First Page Critique: Watch That Exposition

James Scott Bell

Here is a first page that has been submitted to TKZ for critique. My comments on the other side:
Ride the Lightning
I always knew my law degree would come in handy. I’d been promoted from bartender to manager of the strip club outside of Biloxi in less than three months. It hadn’t hurt that the owner had walked in on my old boss auditioning a dancer on the couch in his office. The books were a mess, both sets. It turned out the staff wasn’t all he’d been tapping.
No one would ever find the skim I’d set up. My dad had taught his only daughter well. The owner didn’t have a problem with it because this time it all benefited him. As long as I kept the cash flowing, he gave me free rein to run The Lightning Lounge as I saw fit.
A definite management challenge cluttered my desk. I had to arrange the biggest bash in county history. The sheriff had commandeered the club for a party celebrating the execution of Billy Ray Draper. The former police officer, convicted of killing his wife, a Lightning Lounge dancer, was scheduled to get the stick in six weeks. The club owner told me to pull out all the stops and that the sky was the limit. 
I riffled through my spreadsheets and made notes. The new sound system was online and the upgraded flooring gleamed and reflected the motion sensor lights. One huge problem remained. No matter how I shuffled the schedule, I didn’t have enough waitresses and dancers to man the tables and the poles for the multi-day party. I’d placed ads and been interviewing, but the pickings were slim. 
A knock at my office door interrupted my musing. Hopefully, part of the solution had just arrived. 
“Come in.”  
She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets. Her grip was strong and sure. This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
The first 3/4 of this page is all backstory, exposition and set-up. It’s a common problem because writers think readers have to know certain information before the story can begin.
They don’t.
Remember: Act first, explain later. Readers connect with characters in motion. They don’t connect with exposition.
If you give readers an actual scene, with a disturbance thrown in, they will wait a long time before you need to explain anything to them.
Not only that, they don’t need all your explanations at once, or in narrative form. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said that all the information a reader needs can be given in dialogue, and he’s not far wrong. 
So always start with something happening in the present moment. Later, if you decide you want to be stylish or poetic in the first paragraphs, that’s up to you. Tremble when you do, though, and hear my voice in your head. Act first, explain later.
I wrote not long ago about these “tar pits” of fiction. Have another look at that post.
Here’s a self-test. Check your opening pages for use of the word had and its derivatives. That’s a dead giveaway that you’re not in the present moment.
had walked    
he’d been tapping   
My dad had taught
The Sheriff had
That’s past tense. You don’t want to open with the past. Oh, but doesn’t To Kill a Mockingbird open that way? If you can write like Harper Lee and you want to go literary, have at it. But I still recommend the action way, even for literary types who would like to win a National Book Award before they die.
Look at your opening pages until you come to the place where an actual scene is happening. Or try the Chapter 2 Switcheroo, where you toss out Chapter 1 and make Chapter 2 the new beginning. That often works wonders.
Anyway, I’d start this novel here:
She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets. Her grip was strong and sure. This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
That’s a voice I like. I want more of it. And a scene is underway. I would want to read on from here.

A couple of suggestions. Always check your pop culture references to make sure they’re not too dated. I hope I’m not insulting Dolly Parton, but is she that well-known anymore to people under 40? I’ve been editing my WIP and saw that I’d referenced a hit song from the 80s. Oops. I did a little research and found a hit song from 2005 that worked much better.
Even so, be selective with these things, because in a few years they may become terribly awkward. How about all those books published before 1995 that used favorable O. J. Simpson references?
Now to some micro-editing:
She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
Here is where our good friends Show, don’t tell and Don’t gild the lily come in. That first clause is a tell. And it is not necessary, because the rest of the line does the work and does it well:
The horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
Isn’t that crisper? You want that standing alone, not fuzzed up with a tell before or after. I see this all the time. Things like: I ran up the hill. My lungs were on fire. Sweat flopped off my forehead. I was dog tired.
That last sentence adds nothing. Worse, it takes something away from the immediate experience by the reader. It’s a little “speed bump.” Too many of these and the ride is ruined.
Let’s look at this sentence now:
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets.
I like the use of sight and sound here. But a tiny speed bump as I was wondering how jangly bracelets were dripping from her hand. It’s not too bad because know what the author meant to convey. Still, I’d consider making it clearer. Something like:
Bracelets jangled as she stretched out a hand studded with rings.
This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
I don’t know how or why someone would wrestle a tray of beer mugs. I assume the author means some kind of carrying of heavy trays. But carrying is not wrestling.
In my own writing, the things I always find during revision are metaphors and word pictures that don’t quite make it. That’s when I hunker down and try to figure out a way to make them work or simply come up with something else.
I advise the writer to tweak this one, and also to brainstorm a few other word pictures. Then choose the one that works best.
All that being said, I am interested in this character who slid into the room in stilettos! And I’d love to see the next few lines be dialogue that begin to give us a picture of the narrator and where she works, and so on.
Thanks to the author for submitting this piece.
Other comments? 

19 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Watch That Exposition

  1. I don’t mind ‘wrestle’. It forms a picture in my head of a waitress managing a full tray of drinks, and it certainly wouldn’t stop me reading.

