noun: the act of expounding, setting forth, or explaining; the exposition of a point of view; one of a writer’s greatest known dangers.
The exposition of a story is that information that, while not part of the current timeline of the story you’re telling, is necessary to explain some of those events. It’s that back story about your character’s past, those things that make him/her the person they are and explains why they react or feel a certain way in specific situations. Even though we’re all a product of our life experiences, it’s not necessary to lay it all out there right up front in order for someone to understand us.
In my film school days, my screenwriting instructor beat the following into us from Day One: SHOW IT, DON’T TELL IT. These days, as an editor and mentor to aspiring novelists, I couldn’t possibly count the times I’ve had to tell an author that they need to cut the whole first chapter, that the book actually starts in the middle of Chapter Two. As many times as that has happened, I’d guess in 90% of those instances, the writer has come back with an argument. And it usually starts with, “But in order to understand the main character…”
If your writing is strong and focused, if you take the reader on the journey with your lead character, they’ll come to understand him/her on their own. You don’t need to hold their hand or write down to them. You can allow them to experience the build, trust them to sense the subtle nuances you’ve painstakingly developed, and set them free to enjoy the ride.
I know it’s controversial in some circles, but personally, I enjoy a good Prologue … if it’s powerful and drives the tone and direction of the story. But how many times have we started reading a book, only to discover the prologue and entire first chapter are told in back story? I think this kind of thing does a mighty disservice to the reader. It deprives them of the complete experience.
When I first started dating as a teen, my mom gave me some really stellar advice. “Don’t put everything on the table on the first couple of dates,” she said. “Leave a little to the imagination. Be like an onion and reveal everything you have to offer in gradual layers.” It was great counsel. I know this because, in those times when I ignored it and allowed myself to be carried away too quickly, told all my stories on the first date, and cleared everything else on my calendar in order to be available, I regretted it every single time.
Let me be your “Writer Mom” for a moment and tell you this:
Here are a few tips that might serve as good reminders:
- Keep your first chapter clean. However you decide to handle the overall sprinkling in of back story, resolve to keep the first chapter free and clear of it. Give your readers a chance to step into a fresh situation and experience it along with your characters. Allow the opening of your novel to serve one primary purpose: To hook the reader.
- Decide what’s important in the bigger picture. Think of your story as a meal, and choose those points of information that will season the story rather than pouring a heavy topcoat of gravy that takes over the whole meal.
- Choose your modes of transportation thoughtfully. There are various vehicles available to transport expository information. They include:
“I have to get back to the city in time to pick up my mother at the airport.”
“Oh? Is she coming into town for a visit?”
“She is. I haven’t seen her for several years because … Well, our relationship has been pretty complicated over the last couple of decades.”
“You don’t get along then?”
“Describe getting along.”
- Snippets of thought
David checked his watch and took off at a full run out of the parking lot. Plenty of tension already hung over this visit with his mother, what with this being his inaugural effort to mend the broken-down fences between them. They certainly didn’t need to add another in his long line of irresponsible behaviors to the mix.
“You couldn’t arrive on time?” Betty chided. “Some things never change.”
David bit his tongue to keep from snapping at her in the first five minutes of their reunion. What had he been thinking? Hadn’t he learned this lesson several times over already? A montage of countless failed attempts at similar reparation missions sprang to mind, opening with the Christmas of his senior year at college when she refused to speak to him for two straight days … and dissolving into Thanksgiving weekend at his Aunt Sarah’s three years back. His mother had created such a drama out of his not telling her he’d be in attendance that all twelve of his aunt’s guests wore the familial expression of dismay and regret.
As a writer grows in their craft, other new and unique vehicles will become part of the tools in your storytelling box. The most important thing to remember, however, is to utilize exposition with a light, deft hand. Too much of it placed in the wrong spots of your story will take the whole thing down. Let your readers indulge in your story on a need-to-know basis.
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SANDRA D. BRICKER was an entertainment publicist in Los Angeles for 15+ years where she attended school to learn screenwriting and eventually taught the craft for several semesters. When she put Hollywood in the rear view mirror and headed across the country to take care of her mom until she passed away, she traded her scripts for books . . . and a best-selling, award-winning author of Live-Out-Loud fiction for the inspirational market was born. Sandie is best known for her Another Emma Rae Creation and Jessie Stanton series for Abingdon Press, and she was also named ACFW’s 2015 Editor of the Year for her work as managing editor of Bling! Romance, an edgy romance imprint for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. As an ovarian cancer survivor, Sandie also gears time and effort toward raising awareness and funds for research, diagnostics and a cure.
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