I was caught off guard at the last meeting of the writers’ group that gets together regularly in a conference room in our public library. We were talking about an excerpt from a mystery novel called Murder in Silk that member Carol Corley had submitted.
Karen White had been struck by a sentence in Carol’s novel: “It was only a little after 6 pm., but it was already dark.” It was something I hadn’t noticed until Karen pointed it out: You know not only the time of day, but the time of year. In the warmer months, it gets dark much later.
That’s good exposition – a writing issue that befuddles even bestselling authors. For a novel to make sense, readers need to know what’s going on – the basic Who, What, When, Where, and Why of a story. But if you focus all your attention on the 5 W’s, as they’re called, your story never gets moving. Here’s an example of what not to do:
Joe and Jane are both high-school sophomores. They’ve been dating secretly because Jane’s parents are old-fashioned and strict, and they think she’s too young to date. Lately there’s been a complication because Joe is starting to get interested in Becky, a transfer student who’s enrolled in his biology class.
The problem with this paragraph is that it’s all background – we still haven’t seen Joe and Jane moving forward with their story.
Good writers (like Carol) know how to let readers in on what’s going on without pausing the story. And so, instead of an additional sentence telling us “It was a December evening,” Carol wrote that it was “already dark” at 6 pm. And there’s more: That already underlines the feeling that things are moving quickly – exactly the feeling you want in a mystery novel.
How do you learn how to do exposition? You can read a book about fiction writing, sign up for a workshop or class, or look for resources online. Many writers (including me) think the best approach is to study how effective writers do it. Pull your favorite novels off the shelf, turn to the first page, and see how the authors pulled it off. In fact that’s great advice for any writer. Daniel James Brand, author of the bestselling Boys in the Boat, says he learned tons by studying Lauren Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. (Here’s a link to a post about Boys in the Boat and Seabiscuit.)
If all of this sounds a little overwhelming, take a deep breath and read on. The big point I want to make is that writing doesn’t just happen: The best authors plan, work, and rework their material. If you’re a masterful writer, much of that labor is done unconsciously. To get to that stage, though, you have to spend many hours wrestling with your material. The good news is that it’s often fun and exhilarating.
So – don’t be put off by that big, abstract word “exposition.” Start writing and see where the words take you. Most important, keep thinking about your readers. Who are they? How are they reacting? What can you do to keep your story moving? You’re on your way – and so is your story.