When Snoopy leaned over his typewriter and wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night,” he was writing exposition, the first point on Freytag’s Pyramid. (See my earlier blog entitled: “Incite Insights.”) In modern jargon it can be called the setup—where the writer traditionally introduces his characters and places them in the setting where the inciting incident takes place that kicks off the story. In theater it’s when the curtain goes up and the audience sees the set and perhaps some monologue or conversation between the maid and the butler that introduces the play.
Because of the visual focus of television and movies, the inclination there is to start with the inciting incident (kaboom!) and backtrack to educate the audience or in some way blend exposition into the inciting incident.
The opening scene might be a group of commandos in a plane over enemy territory being shot at by antiaircraft batteries as they apply blackface and their CO says, “We’ll gentlemen, I told you this was a risky venture.” At this point we might flashback to our protagonist trying to explain to his girlfriend why he volunteered for such a dangerous mission, or telling his best bud that since he and Margery broke up he had little to live for. The setting makes it obvious the story takes place in WWII. The verbal exchange might well bring the audience up to speed as to the who, what, where, and why. Suddenly we’re back in the plane just as it’s hit and the CO is killed and the paratroopers have to parachute out of the craft before it crashes—many miles short of their objective. Our protagonist steps in and helps get his fellow teammates launched. It becomes obvious that he will become the leader of this nefarious group of misfits—something made clear by the tidbits of exchanges between and among the actors.
Exposition is the key ingredient for introducing a story and its primary characters and to bring the reader/audience up to sufficient speed. It orients the reader to time and place and provides and feeds the foundational ingredients of the conflict necessary for fiction. Exposition has to hook the reader and pull him into the story. It’s where the writer makes promises that he later must keep as the story transitions through the other six elements of Freytag’s Pyramid: inciting incident, conflict/rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement (the wrap up).
The first few paragraphs of anything—a letter, a report, a news story, a novel—are critically important, and serve different purposes for each type of prose. In the ever-late letter home, the first paragraph begins with an apology to mom for not writing sooner and a promise to do better. The real intent—“I need more money”—might be concealed until page three.
A report’s first paragraph typically alerts the reader to what is going to be addressed in the report and frequently tells the conclusion or findings that will be discussed and explained. A news story’s first paragraph, called the leed, is loaded with as much who, what, when, where, and why factoids as can be shoved into a sentence or two. Elegance takes the back seat to the delivery of information and facts.
For the short story, the first graphs are not unlike those of a news story. They give the readers information that encourages them to read on. The breadth and depth of a short story by its very nature is narrower in scope than a novel, so the writer can’t be too obtuse in her exposition or she risks having to invest valuable words needed to tell the story to un-confuse the reader. If you lose the reader by the end of the first few graphs, odds are against you that you’ll have another chance to get them back.
This isn’t to say that a novelist can afford to wander around the literary countryside before getting down to the telling of story. Readers expect forward movement starting with paragraph one, even sentence one, in all things fiction. The first few paragraphs of a novel need to have the report of a starter’s pistol. They must live up to the “hype” of the title and cover that encourage the browser to pick up the book and take a look in the first place. The importance of the leed to a news story pales in comparison to the investment a writer makes in the first paragraphs of a novel—a few hours versus sometimes years of effort. The cost of losing the reader of a news story is miniscule if a reader turns the newspaper page compared to when a potential buyer sets the novel back down and moves onto somebody else’s. Ouch!
In journalism school, students spend a great deal of time learning about and practicing writing leeds. They are formulaic and rule driven. But were the opening sentences and paragraphs of exposition of your novel to come across as formulaic, you can likely kiss the reader goodbye. The novelist needs to hook the readers and make them want to find out what happens next, and next, and next. Whatever does that must be fascinatingly unique and linked to the story and its characters. The beginning paragraphs of a novel must be like the Frito Lay potato chip TV ad from the 1980s, when Bert Lahr, dressed as the devil, teases viewers with “Bet you can’t eat just one.”
In the scheme of things, exposition might not be considered the most important element of a novel, but it beats whatever comes second. Without it, the rest of the effort easily goes for naught.
However, of all the topics of writing that float about the ether, articles and essays on exposition are perhaps the rarest. That’s because it’s the one Freytag element so esoteric that any attempt to decipher rules might not afford general application. Here are few general “rules” that I’ve tried to discern:
1) If your initial efforts fail to hook, keep trying until one does. The effort will likely make you feel like the robin teetering on the edge of the nest looking over at his mother: “Whad’ya mean just flap my wings?” Fortunately, there have been no known fatalities from a literary fall.
2) Write the ad copy to sell your book—not the blurb in the local TV guide, but a powerful paragraph that captures the essence of your efforts. You can’t write powerful exposition if you don’t know what your story/book is really about. What would the poster about your book hanging on the bookstore wall say? Having to describe what your novel/story is about can point you in the direction of how it should begin. Try to be concise, say no more than 100 words. That makes you weigh the value of each word and the words in your exposition need to carry a lot of weight.
