How do you read?

Seems like a weird question, but…

I was doing a MOOC on creative writing a while back, and I submitted a piece that was the opening to what I hope turns into a novel (story based on length – publication worthy is not the discussion at this point).

In this scene, my narrator (who you later learn is undercover) is being flirted at by another member of the scene, and the narrator’s thought is: “Alice could have told him I was terrible at flirting.” Later the main character talks to herself in her head, using her real name.

Now I had thought that the confusion would come with people not understanding that fakename/realname were the same person. But no, the problem was Alice. Readers were angry because the narrator mentioned someone who wasn’t in the scene and wasn’t “fully introduced”.

And it got me thinking: when I encounter things like an off-hand reference to another character that hasn’t been introduced yet, it doesn’t upset me, because I assume they will be introduced, and the narrator’s seeming assumption that we do know means that person will be important, so have a little patience.

Then it occurred to me that maybe it’s because I often read series, and don’t always start at the beginning (and one time I did was Stuart MacBride’s Logan McRae series that he deliberately started as though it was at some point in the middle) and it got me wondering if somehow it’s a matter of how we’ve learned to follow single stories versus universes.

So: if you are just starting a new-to-you author (or a new-to-you series by that author) do you need to start at the beginning and know who all the players are one by one, or do dive straight into a world, accepting that the narrator (or maybe even other readers) know things that you don’t and have confidence that they may be explained later? Are you willing to start in the middle and learn how it goes, or do you need a full briefing before you get going?


And before anyone asks, yes, I recognise that I may not have written the piece as well or polished it as much as I could. But there just seemed to be a common statement that a writer should never reference a character before full introduction, and that seemed off to me.


I try to start at the beginning for a series if I can. But for stuff like pulp novels order isn’t very important so where in the series my current Doc Savage read isn’t usually important and if it is they give a good recap cause well paid by the word.
But that said I am good with characters not being introduced, explained, I dunno. I kinda like that and also when I usually burn though a good story I may not really pick up on that while reading the first time.


I’m a jump straight in reader. It’s a holdover from not having access to a full series (second hand books, smaller libraries etc.).


I think it depends on the series. For me, if it’s a contiguous story (like say A song of ice and fire), I like to read it from the beginning forward. But something like the discworld novels, that’s not really necessary, because despite being a series, the books are stand alone enough. That’s just me, though. I don’t think there is a “right” way to do that, honestly. But I’d guess most readers like to start at the beginning and read a series from there?

Good luck with the story!


This, definitely. Otherwise some books would take forever to get started. I don’t need or want an omnipotent narrator.

I’ve been reading the Malazan series of books on and off over the last few years. If you had to fully introduce every character before you got started they’d be even longer than they already are. The complexity and confusion is part of the style of the story. I think it adds to it. I like the “here you are, you won’t know what’s going on, just read it and you’ll figure it out as you go along” attitude.


I’m a completionist… So I haven’t really read a whole lot since school. Not much in the way of fiction anyway.

I like to wait until something is done, then binge it.


Some of my favourite writers do this all the time.Slowly revealing to the reader what is going on is a time-honoured literary device. It doesn’t bother me, because I trust the author to explain or show the character or event referred to at the appropriate point in the narrative. If the story isn’t linear but jumps back and forth in time, issues like this are almost unavoidable.

In mysteries, of course dropping hints is customary. Ruth Rendell was a genius at describing a character’s mundane actions or thoughts, then slipping in a word or phrase that makes you think, “Wait, something is really off here.”


I’ve always read book series in chronological order (unless I’ve been strongly warned off by like-minded friend-readers) The only down side I’ve experienced is a slowdown to the action as circumstances from the earlier books are explained (for the sake of readers who have jumped into the middle of things). Also, sometimes the explanations are not… elegant. I’ve found some explanations to be ham-handed.


Not a full briefing, but a brief clause for character development could make a big difference.

  • “Alice, my wife, could have told him I was terrible at flirting.”
  • “Alice, my former drill instructor, could have told him I was terrible at flirting.”
  • “Alice, the defendant in the upcoming harassment lawsuit, could have told him that I was terrible at flirting.”
  • “Alice, my artificially-intelligent wristwatch, could have told him I was terrible at flirting.”
  • “Alice, the homeless woman who hung around begging outside the dive bar, could have told him I was terrible at flirting.”
  • “Alice, the slutty bitch that took over my brain sometimes, could have told him I was terrible at flirting.”

