I realize that I can drown a reader’s interest quickly if I overload them, especially if I’m already giving them a lot of necessary information. Plus it leads to infodumping and again, that kills pacing. You want to get readers hooked into your world fast and don’t push them off the path or let them wander away. Too many details or too much of characters doing little without conflict does exactly that. We’ll talk about what constitutes conflict next time.


22 comments to Give Everything a Reader Needs and No More

  • It always feel such a shame not to dump all my world on the page right at the start. I think it is a kind of pride or egotism that makes me think everyone should see how wonderfully detailed and exciting my world is. I think though it is probably more like a proud parent/pet owner sharing photo after photo of the same baby or animal with only a slight variation on the background or facial expression. As the viewer there is no point in seeing another photo unless it is different enough to elicit a new thought or emotion.
    There is also the Chekhov’s Gun effect that can create apparent plot holes. That is if I spill my guts about how in the mountains there are monasteries with rangers who hunt all sorts of monsters the reader is probably expecting to meet one of the rangers or monsters and if they don’t…

  • Diana — Maybe we should wound, damage, or otherwise injure all our writers before they post here. I like essays that get to the point plainly and bluntly. Take no prisoners! 😉

    Seriously though, this is a trap I fall into myself all the time. I just started a novel recently and the first three drafts were just pages and pages of world-building. I let myself keep writing, even when I realize what’s happening, because it’s useful material for later on. But I also know better than to think that what I’m writing is anything but reference material for my own use later; it will never see the light of day (in the form that it’s in). So I write draft after draft until I’ve gotten all that initial world-building out of my system. When the draft finally comes that’s about the characters and them doing something that matters, then I know I’ve found my real beginning. The rest is still quite useful; it’s just not publishable.

  • >>You see, stories aren’t about the action or the plot. The action and plot tell the story.

    Diana, this is brilliant. Just absolutely brilliant. Sorry about your busted hand, but if that helped you come up with this, then, um,(scratches head) good? Do it again? 🙂

    And then there is the other side to the coin. When you have a editor who loves worldbuilding. Bloodring was sold with the opening starting where the story began, but my first editor at ROC wanted more worldbuilding, so I crafted a 26 page opening with only a modicum of action and plot and story and lots of worldbuilding. It was what she wanted, which I never quite understood, but but I complied. Could I have sold the book to her with that opening? Probably not. So I had one opening that sold to the agent and editor and another for the readers.

    Oh well. I still say you are brilliant. Go ice the hand. And I hope you didn’t break one of the tiny bones there…

  • Scion: I don’t think it’s pride or egotism at all. It’s sheer fun. I mean, that’s one reason writing sf/f is so cool, right? I love worldbuilding. I love the photo metaphor. That’s probably very true. And yes on the gun. YOu might accidentally hang one–got to make sure there’s no unshot weapons in the story

  • Edmund: Luckily my nickname is Clodzilla and I deserve it. I wound myself frequently 😀

    It’s when you try to convince less skilled writers that they can’t include all their darlings that things can get sticky. We learn to murder them. Stomp them out like a wildfire. yank them out like weeds. But it’s all useful. I should also have said, prune, but don’t actually delete anything permanently. Store it in a file.

  • Faith, you are so good for my ego! That’s really amazing that they wanted more, but then that’s a fabo world. So I can see it.

    I hope I didn’t. It doesn’t hurt to type at all, just when I touch it. I know, don’t touch it. But then my son pokes it and says, does this hurt? And earlier today I bumped it on something and yes, it still hurts. Want to see a picture? This is today (I did it a couple of days ago): and this was when I did it:

    Impressive, eh?

  • O.M.Gosh! You busted a vein! That hasta HURT!

  • *eyes hand doubtfully* you think? doesn’t hurt that much really. Don’t notice it unless I touch it. I do take plavix though. Figure that was the big cultprit. Suppose I should see a doc, huh?

  • Ouch. Hope your hand feels better, Diana!

    “Prune generously” is right. But I’m a pack rat, so I have to remind myself that I can always put it up on the website when the book is published. Just like, when I’m famous, people will want to buy those old drafts of mine on Ebay so I don’t have to throw them ALL out. *nods*

  • yeah Moira–I never throw stuff away. I have all kinds of clips and leftoevers from books in various files. And never have gone back through them. maybe I can sell it off!