    All other suggestions are spot on, especially the opening. Start with the stilettos, that character alone would keep me reading. Weave in the MC being female, “woman to woman assessment” type thing, and they have a discussion about the reason for needing to hire more waitresses, and there you have your back story without telling. As for MC skimming, that interesting little tidbit could wait for a little later.

    I’d read it, I hope I get the chance.

  2. A pair o interesting characters waiting for something to happen, and a good example of the “show, don’t tell” problem. As a reader I’d be willing to give them a little time to develop the story because they and the milieu are good. But like you say, action is always better.
    I am doubtful about a sheriff who throws a multi-day party at a strip club to celebrate an execution – especially the execution of one of his own, a deputy who had murdered someone. That doesn’t match any law officer I’ve ever known. It’s the sort of plot device that seems to be taken more from movies than real life and would definitely keep me from buying into the premise.
    But this person can write, and that’s a fact. She/he just needs to focus on action instead of words.

  3. Oh, in regards to “topical” references – There’s little more dated than a topical reference five years down the road, unless you’re trying to anchor a scene in an era. I worked with a writer whose references were mostly from the ’80s, except when he referred to characters from The Flintstones (’60s) and once tried to work in a reference to The Bickersons, a radio serial that last aired in 1951. And he was younger than I am! Young readers today are mostly unaware of John Wayne (seems impossible, doesn’t it?) let alone Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, or any of a thousand “immortal” names, now gone. “Ozymandias,” anybody?

  4. I liked the dripping rings and jangly bracelets. She’s taking over the room in a fanfare of this stuff. Was there big eat hair, too? I swear their was. There’s a suggestion (more than that) of all sorts of stuff the mind fills in. Yup. She’s the disturbance all right.

  5. I wanna know about this pair as well. Especially after some revision. Starting where Mr. Bell suggested really yanked me in…like a dog on a leash. “Come on, darlin’. There’s a story waiting for you in here. Promise you’ll love it. There’s a good girl.” She-hermit aka Wren

  6. Boy oh boy oh boy…
    About ten years ago, I wrote what I thought was a light “chick-lit” mystery and my agent could not sell it anywhere. (This was when l was well into my established career with a bestselling series). We got nice rejections. I was flummoxed…what was I doing wrong? It was witty, it had an engaging heroine, it had sex.

    A couple months ago during a writing lull, I pulled out the manuscript and looked it over, thinking, well, maybe I can self-pub this.

    Oh my god…the fatal flaw flapped me firmly in the formerly flummoxed face. My first SIX PAGES were exposition backstory. Good grief. So, James is so very dead-on correct here. Make something happen THEN go back and explain how we got there.

    General comments: In the opening backstory setup, I can’t figure out what is going on. I thought there was some kind of financial con happening, maybe embezzlement? But then I get the idea that the heroine (not sure she is but I’m guessing) is planning a private cop party. But then I hit this line:

    The sheriff had commandeered the club for a party celebrating the execution of Billy Ray Draper. The former police officer, convicted of killing his wife, a Lightning Lounge dancer, was scheduled to get the stick in six weeks.

    Is Billy the ex-cop? And he’s getting executed soon? (Is that what “the stick” is?) If so, why are fellow cops gathering to celebrate this? As James said, speed bumps…

    And ditto on the Dolly reference. It made me assume immediately that the heroine is maybe 50ish or older? And I am pretty sure that’s not what the writer intends. Isn’t big hair kinda out with singers these days? (as you can see, I am pop-culture challenged.)

    All this said, I see some real potential in this submission. With a little work, there’s a nice voice emerging (I like the heroine but need better focus). And the setup is sort of a cool riff on “gorgeous blonde walks into the PI’s pebbled-glass office” trope. Almost like the writer is TRYING to turn that old cliche on its head. Which could be very clever since the heroine’s a woman and the “office” is a strip club.

  7. I’m intrigued and would definitely read on.
    There is a distinctive voice in this submission. Also an interesting setting/character role. Huge positives imo.

    I think the first page challenge pushes the writer to show a lot of what the story holds. This encourages exposition as it generally requires fewer words to convey more story. I suspect full draft likely had less expo on the first page.

    I like the altered beginning JSB suggested. (I’d love to have JSB and the TKZ crew critique my writing every day. Can that be arranged?). These exercises are very instructional.

    Regarding “Ride the Lightning” (great title) I had a couple of questions:
    1) “I always knew my law degree would come in handy.” Opening line but not sure this section showed how the degree was valuable?
    2) “The owner didn’t have a problem with it because this time it all benefited him.” This, I believe, refers to her “skim” – how would this benefit the owner or be tolerated?
    3) “I had to arrange the biggest bash in county history.” issues as others noted. Sheriff celebrating execution in strip club? Also it being the biggest celebration in county history? this party required more strippers? Who is attending? This did not feel credible to me.
    4)”This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy.” My question with this was that I was not clear if this stilletto- shoed character was supposed to represent a standout stripper talent or if she was “waitress material”. “Wrestle trays” gave me the image of sturdy German gals serving Oktoberfest whereas up to that point I was picturing “knockout” stripper talent (?).
    Just what hit me. hopefully of some use.