Those all have something very different to say about the protagonist character, without doing a full briefing about Alice. I’m lenient with books because they usually do start actual character development pretty soon. But I’m not a fan of the ‘Hollywood opening’ (random people with no characterization running around shooting at each other for no apparent reason for the first 25% of the ‘story’.)


I like to read the story from the beginning, assuming there is a linear story with a beginning and an end. Otherwise, that still won’t necessarily deter me. If it’s a serial and i read the parts out of order, I get a little irritated at knowing that all the other readers who did things the right way know what’s going on but I don’t. I’m not sure if a properly written series requires the books to be read in order, or does not, or if it’s a matter of personal preference. Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series wasn’t really order dependent for me, even though the timeline was linear (with the exception of two of the middle books).

As far as characters knowing more than the reader, this is expected. This even extends to language, in sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. I prefer to be eased in gently rather than dropped right in, but that’s a matter of preference.


… Um… every character starts off unintroduced. I like me some fantasy, and while I’m rather fond of the frontispiece dramatis personae, family tree, map, and glossary, not every book has one and that’s not a requirement of the form. While accepting the caveat that the piece was in workshop stage, I think that’s actually a “rule” which leads to bad fiction and unnecessary exposition, bogging a piece down prematurely. I do think it matters what voice and perspective are in use – 1POV lends itself to quick aside references and internal monologue, while hard limited 3rd (no internal) makes references to the unintroduced much harder to pull off well.

The first (non-prologue) chapter of The Lions of Al-Rassan is actually a great example of introducing off-stage characters. We’re in Jehane’s (3rd, limited omniscient) perspective, and she’s got quite a lot of interior monologue about her patients, her community, her parents and the Kalik. None of whom have been properly introduced yet.

Compare also Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue, specifically the first chapter/prologue when Toby is still with Cliff, her daughter is a toddler, and she’s on that case. (1st) She makes copious references to Luna, Rayseline and Sylvester, all of whom will figure strongly later, but are off-screen.

Personally, I’d go grab a few of your well-loved first book in series or stand-alones, ones where you know the characters and when/how/where they’re introduced. Re-read that first chapter carefully for those introductions or future references, and see how they track.

But to answer the question – given the choice, I try to start at the beginning of a series, and tend to be a completionist, but sometimes I come into a series in the middle. And references to off-screen people are things that happen in both reality and fiction. If this irritated me, I’d never interact with books or people.


What is a creative writing MOOC like? I’ve been meaning to try it, because it will hopefully get me in the habit of writing regularly, as well as get me feedback on my writing. Is it a good experience? Are there any MOOCs you’d recommend?

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If you don’t mind me pointing out…most people aren’t going to think to themselves, “Alice, my wife…”, “Alice, my drill instructor…” etc.

(unless I’m missing something there)


Yes, specifically they won’t be thinking that. That would be speculation, and maybe idle speculation at that. Instead, they will think:

"Who the fuck is Alice? "

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Wait, now I’m confused.
I think I didn’t express myself clearly…I meant: MalevolentPixy told us that it’s the narrator’s thought. I meant that most narrators wouldn’t think to themselves “Alice, my wife,…” Because, they already know that Alice is their own wife…I hope…


I must have missed a/the joke :confused: ?

don’t mind me…


I also appreciate that style, but I think it takes patience, and confidence that you didn’t miss something. My son and daughter are polar opposites when it comes to this. She would read anything regardless of difficulty and not worry if something doesn’t appear to fit. When my son was an early teen he would get bothered and upset if something or someone got referred to obliquely but not introduced. He wanted everything linear. He would NEVER start a series in the middle! I might, but I prefer not to.

One of my favorite series, Horatio Hornblower, was written out of sequence. The middle trilogy came first, then he filled in 4 prequels. Sharpe was the same way. I don’t know whether to recommend they be read from the chronological start or not. Patrick O’Brian should have filled in rather than use a time warp to stretch the war.


Asimov wrote pre- and inter-quels to Foundation. Reading them in chronological order wouldn’t improve your enjoyment or understanding of the earlier ones.


Few years ago I set out to read them in published order, not having read some of the later ones. Couldn’t get past Foundation & Empire. I liked it as a kid, but IMO he just wasn’t that good a writer by modern standards.