Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Editing your story is, if we’re honest, more than half the battle of completing it. The first draft is a rush of creativity, but it’s in the editing that you turn it into a well-oiled machine that (crucially) is more concerned with entertaining the reader than acting as an outlet for the author.
The technical, word-by-word editing is, if not easy, at least approachable. You can break it down into stages, reference the relevant textbooks, and aim for an objectively ‘correct’ approach that, at least theoretically, exists. Structural editing is much, much harder: how do you begin editing the shape of your story?
And make no mistake; to some extent, you’re going to have to do so. Plotting and planning before you write will save time, but the idea that your story has poured out of you in its best form is either wishful thinking or hubris.
Still, it’s an intimidating task; where do you start, and how do you even begin to see the structural issues that might be affecting your story? Well, it might not answer all your problems, but front-loading is a great place to start.
What is front-loading?
Front-loading is when you cram a huge amount of detail and explanation into the start of your book rather than spreading it out further and more equally.Most first drafts suffer from front-loading, but editing can fix that.Click To Tweet
Front-loading is generally most obvious in fantasy fiction, but it crops up in pretty much every genre, including memoir, self-help lit, and alternative history fiction.
The good news is that front-loading is a natural first-draft problem, and something you can iron out if you know what to look for. Of course, that means knowing why you’re front-loading in the first place.
Why am I front-loading?
Authors front-load because it solves a lot of problems. Chiefly, this is because dumping information on the reader immediately brings them up to speed with everything they need to know, and the story can continue unfettered from that point on.
Of course, those fetters have to go somewhere, and they all get slung around the opening, creating a stodgy, confusing, dull first impression that at best changes your reader’s relationship with your writing and at worst puts them off altogether.
Front-loading is such a problem in fantasy fiction because the world is so unfamiliar – the author doesn’t just have to introduce a character, but the world, social structure, and potentially even physical reality they live in. Consequently, it’s not unusual to read first-draft fantasy that begins like the below:
I am Arrat, son of Angrot, a half-badger hybrid from the town of Setd. Setd is the fifth hub city of the Ront Alliance – a dangerous place for my kind since the War of the Willows. Still, it offers some protection from the frequent mutation storms, though it can’t prevent their devastating effect on our krot crop; the main export that makes us useful to the Empire and protects us against Yomp invasion.
Even if the ideas above weren’t cliché, there’d still be too many of them, giving the reader no time to digest information or adjust to the status quo. What does it mean to be a hub city? Is the Ront Alliance different to the Empire? What’s a Yomp?
Sci-fi suffers a little less since, if we’re strict about what makes sci-fi sci-fi, it’s generally about the world and how it works, rather than using those facts as a backdrop, but every story has a pile of information that’s there to facilitate the story. Maybe it’s your family background in a memoir, the rules of Victorian society in a historical romance, or the baseline personality of a character about to be dropped into a thriller, but it’s there.
The authorial instinct to get these details out of the way isn’t exactly wrong, but it can easily backfire, creating a bundle of information that’s there to inform – rather than entertain – the reader.
In a moment, we’ll move onto how to avoid front-loading. Knowing why it’s happening is the first step, but before you start avoiding it, it’s important to appreciate the damage it’s doing.
What’s wrong with front-loading?
Front-loading confronts the reader with a lot of information, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes – rarely, but sometimes – the reader is down to learn a lot. Generally, this comes from you having hooked them already, stoking their interest enough that you can spend that coin on information they might otherwise find unexciting.
Even then, however, things aren’t going great. Wherever possible, each part of your writing should be designed to entertain in and of itself . That’s the cardinal rule of writing; if you’re entertaining the reader, you can start doing other things at the same time, but the former is the priority. If you’ve built up the reader’s interest, you’re still spending that interest by presenting them with a front-loaded information dump, and it’s not an infinite resource. That means you can’t spend their interest elsewhere, or use it for things like increasing investment or creating intrigue. You may also run out, especially because every reader is different, and some may not be as motivated to make it through your information dump.An early info-dump can sap the reader’s investment and interest.Click To Tweet
Front-loading also causes problems because, in trying to share a great deal of information, you’re likely to tell rather than show. That usually results in poorer writing, and the reader’s expectations will adjust accordingly.
Finally, front-loading creates an uneven journey for the reader. It makes them doubt what the reading experience is going to be like, and again gives them a false impression of what your book is going to ‘do’ for them.
Now that we know the damage we’re trying to avoid, let’s look at how to do so.
How can I stop front-loading?
Knowing about the risks of front-loading will help you avoid it as you write, but, again, it’s a typical first-draft issue, and you can solve it through editing. In fact, this might sometimes be the best approach – first drafts allow experimentation, so it may be that, to finish your story, initial front-loading is what gets the job done.
