New writers are often tempted to explain everything at the beginning of a book. It seems to make sense. The reader will want to know where the protagonist comes from, what makes him tick, and so on. So why not just tell him, up front?
The problem is that the reader doesn’t care yet about your protagonist. Nothing has grabbed the reader’s emotions. It’s like when you first meet someone. If this person sat you down and started naming off her grandparents, uncles, and aunts, you’d politely excuse yourself.
So you need an attention-grabbing situation that engages the heart of the reader, as discussed in a previous blog post.
But you need more. You need enough detail so that the reader doesn’t feel disoriented. The reader needs to be aware of the time period, the geographical location, perhaps how two characters are related to each other, and other minimal set-up details as soon as possible. Without them, the opening may come off as unreal and dreamlike, not attention-grabbing.
In the case of a historical novel, often the writer will put a header on the chapter informing the reader of the year, the location, and sometimes the point-of-view character in that chapter. That’s one way to do it.
But there are ways to let these things be known without actually telling the reader. Look at the first pages of some recent published books and study them. Can you see how the writer drops hints about these set-up details?
For an example, I just happen to have a copy of Once Upon a Prince by Rachel Hauck. Its first page shows dialogue and thoughts of the protagonist, a woman who is walking on a beach with a man who is telling her their relationship is finished. We don’t know where the beach is until most of the way down the page when we glimpse her thoughts. “‘The man had fought battles in Afghanistan; how could anything on a St. Simons Island beach be difficult?”
St. Simons. They’re in the Caribbean somewhere on a vacation. And we’ve got a bit of background on the man now.
Pull out some other recent novels and see what you find!