Storytelling

Introducing Otherworldly Elements Without Confusing Readers

Cover art from Sabriel, first book of the Old Kingdom series.

Garth Nix carefully doles out information in Sabriel.

Story openings can be difficult as authors struggle to introduce the protagonist, show them in their everyday world, hint at what’s missing, and begin the vital process of building empathy. And all of this has to be done in a way that doesn’t drag the pace or overload readers with exposition and backstory narratives.

It becomes even more complicated for speculative fiction writers whose stories contain unique or otherworldly elements that readers won’t readily understand. Trying to explain a tribble, flux capacitor, or the imprinting process of dragons can easily devolve into long explanatory passages that leave readers yawning and wondering what’s in the fridge – not the impression you want to make with your opening scene.

But it is possible to get that important information across in a way that will keep readers engaged.

Stagger the New Stuff

In Sabriel, Garth Nix starts with a few key details about the world.

In general, people need time to assimilate new information and work it into their existing knowledge. If you try to introduce a bunch of new inventions, characters, elements of magic, or political factions at once, readers’ brains are going to explode. Give them one new thing to work on at a time before introducing something else.

This requires you to ask an important question at the start of your opening scene: What information does my character need right now?  

There’s a common disconnect here between what the author thinks the reader needs to know and what the reader actually needs to know. We always think they need more information, which usually results in us throwing it all into the opening chapter. And readers end up overwhelmed or lost.

Instead, figure out what they need to know now, at this point in the story – i.e., identify which one of those unique elements are most important to that scene. Introduce it, and then give readers time to process the information before you throw another new idea into the mix.

Garth Nix does this exceptionally well. Here’s the first paragraph from Sabriel, the first book of his Old Kingdom series:

It was little more than three miles from the Wall into the Old Kingdom, but that was enough. Noonday sunshine could be seen on the other side of the Wall in Ancelstierre, and not a cloud in sight. Here, there was a cloudy sunset, and a steady rain had just begun to fall, coming faster than the tents could be raised.

With this introduction we see that something unusual is going on with the setting. There are two kingdoms bordering each other, but the usual Earthly rules don’t apply. The weather is different on either side of the boundary wall. Time also flows strangely because while it’s noon in Ancelstierre, dusk is falling in the Old Kingdom.

There are many more – and more significant – unique elements in the story, but this is all the author needed to share at this point. The rest is revealed later, doled out on an as-needed basis.

Show It in Context

In City of a Thousand Dolls, Miriam Forster uses context to clarify what an “asar” is.

When the time is right to present a unique element, do yourself a favor and show it to readers instead of telling them about it first.

We have this idea that if we explain a new concept before it makes an appearance, the reader will have the information needed to understand it when they finally see it. But this isn’t how the brain works. We grasp new concepts and ideas much better when we can see them in context. So when you have a new element or concept to share, resist the urge to explain it. Simply show it being used, discussed, manipulated, etc. as part of the actual story. This provides the context necessary for readers to fill the gaps in their knowledge, and it does so without killing the pace in your important opening pages.

As an example, Miriam Forster’s City of a Thousand Dolls involves something unique called an “asar.” Here’s how the author introduces it:

Her satisfaction lasted only as long as it took for a group of girls to decide she was an easy target in her plain gray asar and untidy braid.

And a few paragraphs later:

She could imagine the House Mistress perfectly, her rust-brown asar wrapped so it came only to her knees, the short sword at her side.

Based on this description, the reader understands that an asar is a garment of clothing in this world, and it’s associated in some way with value or worth. Is that due to wealth? Talent? Prestige? We don’t know, and at this point, we don’t need to know. The author has provided enough information for us to be able to move forward without confusion.

For another inspired example, check out Tim Lebbon’s The Silence. The story begins with geologists opening a subterranean cave that has been sealed off for millennia, releasing a never-before-encountered creature that quickly sets civilization back to the dark ages. We learn about this terror a little bit at a time via news reports and social media accounts. First, we watch a flying animal, tiny with distance, bringing down a human. Then, we see a live but distorted image of leathery wings and lots of teeth. As more reports come in, the characters start calling them vesps – short for viespi. Wasps. Someone refers to them as a swarm of flying rats…

Little by little, we gain an understanding of this monster. The author gives readers time to fit the new information into their existing knowledge and create a framework for the vesps. And by being stingy with the details, Lebbon allows intrigue to build as we slowly realize that the characters are in serious trouble.

Find the Right Balance

Tim Lebbons uses the time he has in The Silence to slowly introduce vesps.

How much space should you leave between new elements? This will vary from story to story.

Lebbons takes his time introducing the vesps, using the first five chapters to show what they look like, their hunting habits, and their alarmingly quick life cycle. A longer timeline works for this story because there’s only one new creature to introduce. But in a book like Sabriel, which involves not only a fantasy world but a unique system of magic and a twist on necromancers, the author can’t afford to wait quite so long between elements.

Some of this process undoubtedly involves trial and error, with reader clarity casting the deciding vote. Ask yourself: Are readers confused, or can they follow what’s happening? 

This is where critique partners and beta readers are invaluable. If they can read your first few pages without getting lost, you’re good to go. But if they voice confusion or ask questions for clarification (I’m not sure what’s going on. What’s this thing supposed to do? Is that guy with the government or the rebellion?), you’ll want to regroup. Maybe you need a little more space between new elements. It’s very likely that some of those new ideas can be shared later in the story, allowing you to simplify the opening.


Listen, first pages are hard. Because we know every possible thing about our characters and their world, it’s hard to know how much to share and when to share it. When it comes to those weird and awesome elements that are unique to your story, spread them out and show each one in context. Readers will be fascinated rather than confused, eager to see what else your intriguing world has to offer.

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of books for writers – including her latest publication: a second edition of The Emotion Thesaurus, an updated and expanded version of the original volume. Her books are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.

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Comments

  1. Sedivak

    Very nice article.

    I’d say that China Miéville’s The City & the City is another good example of this approach done well.

  2. Elda King

    I really appreciate how The Stormlight Archives exposes the world little by little. It is quite a bizarre world, but details are introduced throughout the entire series so far (which is already long). Not that there aren’t any infodumps for specific things, but most things are spread out and introduced through small details or contextualized scenes (for example, what exactly are spren – little “spirits” – and how they work, or how alien the plant life is, or the implications of magic for economy and warfare).

    That said, I’m the kind of person who kind of likes a good infodump, especially regarding science and similar. A good one, mind – some can be just a boring list, but some can be more like an interesting documentary.

    • Liam Mansbridge

      Yeah Sanderson is great at that, with his various weird settings.

      It took me ages to figure out Roshar has weird short seasons, he described it so subtly.

    • becca puglisi

      Your info dump comment is an interesting observation. Most of the time I just can’t handle them, but I’m reading The Hunger Games to my kids, and I’m realizing for the first time that most of the first chapter is backstory. I never noticed. It should have stood out, but because of the impending reaping and Katniss’ obviously desperate situation, I was able to overlook all the dumping. Definitely something to be said for getting the set-up right :).

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