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August 11, 2016

Story Beginnings: Do You Have Context?

Lone footprint in the sand with text: What's the Context?

Story beginnings are difficult (some might even say near impossible) to get right, especially in a first draft. We have to introduce the characters, the story, and the setting. We want to hint at what the protagonist longs for and show an immediate obstacle in the way that creates a near-term goal. Etc., etc.

At the same time, we have to avoid confusing readers, which is tricky. Most of us have probably started reading a story and felt so confused by the first page that we had to read it a second time.

Many readers won’t take the time to reread. If a reader can’t grasp the story, settings, characters, or situation on the first page, they’re likely to give up.

I’ve written before about the steps we can go through to discover the best scene to open our story with and the elements we should reveal. But there’s a big gap between knowing what to write about and knowing how to explain it to readers starting off in the dark. Let’s take a look…

Finding the Right Balance

We’re probably familiar with many of the common problems of story openings that include too much or bad information:

Most blog posts about story beginnings focus on avoiding those issues, so many writers “know better.” However, problems exist on the other end of the scale as well.

In fact, most stories I come across now as a beta reader or editor suffer from the opposite problem in that they don’t include enough of the right information:

  • lack of setting or description (readers need an anchor to understand the situation)
  • lack of connection to the character (readers need to know about the characters before they’ll care about even life-and-death issues)
  • lack of tension (readers need to know there’s a point to the story)

Each of those problems can leave a reader confused or ambivalent about our story. And readers who aren’t immersed in our story are less likely to continue.

Many of us would struggle if we were tossed into a foreign situation. Just imagine waking up with amnesia and having to decipher our surroundings, from those around us to potential threats. Yikes! Yet that’s essentially what readers encounter with our first pages.

As with many things regarding writing, we’re not likely to get this balance right the first time around. Feedback from beta readers, critique partners, and editors is crucial for giving us insight into how an “in the dark” reader will interpret our story opening.

What to Look for in Feedback

When I first started writing, I didn’t understand how many elements of writing require finding the proper balance. So, I’m ashamed to admit it now, but when I first started getting feedback on my opening pages, I would sometimes ignore the issues.

Feedback along the lines of “I don’t understand what’s going on here” were excused with “Just keep reading, and it’ll make sense.” And yes, sometimes that’s an acceptable answer, but more often, that type of feedback is a red flag for a confused reader.

Story questions that create mystery and curiosity in readers are good. Confusion is bad.

How can we tell the difference?

Is the Question about an Element That’s Meant to Be a Mystery?

If so, we might be okay to ignore them, such as with these examples:

  • “Why doesn’t she get along with her dad?”
  • “Why does he have this false belief?”
  • “Is there a reason why she doesn’t do xyz?”

Again, questions in readers are good. Their curiosity to uncover the answer will keep them turning pages. But that last example is one that might still be a red flag.

If xyz isn’t part of the story, we might need to address the question to avoid a plot hole. If it is part of the story, we might need to give a reason why that approach doesn’t work for this point in the story yet to avoid the impression that we’re just dragging out the plot for story convenience.

Is the Question about Unclear Context?

These types of feedback questions are definitely red flags for clarity issues:

  • “Where are they?”
  • “I can’t picture this.”
  • “Who is this character?”

Readers need to be anchored in the setting and situation right away. I’ve seen beautiful writing that didn’t make any sense because there wasn’t any context.

For example, unique metaphors about fragile objects on page one needs enough context so readers can decipher the comparison. If we know we’re at an archaeology dig, we’re going to picture different objects that the metaphor is referring to than if we know we’re in a hospital with a young child.

Readers also like knowing enough about characters to connect. Fine, someone’s hanging off the side of a cliff with another character nearby. Why should we care? Is one a good guy and the other a bad guy? Who should we root for?

Without context to see how the character fits into the situation, readers won’t start the process of connecting with the story. For all readers know, both characters on the cliff face are bad guys, and they should be rooting for them both to fall. That’s not a recipe for readers becoming invested in the outcome.

Our Goal: Provide Enough Context to Avoid Confusion

Chuck Wendig (in his usual NSFW style) recently mentioned this issue of “not enough” information in his post listing the reasons he stops reading a book:

“Crafting the first thirty or so pages of a book is itself a vital and elusive art. You are required to pack so much into so little while at the same time not overdoing it. But the greatest thing missing from too many books is context.

… I don’t need all the details, but I need some sense of what’s going on and why. … If I don’t know the stakes — what can be won, what can be lost, what’s on the table — then why am I reading? Why are we here?”

The human brain likes connecting pieces of knowledge together. Memory tricks teach us to remember people’s names by connecting their name to something about them. Facts without context aren’t memorable, and the same applies to fiction.

