Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

How do I begin a story that needs a lot of explanation, like when it takes place in another time or if the character has an extraordinary skill?

In writing any story, you have to start somewhere and fill in the background details as you go. You can’t cram everything into the first lines. Consider how to entice the reader into the story and, at the same time, convey the important information.

Robert Olen Butler introduces the unique circumstances of one of his short stories in its title: “Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of Parrot.” The first lines confirm what readers suspect: “I never can quite say as much as I know. I look at the other parrots and I wonder if it’s the same for them, if somebody is trapped in each of them, paying some kind of price for living their life in a certain way.” E. L. Doctorow begins his novel Ragtime this way: “In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.” The first line establishes a year and the novel goes on to reinforce and develop the era with significant, evocative detail.

In some instances, the direct approach can help situate the reader in a reality without question or hesitation. However, you must continue to reinforce and develop place and character throughout. Without specific detail and a convincing voice, the story will fall flat.

The first lines don’t have to make such direct statements. Bharati Mukherjee’s short story “The Management of Grief” begins at a point when the narrator has already learned the plane her husband and children were traveling on has crashed. The reader, however, doesn’t know this, yet. The story starts this way: “A woman I don’t know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen. There are a lot of women I don’t know in my kitchen, whispering, and moving tactfully.” Immediately, the reader understands something significant has happened. As the early sentences and paragraphs unfold, the reader collects details: radios are playing in her house, the sons of her friends are muttering about a Sikh Bomb, someone asks her if she’s worried about money. The accumulation of detail provides the information, while still keeping the reader engaged in the sensory moment she inhabits.

When backstory weighs on your shoulders, resist the urge to explain too much. Focus on drawing the reader into the world and let the details do the work of explanation. A statement—of the year or the character’s unique trait—may be appropriate, but attend to development; make the world and the character vivid and real for the reader.