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Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 9

With Too Much Exposition

Compare and contrast the following two potential openings to my pretend debut novel:

    They were going to catch her.

    When she first started running Lauren had felt sure she’d make it. After all, who would have thought they’d be faster than her? But they were, and now each time she looked back they were snapping ever closer at her heels.

    The breath burned in her chest as she hurtled round another filing cabinet, knocking a stack of contracts into their path.

    They were going to catch her, Lauren knew this now, the only question was when.

And:

    Lauren Taylor, who had turned 25 last year, worked at Lawyers Lawyers Lawyers, which was quite a good law firm. Although the work was hard and excessively stressful it was all experience for when she became a qualified lawyer herself.

    Usually one of the last people to leave the office at the end of the day, Lauren was the only one left in the office by 6 o’clock that night. She was still there two hours later when the Gremlins (creepy looking, little aye-aye type creatures with a thirst for mayhem and a worrying interest in Lauren) attacked. When she first noticed them watching her from their home in the vents she was down in the archives doing some filing.

    She started to run immediately. Lauren was quick-thinking like that having always excelled academically. As an Olympic level water polo player, she thoughts that surely she would easily make it to the safety of the toilets faster than the Gremlins but then they proved to be quicker on their feet than she had thought and soon she started to worry that she wasn’t going to make it. Strands of her brunette hair whipped across her brown eyes as she ran.

    The Gremlins were gaining on her and unfortunately the archives were especially large, even for a firm as sizeable as Lawyers Lawyers Lawyers. Eventually, they caught her.

Which one draws you in the most? Which one is more likely to grab you and pull you into the action? If you had to pick, which one would you keep reading?

I really hope your answer was: “the first one,” (otherwise I might be out of a job).

In your opening chapters it is true that you will need to include a certain amount of exposition. The more seamlessly you can slip that exposition in the better, of course, but at some point relatively early on your reader will need to understand what is going on, who they’re looking at and why.

The excellent thing is you don’t have to do that immediately. Actually, you’re more likely to grip a reader if you don’t.

I often read submissions where I can sense a certain level of anxiety in the way the opening paragraphs are written, as if the author is highly conscious of the fact that they need to explain things fast.

New writers will often tend to shoehorn in snippets of information wherever they can during their first lines (hair and eye colour as well as age and occupation of the protagonist being the most popular culprits). Sometimes relationships are hurriedly summarised in the first few lines (married five years, it wasn’t going well) or interesting character traits are hastily listed for the reader (smart, funny but lovingly clumsy with a tendency to overwork). Even important plot details that could have served as great points of interest later in the narrative are sometimes quickly revealed in the first few pages in a bid to get the reader caught up.

I would not recommend including any of this information in your opening lines if it is not absolutely necessary. Here are three reasons why, in increasing order of importance:

    1. Readers are wise to it. Especially agents and publishers. This is the point of your novel when too much exposition will stick out like a sore thumb. Leave it until you’ve lulled your reader into not noticing that you’re hiding behind the scenes pulling all the strings.

    2. If it’s not 100% essential to the action it gets in the way of the action. You want your opening scene to spring to life. You don’t have to open with a fight or chase scene to do this; even if your protagonist is quietly reading when you first introduce them you want the focus to be on the action of them reading rather than on their backstory. You want to pull your reader into the moment – that way it will be all the easier to sneak the backstory past them while they’re looking the other way.

    3. It’s throwing away one of the best weapons that you have in your arsenal at the beginning of any story – intrigue.

Intrigue is what will make your readers want to keep reading past the first paragraph. Intrigue is what will make them want to get to know your characters and find out more about their situations and relationships. Intrigue is your best friend.

To use a slightly tortured metaphor, I recently climbed an indoor ice wall. Oh yeh, I climb ice walls now. If you’ve ever done any sort of rope-assisted climbing (I’m not going to lie, I don’t know the official terms) you will know that one of the best ways of curing the perfectly logical fear of a horrifying fall is to lean back in your harness and reassure yourself that you are in fact held up by it.

I got to the point halfway up this wall of ice where I, well, I panicked. I mean it’s exhausting and why do things look so much higher up when you get up on them than when you’re safe on the ground? It’s silly.

Anyway, I wigged. I manfully said I was coming back down (and when I say manfully I mean tearfully). I disengaged my ice picks, I sat back in my harness and I immediately realised that I was in no immediate danger.

Not to sound like a particularly naff inspirational speaker but in this admittedly quite stretched analogy your story is the ice wall and the harness is intrigue. Lean back on it, test it, bounce up and down a bit on it. Feel that it is not going to let you fall. You are safe to hold back information from your reader.

The understandable instinct is to want to cling to the wall and by cling to the wall I mean tell your reader all of the important information about your protagonist and their situation as quickly as possible lest they… what? Aren’t intrigued?

Without that harness I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near that big, tall wall of ice (the least grippy of Earth’s substances). But with it I reengaged my ice picks, took a deep breath, pretended I hadn’t been crying (I never cry, I climb ice walls) and I eventually rang that little bell at the top of the wall with pride.

Without intrigue your reader might not take the risk of giving up the time necessary to keep reading past your opening pages. Without it they might give up halfway, manfully or otherwise, and if they do that they won’t get to the fun bell ringing bit otherwise known as narrative payoff.

Feel safe to hold back basic information in your opening lines. The very start of your novel is not a time when the pressure is on you to tell the reader everything you know. Quite the contrary, the most important thing to let your reader know in your opening lines is that there is something they don’t know.

(p.s. see, Lauren, I promised I’d get you in the blog eventually. Sorry you got eaten by Gremlins though. Or did you…?)

By Vicki Le Feuvre