A writing teacher once told the class, “Get off the front porch.” What she meant by that was to stop explaining the who, what, why, and get to the story. As every writer knows, this can be tricky. You have to ground your reader. You have to let them know where they are. But you don’t want them to get lost in nothing but details. Or bore them to death, either. You have a story to tell. So get off the front porch and tell it.
Naturally, I forgot the teacher’s advice. Again. In rereading the first draft of The Drop Dead Temple of Doom, Book 8 of the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, I couldn’t believe how much backstory and explanation I’d put in. I even had the effrontery to open the book with three pages of a case Lee, the protagonist, just finished solving.
Really, Heather? The reader is interested in three pages of gobbledygook about a case that has nothing to do with the ongoing story? I don’t think so. What I was trying to get across was the protagonist had had a bad three weeks and was exhausted. All she needed in her life was to go traipsing off to the Guatemalan jungle.
Okay, why didn’t I just cut out all the junk and say that? Because sometimes we writers get caught up in how much exposition is enough and what is too much. That’s why I say they’re like prunes. Are five enough? Are six too many? It’s what writers grapple with continually. Expositions, not necessarily prunes.
Opening paragraphs set up the story, too. Or should. That’s where we make our contract with the reader. They are going to know right then and there what kind of a read they will have. Naturally, the writer has to live up to that contract. We can’t promise them an easy, breezy cozy with a happy ending and then hand a child or the family dog off to an axe murderer never to be seen again. A writer like Ruth Rendell has a different kind of contract. When she writes, “It reminded Burden of a drowned face he had once seen on a mortuary slab. They put the glasses back on the spongy nose to help the girl who had come to identify him” we know right where we’re going.
Within the first couple of paragraphs of my latest wannabe book I wrote, “The most vengeful I get is wanting CEO and mother, Lila Hamilton-Alvarez, to have the frizzies for just one minute of her life. Then I’d hand her some anti-frizz conditioner saying, welcome to my world.” These lines may stay or they may not. This is after all, only a draft. But it certainly does set up what kind of read follows. Within the first few opening paragraphs, the reader’s appetite is whetted for what’s going to come, how it’s going to come, and how much they are going to love it. Heady stuff.
This is not only about justifying the $ they spent to buy the book (I could have used more dollar signs, but my books are on the cheap side). Mainly, it’s because we want them to keep on reading. Not just this book, but all our books. And in order to do that, we have to make things clear, bring the reader to the starting point, but get on with the story.
After I reread the beginning of Drop Dead Temple, I wound up taking over half out of the first three chapters, in particular, the opening pages. I realized — again — it needs to start with the current problem and just a hint of why we are where we are. I am also in the process of taking out much of the backstories of my continuing characters. I will, of course, be sneaking some back in further on down the line. This is not only for newbies or because I try to make each book of a series a standalone, but as reminders to my ongoing readership. But this is after the story is moving, the reader is invested, and when they want to know more. Hopefully, after fourteen books I will know what I need to share and when I need to do it. But there are no guarantees. It changes with every book.
It’s a tricky bit of business, this exposition stuff. Please pass the prunes.