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.
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
7 Comments Add yours
Love the blog posts but one question – shouldn’t today’s be number 9 not 8? I already received one entitled “No 8 – at an airport”.
Keep up the great work Vicki et al.
I agree with everything you say……..but, I could go into Smith’s or Waterstone’s now and pick at random any book on the commercial fiction bestsellers list and point out exactly these faults in published authors, on the first page. Even Rowling does it in her crime thriller, constantly. This habit of shoe horning info is loved by most authors, if not all.
Show not tell, the favourite mantra of agents, yet what does Le Carre do, or Philip Roth or Moggarth? Exactly that, again and again. (And it actually works, as in Portnoy’s Complaint or The Honourable Schoolboy).
Originality…..the cop with a tortured past/present. The house/family/protagonist with a dark secret that will change their /Life/world/the future/. The conspiracy that will alter history. Copycat novels: I can cite one published author who has gone from banking crime to Nordic detectives to zombies to Nazi secrets at just the moment all these became fashionable.
The brutally murdered/tortured/disfigured on the first page…to many times to mention.
So why do agents who deplore all the above not abide by their own declared standards?
There, I’ve got that off my chest!!
There are so many elements that go into getting on to those bestseller lists and they are not all mutually inclusive. Getting an agent is only one element. Though for a lot of writers it is a major one.
If you are one of those writers we hope that following our advice will help you because doing so will help you to show off your writing skills to agents.
However, you are totally free to ignore our advice. As you say, many authors on the bestseller lists haven’t followed it. (Although we will let them off owing to the fact that most of their books were written at a time prior to the world changing event that is our little blog series.)
As our mantra for these advice snippets goes – there’s nothing specifically wrong with doing any of these things, it just doesn’t show off your writing skills.
Or to put it another way – we don’t ‘deplore’ these techniques, not at all. We would hate for any writer to think they’ve somehow done something wrong just because they’ve chosen a very popular way to start their novel. It’s not about deploring a method, it’s about getting excited about originality. We just love it when writers find a different way of doing things.
Also PabloJ, you are very eagle-eyed. Vicki did initially post this as No. 8 by mistake (and she calls herself an editor). In her defence she did notice and tried to correct the mistake before anyone else saw. She’d have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for your excellent attention to detail.
The most difficult thing about writing is find a ‘voice’. And I guess the writers I mention can ignore the advice because they have such distinctive style and originality. We can’t all be as good. And much of commercial fiction is not as good. Part of me suspects it is the audience you are writing for. The Martina Cole fans are not going to feel at home with Philip Roth and ‘Sabbath’s Theatre’. Neither in content nor style.
I agree the advice is sound, dare I say it, if you have no experience of writing. But since published commercial authors sometimes make my teeth grind I wonder who lets their crassness through into print.
Take this technique – the memory recalled at precisely the right moment so the author can fill in some background. it happens too often. ‘Another memory came unbidden’ – ‘the crowd…..slowed to a silent shuffle, reminding David for a moment of his time as a soldier with the rest of the weary troops…’
Why can’t the crowd shuffle like weary soldiers? It’s good enough. Just as ‘knocked kneed and coughing like hags’ is effective.
And as for ‘silent’ – well in commercial fiction it is never silent! Silence makes a great deal noise. One author of several books once wrote ‘the rustle of silence’.
Or the mismash of images ”standing on the high board, a sea of faces far below’
Otherwise many thanks for the explanation. Originality, I shall continue to strive for it!
” the most important thing to let your reader know in your opening lines is that there is something they don’t know.”
Love your advice. Thanks so much.