3) Cute and clever probably won’t work so don’t invest time in thinking they will.
4) Fully answer this question: Why should I want to read this book? (Note: That’s not the same as what the book is about; it’s about who your readers are and what interests them and how you have addressed those interests. In other words, it requires that you know your audience.)
5) What makes your story unique or different from the other stuff in the same genre/category already in the market?
6)What would your target audience want to see/hear about your main character? What is it about him or her that would entice potential readers to want to read his or her story? But remember, in his “Hills Like White Elephants,” Hemingway described his female character with, “she had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” Does that mean there’s a rule about less is more? The definitive answer to that question is: “Maybe. Maybe not.”
As I’ve previously written, story ideas arrive closer to the middle than the beginning of Freytag’s Pyramid. We write beginnings to make sense of our middles. The writing process is dynamic, and an idea might change or morph into something else as the effort progresses. But ultimately, the beginning needs to set your story’s focus. It does for the writer what it should do for the reader.
Before you address the above questions, you would probably be best advised to go to the library and/or bookstore and read the titles, cover blurbs, and the first page or two of as many novels as you can. Treat this not as an exercise in endurance, but an effort to learn how to analyze what you read: Do the first paragraphs pique your interest and make you want to read more? If so, why? If not, why? What intentions or goals of the writer can you deduce? If you think they didn’t succeed, write a memo to the author in which you offer your sage insight and advice. If they did, write a note of praise.
By comparison, an Internet browser (the person, not the interface) invests but a few seconds before deciding whether to look at or leave a website. So how long does it take you to glance at a book’s cover, peek inside, read the first few graphs in a bookstore? Did some books have greater appeal that made you linger longer? To what do you attribute that? Don’t just think in terms of the first few graphs. It can also be a matter of staging by the bookstore. Before your first few paragraphs can have an impact, the cover needs to lure the potential readers to pick up your book and look inside. The marketing messages have to tweak their interest. But when they look at the first lines of copy under “Chapter One” those words had better keep the promises intimated by all the other stuff that enticed them to pick up the book and open the cover in the first place.
Admittedly, this investment of time doesn’t take into consideration the time someone might have spent reading reviews and/or listening to reports of friends. But a substantial majority of bookstores visitors, both physical and digital, come with no specific intention other than to browse. Likely the browser has a limited range of interests and that’s why bookstore operators stack books on tables by genre, and, yours has to stand out. That’s where the competition for eyes and minds reside and focus.
Here’s the worst thing: a reader picks up the book, looks at the cover, reads the blurbs, and then decides to take a look inside. Your two killer initial paragraphs of prose go for naught, however, if disappointing ones immediately follow. The first paragraphs must grab, the next several have to set the hook. They serve the purpose to entice the reader. Once enticed, the reader will look a bit further, might even flip through a few chapters to see if the style that caught his eye holds it. The first few paragraphs make promises that the rest of the book needs to deliver on.
So how might you find guidance on how to write effective expositional paragraphs? Few authors have taken on the topic. In 1993, Donald Newlove put together a compendium of 250 great novel openings in his First Paragraphs, but because each is uniquely linked to the content of individual novels they offer little in the way of rules, and when somebody ventures forth to make up a few rules they are frequently, and quickly, proven wrong. My favorite example is E. L. Doctorow. He warned would-be writers away from opening a novel with references to weather—sorry Snoopy—then proceeded to write a best seller that did just that.
“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
Chandler’s paragraph actually is a good example of how to approach any effort to analyze what makes for great exposition. Had Chandler extended his opening by another few sentences, he might well have pushed his luck a little too far. Note how the opening finishes with his “sock-in-the-jaw” sentences. One discloses that our narrator is a private eye and the other tells us there’s four million bucks involved. In fact, what happens if we were to use those final three sentences as the first paragraph? Probably would have worked. But we need a spiffily dressed PI to gain access to the $4 million mystery and contrast him from the society with which he was about to get involved, for which it was important to be well dressed and sober.
In paragraph two, Chandler’s private dick enters the main hallway of the two-story “Sternwood place.” This intimates wealth and supports the need to dress for the occasion and be on one’s best behavior. Chandler takes us out of the world of the hoi palloi and into the world of the hoity-toity, a powerful invite back in 1939 when the book originally came out. Does that mean a rule of exposition should include leaving subtle hints? Maybe. Depends on the story . . . and the writer’s style.
A little more analysis is needed perhaps. The technique Chandler employed might be useful as you consider the options for luring readers into your own story. Chandler hooks us by sharing details and facts about his narrator’s attire, which provide insight into the thinking of this nattily dressed PI. He’s not quite a fish out of water, but he’s about to swim into the deeper end of the pool where there’s caviar and champagne and money.
If you take another read of Chandler’s opening you should now be able to pickup on its characterization and contrast! That’s a lesson worth knowing, because the only things more important than your first few paragraphs are the rest of them.