  • Having huge problems logging onto the site from my mac, or else I would have commented much earlier today. Sorry for that, Di. I’m on my old Windows laptop now — the only way I can reach the site even to look at it.

    Anyway, I love this post (sorry about your hand, though — looks nasty). I think that the toughest thing for all writers, but particularly for beginners is knowing where to begin. Endings are easier — that’s where everything is headed, and usually we have an ending in mind. But the beginnings are much more difficult. Too early and the beginning chapters meander. Too late and the story seems too abrupt, too rushed. I still struggle with this with some books. With others, the beginning point is as clear as can be. And, of course, the second toughest thing, particularly in our genre, is the pace of revelations about background, and by extension, about the worldbuilding. Like you, I prefer to reveal as little as possible — I do a tremendous amount of background work on my worlds, but most of it remains hidden from the reader. I give only as much as I feel I need to in order to keep my readers informed. The rest I hint at as subtly as I can, so as to hint at depth and richness without drowning my readers in superfluous detail.

  • Awesome post! I think a big problem I have is that I want to resolve a scene at the end of each chapter. I was actually watching a reality show last night and when it broke to commercial I thought ‘chapter breaks are like commercials… usually stopping in the middle of a pivotal point, with a teeny cliff hanger, to make you keep reading.’ So, now I need to go through and put a few more ‘commercials’ in my story to help with pacing.

    Thanks so much, Di! As always, your posts are full of wisdom and something purple… shame it’s just not your hair this time. Feel better!

  • Young_Writer

    Great article! Your hand looks like it kills! Or at least whrn oyu first hurt it. Feel better!

  • I often encounter this problem when my editing clients give me sequels to work on. They’re so intent on conveying what happened in the first volume that they weigh down the sequel, often to the point of unreadability. My advice, over and over and over, is to limit backstory to the barest minimum – if it isn’t *mandatory* to tell me what happened way back when, then don’t. (And it’s often truly amazing what isn’t mandatory!)

    Thanks for the great post, Di! And I hope that your hand heals quickly!

  • O.M.Gosh! You busted a vein! That hasta HURT!

    Oh, I bust them things all the time. They only hurt for a bit, then the swelling goes away and it looks like someone abused ya. Some of the biggest and nastiest bruises I’ve had have been from busted veins. Just to show you how hard core I am, I go into the doctor’s office/hospital occasionally just to have them do it to me! 😉

  • Not to sound like a total prick, but when I was a kid I used to do this: have a whole prologue or something where I infodump the background history and worldbuilding (and, since I was a kid, of course it wasn’t very good worldbuilding). But… I guess I must’ve figured out that this was a pretty rare trait in my favorite fantasies, because I stopped doing it by the time I was in High School. Since then, I’ve tried to start my stories from points where we first meet a real character, and there’s some story – again, with varying degrees of success. In the old draft of my story after introducing my main character in the first chapter, I went on to spend the next chapter introducing four supporting characters, some of whom wouldn’t appear in the story again for a dozen chapters, and only then in the third chapter did I introduce the plot. I did it that way because I wanted to set the stage for later revelations about some of the supporting characters, but the way I did it was… inelegant.

  • David: I have a terrible time with beginnings, too. I often have to finish the book and rewrite the beginnings, sometimes more than once. Crimson Wind was a particular bear.

  • Mindy–sequels are so hard, aren’t they? It’s so easy to overload with backstory and make the whole thing a big cement block.The hand is colorful. But hopefully healing.

  • Daniel: So I’m not the only clod in the room, is that what you’re saying? 😀 I still haven’t come up with a good story. It’s in the wrong spot for saying I punched someone.

  • Stephen: I have no idea what you’re talking about, re. being a prick. I think your post is quite unprickish and really addresses what happens to a lot of writers. I like that notion of inelegant. That’s a concept that’s hard to identify because it isn’t that there’s something exactly wrong, but it’s not entirely right either and that concept is frequently the problem. *ponders post on the idea of elegance in writing*

  • @Diana, I was worried that saying something that basically amounted to “I figured this out when I was still young” might make me sound a prick. Howbeit that I did figure it out, though, it was worth noting that this is not the only thing worth figuring out before my writing was (or, rather, hopefully will be) good enough. Inelegance was one. Still working on that.

  • […] There was a lively discussion at Magical Words on a post by Diana Pharaoh Francis regarding pitfalls of worldbuilding here. […]