Whatever the genre, the author has to decide what immediately matters. What’s the emotional core of the story?
Hold back on the world-building. Cancel the info-dump. Readers don’t care about your world unless you give them characters to care about first. This is how story works. Pile on the world-building before the characters and what you have is a setting, not a story. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Middle Earth, St Mary Meade or Pemberly.
A nifty, unique setting doesn’t keep readers reading; it’s characters.
Readers empathise with people, not with governments, planets, economies, magic systems or faster-than-light drives. That’s why Tolkien started with hobbits and C.S. Lewis started with four ordinary kids. Not the lion or the witch; those are the promises in the title, like The Lord of the Rings.
Even the Masters…
Even established authors can get this wrong. I don’t like the opening ‘prologue‘ chapter of Sanderson’s Mistborn. There’s too much world-building and magic system and not enough character. I don’t care enough about Kelsior to stick with him through the prologue. Especially since Sanderson layers on hints and foreshadowing, trying to power through to the next chunk of setup with Vin and the gang. Sanderson went for action and setting over character. Why not begin with Vin?
The answer? Concentrate on what immediately matters.
Like a Wheel within a Wheel
Draw a small circle around the character at the centre of the action. Stick with what they see, think and feel. You can hint at things outside the circle, but it mustn’t break the flow. You can’t go wide all at once. Even if the opening scene is the middle of a battle. It’s the characters that matter, not the battle.
As the story progresses, you expand the circle to draw more elements of the world.
Think of Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien is the great-grandfather of epic fantasy world building. How does he start?
- Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, One Ring.
- Birthday party; Bilbo uses the ring
- Hobbiton, Merry, Pippin, Sam; leaving for the mission
- The Shire
- Bree and humans
- Ring Wraiths
- Rivendell and the elves
- et cetera…
We get to know Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf and Sam before all that other stuff.
Where do we start Pride and Prejudice (collect a sticker)? At Longbourne, with the Bennett girls and their parents. We get to hear about Netherfield and the new tenant through the characters, through family, the core of the story.
It’s what immediately matters. All that other stuff can wait.