But for today, I thought the next most important topic would be the thing that everyone struggles with. It’s worse than writer’s block. It’s scarier than your final chapter. It’s even more frustrating than the query letter. Even authors who somehow manage to pull this thing off barely escape with their lives. It is … exposition.
So you have the idea for your book. You know what makes the legs of the world’s table. Regardless if it’s a realistic fiction piece about a middle-aged woman who has just filed for a divorce and enjoys planting her garden, or if it’s a sci-fi adventure about space cowboys trying to save the final hope of humanity, there is always the “stasis” that we begin with. There is an already established world when we open the first page and begin to write.
Problem is, the reader has no clue what this already established world is.
So here are four key rules to have a successful reveal of exposition:
1. Just the Facts, Ma’am
Have you ever had that conversation with a friend where you just wish they’d get to the point? They’re going into more detail than need be, and you’re not sure why they’re talking. Look at these two different dialogues:
- “So we went over the Jane’s place, and she’s got like this new parakeet that just keeps honking or … tweeting … whatever a bird does. And she’s like, ‘Go ahead, sit down I just gotta get the dog in the basement.’ So we sat down and she had Nickelodeon on, which I was a little confused about but whatever. But yeah, Sally’s doing good. She seems better. All things considered, I’d be a real wreck after last month, but she’s tough. Always has been. But so like we got into Jane’s car and Sally was talking about it. And I was surprised she was talking about it. She doesn’t really talk about stuff like that. And Jane starts talking about Dan, and I’m like … yeah is Dan still around? I know, Dan. Dan’s still around. You know, John doesn’t like Dan very much. I know, John doesn’t like anyone. But he has reason not to like Dan. But so anyway … no, Dan wasn’t there. I didn’t mention that. Dan didn’t come with us cause that’d be awkward. I think Dan knew that Tom knew. Maybe John told him. But anyway, so we pull up to the Golden Corral. And we go in and pay and stuff. And Sally and I are just hanging out and I finally ask her like, ‘You seem to be doing better. Are you doing better?’ And she goes, ‘Yeah. Well. I don’t know.’ Which worried me again … and all of a sudden, Tom comes in. And he’s furious. Like, I’ve never seen Tom like that. It was terrifying. And Tom’s like, ‘Jane!’ In front of everyone. And he goes up to Jane and Jane’s got this attitude like, ‘Why are you late?’ And Tom’s like, ‘Outside. We’re talking outside right now.’ And Jane’s like, ‘No.’ And Tom’s like, … well they go back and forth, and then Tom says, ‘Dan just told me what you did.’ And Jane doesn’t say a word. She just leaves. And Tom …”
- “So we went out to the Golden Corral afterward and Tom found out Jane had been cheating on him.”
The second one is much clearer. We know that they went out to eat. We know that Tom found out Jane had been cheating on him. We don’t care about Sally. Who is Sally? Not important to our plot, that’s who. We have no idea what we’re supposed to be paying attention to, so we get all tangled up in our following the story. Look at Dickens for a good example of how exposition can be simple.
- Not Dickens: “Scrooge was an old man who lived in London. It was the 19th Century, and he was somewhat miserly. And by somewhat, I mean a lot. He was all crouched over and had money bags on him at all times. His closest employer was Bob Crachit, but even Bob didn’t like him very much. Scrooge hated Christmas, too. Just plain hated it. Every year when his nephew Fred invited him over to dinner, he told him, ‘Bah humbug!’ Scrooge used to have a friend, and his name was Jacob Marley. However, Jacob Marley had died. It had been a stormy evening, and Scrooge didn’t seem to really care that Marley was dead. He thought about Marley from time to time, how they went on that trip to the country when they were boys and he was still with Isabella. That had been a good summer. They’d had cucumber sandwiches, the three of them, and Scrooge actually smiled back then. But Marley and him had grown into misers and bankers, both terrible things. And so Marley had finally kicked the bucket, and he wasn’t coming back. Yes, it was Christmas and Marley wasn’t there.”
- Dickens: “Marley was dead, to begin with.”