    I like the bones of what’s here .

  8. Sorry. I have to disagree with all of this column. Exposition and backstory–even boring backstory–sometimes sets a great point to begin story telling.

    I would point to our late friend, the late Stieg Larsson, who wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. and the sequels, among other stories.

    In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo novel, the story starts, not in the minutes after the trial in which Blomkvvist has been found guilty of libel. We see all he risked to do the story on the Wennerström, Group, and we see what he thought he have to do to make his expose work. And when it doesn’t we see what a failure he is. Pages and pages of exposition.

    Both the USA and the Swedish movie versions start right after the trial. And we do not get the sense of failure that Blomkvist is and how much of it he brought on himself.

    It’s true that there are different values in American and European story telling. But The Girls With The Dragon Tattoo shows us what a true hero that Lisbeth is, and how far Blomvkvist has to rise out of his own failings.

    In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the exposition is what I think makes the story. Without it, we don’t have a sense of what was going on with, at the end of the story, Lisbeth takes yet another huge risk to herself (she could have gone to prison for fraud and robbery) in order to help expose the criminality of Von Wennerström, and thus salvage Blomkvist’s reputation and his expose. We would not know how much of a risk Lisbeth took to expose the fraud that the Wennerström Group heaped upon Sweden since it was the government that put up the money the Group used to manipulate it’s fraud and criminality.

    And it’s the exposition that gives us the sense of achievement and accomplishment of the two leads, in addition to their solving the murders.

  9. . This story seems very familiar to me. Like I’ve read it elsewhere. Other than that, I liked James opening paragraph better

  10. I agree with the backstory issue. Drop it and it reads much smoother.

    Also, I find it hard to believe a sheriff would “commandeer” a strip club. In this day and age of lawsuits for sexual harassment over Playboy photos, I can’t imagine a strip club would be a good idea for any boss. And celebrating an execution is not a very good idea. Think of that hitting CNN. Just something to reflect on.

  11. Great critique – just what I needed to hear. I’m certain I have too much backstory in the opening paragraph of my current WIP. I actually like the phrase “wrestle trays of beer mugs,” and JSB’s suggestion “The horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it” creates a vivid image in my mind.

    Back to the editing…

  12. I’ll fess up and own this and thank TKZ for the critique and comments. After coming back to this book after two months of personal turmoil, it felt frumpy and stale, and I couldn’t isolate what was bothering me.

    However, like standing in front of a mirror with a new outfit that doesn’t work and having someone wander by and mutter, “lose the belt,” fresh eyes were what I needed.

    This is the second book in the Juliana Martin series, the follow-up to Devil’s Deal and it stymied me in several places.

    I would LOVE to have one of the TKZ series writers or perhaps a Sunday sermon from Dr. Bell on how to approach the second book in a series.

    Subsequent books have the benefit of well-established character arcs and storyworlds. You know what to expect. However, book number 2 has to both build beyond the origin story in book 1 for the returning readers and act as a stand-alone for new folks. I doubt too many enter a series much after book 3.

    How Juliana ends up in Biloxi is covered in book 1 and not relevant to the opening. She is a different person now and what is about to go down has nothing to do with what chased her out of Dallas.

    Y’all nailed that the blonde is trouble. I will say that by page 17 of the manuscript, Juliana, wearing nothing but our recurring hero’s t-shirt, has the blonde in the sights of her shotgun asking her what the hell is going on. By the end of the first act, Juliana is going to regret ever meeting her.

    As soon as I read your comments, I saw some fixes that can be done quick and easy without disturbing what comes next. I also saw a huge missed opportunity to foreshadow the big crime (each book in this series has two interlocking crimes, one personal, one more global.)

    As always, the comments gave great insight as well. It comes out very quickly that the sheriff has very good reasons to celebrate the execution of the ex-city-cop Draper. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would find it off-putting. Easy clip, don’t reveal that Draper is a cop right now. Not needed. It is only necessary to know that Juliana is hiring faster than usual with little regards to references because she has to get ready for this massive party.

    A few other comments showed me easy little fixes as well.

    But c’mon y’all, Dolly? My 22-year-old adopted baby bro worships her and she was voted one of the top live country acts for 2014. Like Springsteen, she’s timeless. ; ) [But the comments dove-tailed in nicely with what my best friend said about some song lyrics in a subsequent chapter. Music is intensely personal and should be incorporated carefully and at your own risk.]

    The rest of the series is outlined. Book 3 opens with our hero walking into an argument between Juliana and her mother arguing about her “stopping all this camper nonsense” and moving back to Houston. Is that dangerous enough?

    Thanks again for the time and attention. TKZ is hands-down one of the best places to hang out at on the web.


  13. Another speed bump: waitresses and dancers can’t MAN the tables. (Unless it’s a gay club.) Change “man” to “work” or something similar.

    Overall, though, I like the narrator’s voice. She sounds fun. I want to spend more time with her.

Comments are closed.