Readers will get invested in a story if there’s a hint of why the story is important. Readers will root for a character if they know why they should care or why the character acts the way they do.

Context avoids confusion, hints at stakes, and provides motivation. Without understanding of story situations, stakes, and motivations, readers can’t become immersed in the story.

Case Study: Treasured Claim‘s Opening Paragraphs

In my post about weaving information, I analyzed the first two paragraphs of my debut, Treasured Claim:

Jewelry trickled through Elaina’s fingers, scattering reflections across the peeling linoleum of her bathroom floor. Each piece hinted at how she’d acquired it for her collection—a broken clasp on a silver chain, earrings missing their backs, a loose sapphire she’d rescued from a sink drain. But the precious ornaments lacked the satisfying clink of gold coins when they landed in the safe-box at her knees.

Humans didn’t make treasure like they used to. Such a shame.

These paragraphs establish setting (including how she’s kneeling), so readers can visualize the scene. They hint at characterization and backstory, with her odd collection of broken jewelry and appreciation for the clink of gold coins. And they start to set up worldbuilding elements.

Now, let’s take a look at what those paragraphs used to look like in early drafts:

Reflections danced on the peeling linoleum of Elaina’s bathroom floor as jewelry trickled through her fingers. The priceless ornaments lacked the satisfying clink of gold coins when they landed in her safe-box. Humans didn’t make treasure like they used to. Such a shame.

Similar, but what’s missing? The context.

In addition to stronger sentence structures and rhythm, the revised version specifies that these jewelry pieces belong to her and that she was responsible for acquiring them. The context makes it clear that this isn’t just random jewelry.

The new version also adds details to create a mystery of why the jewelry is all broken (which ties into the worldbuilding). And it improves the setting visualization by describing how she’s kneeling in front of her safe-box rather than just having her “float” in the room.

Tiny differences, but they can make a difference for connecting readers to our story. So whenever we get feedback questioning aspects of our story opening—even if we want a mystery—we should ask ourselves if a bit more context would improve clarity or strengthen stakes or motivations.

Yes, we still want to layer information by weaving elements together. (Dumping a bunch of information before it’s needed isn’t the answer.) But context can help readers understand the situation, stakes, and motivations, and that understanding can connect readers to the story and keep them turning pages. *smile*

Have you been confused by the beginning of a story before? What made it confusing? What types of context do you think are most helpful to readers? Do you struggle with finding the balance between too much information and not enough? Other than getting feedback from others, do you have any advice for how to find the right balance?

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What do you think?

10 Comments on "Story Beginnings: Do You Have Context?"

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Clare O'Beara

Definitely avoid the info dump and backstory, letting it rather trickle out through conversations. I still notice the heavy delivery of backstory in romance books and cosy crime, and it just stops the flow of the story.

At one time authors worked like mad on polishing the first three chapters, because that was what they would be sending to an editor/agent. I don’t know if it’s still the case. Independent authors don’t have to do this but they still need to grab the reader.

Davonne Burns

I struggle with this all through my stories, but yes beginnings are especially difficult. I do love the example of Elaine from Treasured Claim. Your example is actually something I think about often when I’m trying to remember to add more context in my own writing.

Glynis Jolly

I keep all most every post you write at my account at Pearltress, and this one won’t be an exception. I just started reading Treasured Claim. Your first page had me hooked. Yes, showing the jewelry broken was definitely important. It not only let me know it was hers but also gave me a question to find the answer to somewhere in the story. Why would she want broken jewelry? Of course, the answer yelled at me right away.

Julie Glover

I’m so glad you address the other side of this issue, because I’ve seen it too. Sometimes a contest entry I’m judging has this issue, and I’m thinking to myself, “Great writing, but I don’t know this character so why do I care?” And indeed, it’s a tough thing to get right — to make sure you give just enough to ground your reader without boring her with too many details or too much backstory. Which is why a great critique partner or editor can be a godsend. Thank goodness for solid feedback!

And thank you for doing such a great job of addressing this topic.

Mary Tate Engels

Excellent post Jami! Beginnings are crucial, complex, and downright difficult. Keeping all your wise tips in mind, I practice various openings. Key word: practice!

Iola

I’ve just come back from a writing conference where I spent a couple of hours listening to “cold reads”, where editors and agents give feedback on the first two pages of a manuscript read aloud. Confusion and lack of context were among the more common issues, so this post is great timing. Thanks!

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Sophie
Sophie

This post is excellent as ever, Jami~ And very nice timing, too; I’ve just started a fantasy story, and the beginning is giving me a lot of trouble.

Context is always fun, as I forget I know more than the readers and so include less than I probably should (or do the opposite and include too much information…oh the balancing game is a fun one).

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