Start with a bang. I see that advice all the time from published authors who’ve decided to share their expertise. Let’s have none of this slow build up nonsense, you want to get readers right into the action.
I can see why people advise that, but I’ve struggled with it in my own drafts. I mean, how soon should you introduce the action? Shouldn’t the reader have at least some context for the world you’re about to plunge them into?
Can you have too much context?
Yes, yes you can.
A few weeks ago, I finished Blood Music (by Greg Bear). It’s billed as a SCI-FI classic, and I can see why. It’s bloody good.
In short, a bio-scientist works on something he shouldn’t and then smuggles his own, illegal, work out of the lab. Chaos ensues.
The thing is, the first 13 chapters are packed full of the most mind-bending scientific theory and language you can imagine. As a result, the story doesn’t get going – at least not for me – until chapter 14 (coincidentally, this is when people started to die, not that I’m evil or anything…what?)
If you’re like me, and have no qualms abandoning a book part way through, the slow pace of the story can prove too much of a temptation to chuck in the towel. But I stuck with it, and the rest of the story was brilliant, but the pacing was off.
The second half of the story went through everything far too quickly, skipping over weeks of the world going to hell. That’s the best part of these kind of books damn it!
So, yes, you can have too much context and scene setting. I care about how the situation came to pass, but I care more about how people react to the situation.
But, what if you have too little context?
Before I read Blood Music, I read Outpost (by Adam Baker). I’ll just say the words, zombie robot virus and leave the rest up to your imagination. (I had no idea that the book was about that when I picked it up, but, I thought, what the heck – it has to be more interesting than Pride and Prejudice. Mind you, that’s not a very high bar IMO.)
So, this robot zombie book. It was also hard to get in to.
To start with, I found most of the characters annoying (but I think that may have been intended), and their reasons for being on an oil rig in the Arctic Ocean a bit random. I still don’t know how some of them made it through the screening process, someone should fire the HR person.)
Because the rig was so isolated, the reader didn’t get to see how the virus began, how the world reacted, or any of that interesting stuff. So the first part of the book was pretty much a handful of people slowly going mad through fear and isolation.
But, come on, a zombie robot virus is not something you see every day. I wanted, no, needed, to know how the heck it happened. It was especially trying because I truly disliked all of the characters. You’d get tiny glimpses into what was happening to civilisation, but that wasn’t enough. I really don’t care about the myriad ways you can kill (or try to kill) a robot zombie creature. I want to see the origins, the reaction and the complete breakdown of society. Is that too much to ask?
So it’s all about balance really. As a reader, I need just enough context to help me appreciate the action, but not so much that it squeezes the good stuff into too few pages.
As a writer, I need to remember that action (and reaction) is vital, but shallow without the meaning behind it. You need context to give the story a strong foundation, otherwise it’s just angry Mike blowing random things up, and while Mike might find that fun, it kind of gets a bit boring after a while (for this reader anyway).