Sometimes I get the complaint on my books that, early on, I give information without sufficient context to understand it, leaving the reader confused. It’s true; I do this. I do it for the simple reason that, as a reader, I love when writers do that and manage to pull it off. When they fail to pull it off, not so much. There is no simple formula to answer the question: how much work should I demand of the reader early on? But there are some things to consider.
In general, this information falls into three types: 1) Trust me, I’ll get to it. 2) You don’t need to know. 3) If you need context for this, you’re an idiot. I tend to give information without sufficient explanation or context when, with a first-person or a close third-person point of view, it would be out of character for the narrator to describe it, and that would knock me out of the story (I can think of numerous writers who do this; I shan’t name them).
In The Incrementalists, for example, the first of those has to do with the nature of the world we’ve created, and special terms used in and about that world. With this, it is the author’s responsibility, not to explain, but to earn the reader’s trust enough to convince the reader that, if you just keep going, all will be well. The second has to do with things like poker terms. These will often read as if they are the same as the first; the difference emerges later, when the reader realizes that they’ve never been explained and it doesn’t matter. For the third–if I’ve given you a date, and said that the guy is watching the news, then mention some news stories, well, sorry; you have everything you ought to need and if it bugs you that’s your problem.
The big question for a writer is: How do I earn the reader’s trust? Interestingly enough, one the best ways involves creating more confusion. That is, if on the very first page, there are terms and concepts the reader couldn’t possibly be expected to understand, the reader will have the reaction, “Well, clearly I’m not meant to get it, so the writer must be doing this deliberately, so I’m in good hands.” Zelazny was a master of this technique. Another way is to simply make the events that are clear, or the narrative, so compelling the reader feels the need to continue, no matter what. Zelazny didn’t suck at that, either.
The question remains, though, just how far to push reader confusion. There’s no simple answer. It’s a balancing act, and one of the things that determines how well a given reader will like a given writer is how strong a match-up there is on this balance. Too little explanation and I get confused and frustrated. Too much explanation, and I get bored and insulted. Hit it perfectly, and one of the joys of story opens up, as I go, “Ah! THAT’s what’s going on! Cool!” and I realize that, had it been laboriously explained, I’d have been denied the epiphany.
But the fact is, for some readers, nothing is going to work except a careful, step-by-step explanation of each new concept. For those readers, all I can say is, there are plenty of other writers who will provide that, so I suggest you read one of them.
ETA: David Wohlreich (@wallrike on Twitter) said it beautifully: “When a fish explains what water is, I’m unhappy.”