Today I read an amateur science-fiction short story that opened by describing at length the twin-sunned planet the protagonist’s ship was orbiting. It then moved on to several paragraphs about the mega-corporation whose employees worked on planets like this, the unfortunate circumstances of said employees, and why they needed the protagonist’s services.
And then the action started with the protagonist arriving at a completely different planet to engage in work that had nothing to do with the corporation or its employees. None of these things was ever mentioned again.
Setting up expectations
In fiction writing – especially short fiction, but really all fiction – every word you use needs to be relevant to the story you’re telling.
The relevance might not be immediately clear. It might be relevant only in the sense that it creates the right mood or gives the reader a sense of the context in which the story takes place. But there needs to be a direct connection to your story, otherwise you are leading readers on a mental wild goose chase.
“Oh cool, a twin-sunned planet!” they think. “Now I know all about that, something must be going to happen there, or someone will be from there, or it will get dramatically blown up, or…”
You are setting up an expectation. If you don’t follow through, if the set-up never goes anywhere, then you leave your readers disappointed, wondering why you bothered to tell them all about that intriguing planet in the first place.
If you were trying to interest a buyer in your home, you wouldn’t do it by giving them a lengthy tour of the house next door.
Details don’t always have to be detailed
“Ah,” you might say, “but I need to put in this planet and that corporation in order to describe the broader setting of the universe. I have a worldframe! My readers must know!”
And it’s absolutely true that giving your readers a sense of the greater world (or universe) beyond the immediate plot will make your story feel deeper and richer, especially if it’s set in something other than the familiar modern day. But you don’t need to lay it on thick to give readers that sense of setting. All it needs is a well-placed reference.
Perhaps the protagonist is from that twin-sunned planet, and misses the glory of the double sunsets compared to the dreariness of ship life. Perhaps the motivation for another character’s seemingly mercinary actions is that they’re trying to earn enough money to free their family from employment by the heartless mega-corporation. See how, in both of those examples, the wider setting is introduced in a way that makes it relevant to the current story?
Keep it simple, and you will leave your readers with the intriguing sense that your world is bigger than the current story, without distracting them from that story. A few peripheral details are all you need for that.
What’s important to your story?
As soon as you start going into depth on a subject, though, you’re telling the reader, this is important. The more time you spend describing a place or person or thing, the more time you are asking your reader to spend thinking about it. So save that for the story elements you actually want your reader to think about – the details that are important, not peripheral. Make sure your set-up has a pay-off.
As a writer, you are given the power to decide what your readers will pay attention to. But that also gives you a responsibility to the reader, to direct their attention to the important things. If you waste your readers’ time, you will lose their attention altogether.
So don’t spend half a page describing Chekhov’s gun if you intend to leave it on the wall.