I've judged a lot of contests over the years and what I sometimes find is that writers understand that they're supposed to start with the elephant in the living room, something monumental and loaded with tension. However, a few don't understand that "starting with" actually means "starting with." They have the idea, possibly a good idea, but they feel the need to set things up before they open the gate and let the elephant in.
Here's the deal, though. Readers won't wait. They'll move on to someone else's elephant if you keep them waiting. So, resist, resist, resist the urge to do too much setting up. It's something I still struggle with despite having been in the business for a long time. That feeling that readers need to know certain things before you drop them into the frying pan persists. Often that's just me wanting to spill my guts too soon and having to fight the feeling. But sometimes the reader really may need to know a couple of things in order to understand what's going on, especially when there's a major internal conflict involved. If they really need to know, then here's the order:
- First, let the elephant break down the door and stampede through the house with no clear exit in sight. General mayhem ensues.
- Insert the need to know items sparingly. If you need to inject a bit of background info in the first chapter, be as brief as possible and spread those bits of information out throughout the chapter.
Be creative in how you divulge background details and do your best to avoid the information dump. It makes readers yawn, and yawning is death to a book. Let the background of your book be told on an as-needed basis as the story progresses.
Oh, and one last thing: once you get the elephant out of the living room, replace him with a bigger elephant, or a shark…or a rhinoceros or a rattlesnake. Sometimes writers have an idea for a great elephant, so much so that the rest of the book feels flat afterwards. The idea isn't to tone down your elephant but to keep the reader anticipating the next elephant.