One of the most common questions novelists have is how to improve your first chapter. And one of the biggest pitfalls in the opening pages of a novel or memoir is exposition. Most exposition comes in the form of explanation or back story—often a dump of information (aka an “info dump”) that, though intended to help readers understand the story, actually keeps them from the story you’re trying to tell.
That’s why we focused the first part of this series on beginning instead with action—because scene and story are often the opposite of exposition.
But not all exposition is as obvious as an info-dump. In my time as a book editor, I’ve discovered that some exposition is subtler and harder to find. For that reason, it’s possible to run into the trap of exposition even when you do start with action—because some action is exposition in disguise.
So what is this hidden exposition and how do we find it? In the second part of our four-part series on nailing the opening pages, we’re going to determine exactly that.
[Missed the first article in this series? Click here to get caught up!]
Is It Structural Exposition?
Recently, I edited a young adult fantasy novel that focused on scenes and action from the very start. The first scene had the protagonist in her garden in the aftermath of an uncomfortable confrontation with her parents. Later scenes had her interacting with a fairy and exploring a fantasy world.
That sounds exciting. Yet in execution, it was actually exposition.
How is that possible? Well, the answer is in what story the novel actually meant to tell. The primary action focused on the protagonist’s interactions with a strange new arrival while struggling with a dangerous enemy. But these latter characters weren’t introduced until more than 150 pages into the manuscript. That means that our inciting incident—the plot beat that sets into motion the chain of cause and effect we call rising action—didn’t come until very late.
Nothing before that was actually the story. It was only setup for the story. There was no developing conflict or building narrative. So in terms of narrative function, all of this was exposition—just exposition in the form of scenes.
It’s important to consider how this happened. The author from the start had a story she wanted to tell—but she also wanted to explain how the status quo with which we begin came to be. So she started writing backwards, adding more and more information before the story. This new content, though, was never incorporated into the narrative structure. The inciting incident never changed. We never established developing narrative on the basis of cause and effect. We simply received more information.
As a book editor, I’ve seen this before. I worked with another talented author a few years ago who wrote a romance in which the romantic pairing doesn’t even meet until after page 70. The reason was exactly the same: In setting up the status quo with which the story begins, she wrote backwards and added numerous chapters and scenes. The author was savvy enough to avoid obvious exposition, but because the new action preceded the obvious inciting incident, it still read in the end as exposition.
So how do we avoid this sort of hidden exposition? The key is remembering what a story really is:
- A story begins with an inciting incident that disrupts a character’s status quo.
- Beginning with that inciting incident, a story is built upon cause and effect, each plot beat the effect of what precedes it and the cause of what follows.
- This causation defines rising action, which encompasses the majority of a narrative developing toward a climax.
If the action you’re writing precedes the chain of cause and effect that develops plot and conflict—and if it carries on for multiple chapters—then there’s a pretty good chance it’s actually exposition.
And remember as well: Your status quo is a starting point. Though of course it depends on the story, often it’s not necessary to go in-depth on how the status quo came to be.
Is It Character Exposition?
There’s another form of hidden exposition that is less severe, but also more common.
When introducing characters for the first time, authors often describe the character—not only in terms of physical appearance, but also characteristics, personality, and perhaps history with our protagonist. While this is all very useful information, it also often precedes the action of the scene in which they’ve appeared. Frequently this description is followed immediately by action or dialogue—action or dialogue that reads as redundant because it shows the same information that has just been told.
Of course, we know that it’s preferable to show versus tell. Show, don’t tell is not only a fundamental principle of writing, but also central to the concept of beginning with action rather than exposition. But the introduction of new characters is one of the most frequent ways in which we’re inclined to show and tell—or perhaps tell and show, as telling often comes first. And while narration is a useful tool in explaining character, action and dialogue—that is, scenes—are fantastic at revealing character.
Characters are defined best by the choices they make and the things they say and do.
So let the scene reveal the character. Use narration to fill in the contextual gaps. Some exposition will always be necessary, but as long as it supports rather than supplants the action—as long as we keep moving forward into narrative—we’re not actually bogging the manuscript down in exposition.
It’s All About Momentum
Effective opening pages are about momentum. When you introduce a character through narration, then essentially repeat the narration through action, the redundancy stalls momentum. If you include pages and chapters of action before we reach even the start of the story, that too stalls momentum. Even if readers aren’t confronted by a block of expository text, if they’re being kept from the story you mean to tell, then they will stop reading.
So show your characters—and take the time to identify your inciting incident as well. If you’re several chapters in and you aren’t there yet, and if you’re still telling readers about the characters who occupy your world, you may have some hidden exposition to resolve.
Have you encountered examples of exposition disrupting the momentum of a story? Let us know in the comments below!
And don’t miss the next installment in this series, where I’ll explore what makes a truly great first sentence.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.