Monday, January 21, 2013

When you've got some 'splainin' to do

by Meredith Cole

One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is to trust your reader. Readers are pretty smart people and usually can figure out what's going on. Or they at some point learn to trust you and hold on for awhile until you have a chance to explain a little. And if you have to ask if it's too much exposition, well, it probably is.

So I'm clearly on the side of cutting exposition. Especially in the first chapter. There's nothing that bores me more than a book that introduces every single character in the first chapter and gives you a snippet about them totally separate from the story. I never remember anyone later! To remember them I need context, and I need to know who is important. I certainly don't need their resume. "After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Bill went on to work at a law firm in Charlotte for several years..." I'm not interested in hiring either your protagonist or villain anytime soon, so let's just focus on what's important to the story, okay?

Here's what I do want to know. I want to know what's important. I want to know who is important. I want you to make me think I know who the killer is and then show me that I'm wrong. I want to be sucked into the book and racing to finish it before bedtime, not wondering how many pages are left and stifling a yawn.

But what if you really need to tell something? Make sure you have someone tell another character who really doesn't know. If not, your dialogue starts sounding like it belongs in a Soap Opera. You know what I mean. "As you know, your cousin who was married to my ex-wife and just got out of prison, has just claimed that my child is his."

Too much of the boring stuff and I stop trusting the writer to tell me an interesting tale and I throw the book across the room...

But wait... I shouldn't be talking about violence today. I just remembered it's Martin Luther King Day. Do you think he has a quote appropriate for the topics? (Quick pause as she Googles...) Ah-ha! I think this one is relevant:
Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.
So true! So just tell me about the first step, not the whole staircase and let me be surprised. I know you'll explain later.


NancyM said...

I started my 10th Blackbird Sisters mystery this month, and the whole first chapter is 'splaining the backstory. Agh!! I will cut, cut, cut, but for the moment it feels right to draft it that way. You're so right, Meredith!

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for stopping by Nancy! I have #9 of the Blackbird Sisters mysteries on my bedside table right now--can't wait to read it!

Alisa said...

Exactly! I love when I start a book and the author jumps right into the action/story. I feel like I'm a part of the world they've created and I learn about the characters as the story unfolds, organically, like life. I don't know the back story of every person I meet immediately but over time I learn more about them.
In the case of a series, some explanation is necessary but when it becomes a detailed outline of the previous books I have to skip ahead.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for stopping by Alisa! I love when the action starts right away, too! And you know you're in the hands of a good writer when you don't notice how they slip that backstory in here and there...