See the difference? Do we need to know that he loved Isabella? Do we need to know about Freddy and Bob yet? Do we need to know that he’s a banker and a miser and no one really likes him? We will know all of this through the development of the characters and plot once the story gets rolling. All we need to know to start off is that Marley is dead.
Try this with your own manuscript. If you only had three sentences to set up the world with, what three sentences would it be?
2. In and Out
Which leads us to our second point. Think of the first day of school. The teacher has to tell you her name, what the class is, go over the syllabus, get yourself acquainted with the expectations, etc. But all of this is usually done quickly because we need to actually start the class.
When a reader begins your book, you have them for about the first two pages before they’ve made a decision about your work. That’s frustrating, but it’s the truth. How many times have you picked up a book and then put it back down? Books are laborious tasks and not always the cheapest things to invest in. So why would you spend a few days reading a book that doesn’t pull you in from the first chapter? It doesn’t matter how wonderful that scene on page 72 is; we aren’t going to get to page 72 if page 1 isn’t stupendous. Believe me, I have this problem myself. In the book I’m preparing right now, my favorite scene is on page 200. The first forty pages (usually what you send in a query) are not as great as I wish they were. So before I go congratulating myself on page 200, I need to go back and pave the way to that scene.
Thus, with the first pages being crucial, the exposition has to be in and out. Three sentences. One paragraph. Not thirty pages of setting everything up without the plot moving.
Some authors, such as George Orwell, figured out a way around this. Orwell’s whole entire first two chapters of 1984 is setting up his world. However, he has his main character moving and being active while he shows off the world to us. It isn’t just a description, it’s exploration.
3. Let the Reader Discover
There is a universal truth about people; they like to be treated with respect. They also like to discover things for themselves. How many times have you felt like someone is spoon-feeding you information? Probably none of those times was during a read of a very good book. Great authors know that they need to “show, not tell.” Don’t start your book off explaining the world in such great detail that the reader is an expert on the subject. We don’t need a textbook. We need to be immersed into the main character’s head. We need to see it through their eyes and feel smart when we find something out about the world on our own. This makes it personal. This makes us connect.
Two wonderful examples of this is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Stephen King’s The Green Mile. Lee does what Mark Twain does in a lot of his novels; use a child as a protagonist in order to discuss difficult adult topics through a child’s innocent eyes. Because Scout doesn’t understand her world completely, we don’t either. But we discover it along with Scout, thus making Scout our best friend instead of some sort of informer or forced character that we have no connection to. Stephen King does it a little different in The Green Mile; there were specific facts that he needed to share with us about Louisiana in the 1930′s, about electric chairs, about death row, etc. However, when he has to tell us the exposition of how John Coffey ended up in prison, he gives Paul Edgecombe a report to read, and Paul has a viceral reaction to the report. It pushes the story forward, both through plot and character. And aside from the exposition, we don’t know everything about the world. We don’t know how Paul is still alive eighty years later. We don’t know why John Coffey is so odd. There are questions unanswered because Paul hasn’t got all the answers.
4. Clarity and Focus
This pertains to something touched in the first point. Think back to Sally. Why did we need to know about Sally in order to get Jane and Tom’s story out? We didn’t. This is a pitfall that happens to the best of writers when they’re world creating, especially in fantasy and sci-fi. We get so excited about creating a world that we have notes upon notes about what each character’s favorite food is, why they wear what they wear, what the correct protocol for exiting a room is on the planet of Zuba … none of this really matters if your thesis to your story has absolutely nothing to do with exiting a room. When giving us the exposition, keep it simple. And don’t only keep it simple, but have it guide us in the right direction.
Look at Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He begins his story by establishing that Huck is best friends with Tom, Huck is uncivilized, and a widow has taken Huck in and is attempting to civilize him. Why is it important that this is the exposition we get? Because the entirety of the story is about Huck teetering between the “uncivilized” and “civilized” way of doing things. There is the constant anxiety of doing right and going to Heaven and doing wrong and going to Hell. At the end, on the very last page, Twain’s still very focused on this thesis when he book-ends the story by having Huck run away and go west.
Exposition needs to be short, to the point, and involved with the plot and the reader’s discovery. It’s hard starting the engines to a story, but if done well, the rest of the book will stand on very strong legs.