Readers are pretty smart. Turns out, they have an enormous propensity to figure things out. Enormous. But how can you make use of that in your writing? Especially your speculative fiction? It’s not difficult: Just don’t work too hard at it.
The first chapter is nothing special
So, (especially in Sci-Fi and Fantasy) there a temptation to explain everything to the readers in the first chapter. After all, how will they know that the Appointment is the day that all of the kids have to report to the Council (which, by the way, is the current dystopian government) where they are told what Task (that’s a job) they are going to be doing for the rest of their lives? The readers need to know this or they won’t be able to understand their first chapter. Right? Right?
Your readers do need to know all that for them to understand what’s going on, but you don’t have to worry about telling them. They’ll figure it out. All on their own. You can just write the story like the readers already know everything about your story world and nine times out of ten, you’ll be okay. Why is this? (And how can you help your reader along the path to understanding without outright telling them what’s going on?)
You can just write the story like the readers already know everything about your story world and nine times out of ten, you’ll be okay.
The law of the first page
Maybe it’s not a law, but it should be, and here it is: Your readers come to your book knowing that they will have to figure things out. Your readers don’t expect to know everything from page one. What your reader expects from page one of the story is to be entertained enough to turn to page two. And on page two they only expect to be entertained enough to turn to page three.
What your reader expects from page one of the story is to be entertained enough to turn to page two.
Now eventually your readers will need to understand your story world (or any other key elements you are tempted to explain at the beginning of your story) but that understanding will develop naturally as they read.
The back cover copy
I think that a lot of beginning writers don’t think about their own reading habits when they write. How often do you pick up a book and know nothing about what is inside? Very rarely. Why? The back cover copy.
The back cover copy is your story synopsis. Your pitch. It’s what gets your readers to take your book from the shelf to the checkout line. (And thus, it’s very important.)
Once your readers have purchased your book, brought it home, and are sitting down to read it, they probably know what it’s about. Not that they know everything, but they know enough to be dangerous.
And you don’t have to explain it all over again.
So there’s this thing, where you capitalize words that refer to specific things. Like the Council, or a Task, from the example earlier. Now I recognize that the writing community is split on whether or not you should fill your story world with proper nouns like this, but that’s for you to decide. I, for one, thing it’s a fantastic tool for a work of speculative fiction, and here’s why.
A proper noun is a red flag to your readers. It jumps up and yells, ‘Hey! This is a thing! We’re not just talking about an appointment here, we’re talking about the Appointment.’ Basically, it means ‘Listen up, this is important.’ Proper nouns let readers know what things are things. And that’s usually all they need for the first chapter or so.
(But they get more for free.)
Because readers are smart, they don’t just get the ‘this is a thing’ message. Readers are able to determine, from the context of your story, if a thing is good or bad. If it’s exciting or boring. If it’s expected or a surprise. Let me demonstrate.
”I can’t believe the Appointment is tomorrow!” Jenny said. “It’s been such a long wait. I thought I’d never make it.”
Here, I don’t have to go into detail and explain what the appointment is, or how Jenny has been counting down the days to it since she was three. I don’t have to explain that Jenny’s parents both got good appointments so she isn’t worried that she’ll get a pauper’s job. You understand what basically is going on by reading between the lines.
And you are not the only reader who can do that.
Although it’s true (especially if you are writing dystopian Sci-fi) that you should avoid clichés, sometimes they can help your readers keep up with the story. Clichés? Helpful?
Yes. Read more here.
Finally, readers have an intangible quality to figure stuff out as they read. I can’t describe it, or explain it, it’s just how people are. We’re puzzle solvers, so let us solve the puzzle. Any time you are tempted to stop and explain story world, back story, emotional reactions, thoughts, conflict, or stakes, just don’t. Keep writing without the explanation.
If you think you are actually in one of the few cases where things need to be explained skip it anyways. If you are right, your beta readers (or critiquers) will point it out. That is literally the worst that could happen.
But if you take your time and explain everything that your readers could possibly need to know? Page three won’t be entertaining enough to justify page four.