One of the best ways to fix front-loading is to think about information in terms of need. Who needs to know what, and when? Front-loading is an issue because it privileges the author’s needs above those of the reader and characters. The author wants certain things out of the way for convenience, but the characters didn’t have any need to express them and the reader didn’t have any need to know them.
Fixing front-loading means achieving a more even distribution of what’s shared when, but that’s a nebulous goal – need is what makes it specific. Try to shift information around so that sharing it emerges from need. The reader’s need to know is the hard limit – the point at which information is truly relevant, at which something vital to the plot hinges on them understanding something else, is the last possible point at which that information can be shared. The characters’ need to know, on the other hand, is the soft limit, and it’s one you can create.
When does a character need to know something you want to tell the reader? You’re in charge of their world, so the answer should be pretty broad, but it also motivates a wider dispersal of information. If you’re writing in the first person, read ‘when does the character need to confront this idea?’ For example, in the earlier example, when does the character need to be thinking about (and thus explaining) hub cities and the Empire? Without any reason to dwell on these subjects, broaching them lacks need and purpose, and so things fall flat.Share information based on the needs of your reader and characters.Click To Tweet
At this point, we enter the realm of good exposition – and we’ve covered that in Improve Your Exposition Immediately With This One Simple Tip and How To Express Your Characters’ Thoughts – With Exercises – but let’s stay focused on front-loading.
One great technique is to go through your story and identify all the big things your reader needs to understand, focusing on what you’ve expressed early on. Next, draw out a timeline of your story, indicating the main events along the way. Now, use red lines to indicate where the reader needs to understand certain things. By this, I mean the place where their understanding has a domino effect. Yes, you’d like them to understand the hub-city system from the off, but that information isn’t vital until something happens that only makes sense with that context.
The red lines represent the end of a bracket in which you can share that information. Now, it’s time to look for the best place to do so. What makes it the best place? Well, the prime factor is where it can be shared naturally, and another is where it’s far enough from other information for the reader to properly take it on board.
You may be saying that the reader needs to know a great deal very quickly, but that’s not a limitation in your ability to fix the problem – it’s the indication of a larger issue.
What if I need front-loading for my story to work?
If avoiding a glut of information makes your story impossible, then it’s not just your exposition that’s front-loaded, it’s your narrative.
Too much is happening too early, and as the be-all and end-all creator and manipulator of your world, it’s up to you to fix that. Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall describes a plane crash and its aftermath, but there’s a narrative problem – the plane needs to be full of people, and the loss of their lives needs to feel like a tragedy, but how do you introduce so many people so early in the story without front-loading? One solution is to move the crash to later, but Hawley wants to get there quickly, setting up the major event of the story.
As a solution, about half the book is made up of flashbacks to before the crash. The reader encounters the characters as people, retroactively making their deaths tragedies, and since Hawley is a good writer, there’s also the suggestion that the cause of the crash might be discovered in these passages.
What’s crucial to note here is that there are things the reader needs to know about the characters – their wealth, their attitudes to each other – but which don’t depend on the context of their lives. That context adds to the reader’s understanding, but it can wait until later in the name of a balanced story. You’d be surprised by how little context the reader needs to understand a moment, and telling a balanced story in a balanced way depends on honing your understanding of what’s essential and what you can save for later.Telling a balanced story depends on knowing when information NEEDS to be shared. Click To Tweet
If your front-loaded information stems from a front-loaded narrative, it’s time to start restructuring. Remember that, like Hawley, you can twist even time itself to your ends. You can also elongate sections of story to give yourself more space and ensure they’re balanced – don’t be too beholden to how your first draft shaped up.
Is there an exercise that can help me fix front-loading?
That’s how to fix front-loading in the long-term, but here’s something you can do right now. Pick the most important piece of information you’ve shared in your front-loaded story, then try to write a chapter and a half without explaining anything else.
Force yourself to write out events without further exposition and see what happens. Almost certainly, you’ll discover that you don’t need to share some things so early. It’s also likely that you’ll spot the places where you can share things more naturally. If you do this long enough, you’ll also gain a better understanding of the points where you really need to have explained something already, and that’ll help you frame a more accurate understanding of your reader’s need for clarity.
Front-loading is a common problem, but it’s one you can fix with elbow grease and insight. Above all, remember to govern your exposition according to what the reader needs to know – make that your guiding light and you won’t go wrong.
Do you struggle with front-loading? Do you think it’s impossible to tell your story without beginning with an information dump? Share your concerns in the comments. Or, for more great advice on this topic, check out Improve Your Exposition Immediately With This One Simple Tip and What A Blacksmith Knows About How To Fix Your Story.