Mastering the Four Modes of Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique gives us an opportunity to cover the most important large-scale issue every new writer needs to understand before setting out to write a novel. I’ll explain after we read our submission.

Appointment in Moscow

Chapter 1 – Covert Landing                   

Her code name was Mayflower and her mission was to crack the vault at the White House. It would have been a dangerous assignment for anyone, much less a neophyte with no formal training in espionage, but Mayflower’s handlers in Moscow had seen to it that she was briefed, photographed, fingerprinted, outfitted, inoculated, weighed, coiffed and for good measure given a palm reading by a politically reliable seer. All that aside, her late husband, Frederick, had been a career intelligence officer and she had picked up a good bit of tradecraft from him. Her confidence was high.  

Mayflower had arrived in New York yesterday from Russia on a passenger liner out of neutral Norway, a voyage fraught with storms, U-boat scares and truly awful food at the captain’s table. She felt better now as she stepped down off the train into Union Station in Washington, a place that brought back fond memories of when she and Freddie had lived in the capital. This was the fourth year of what the press was calling the World War, and the platform was packed with military police and railroad officials frantically trying to maintain order. People were running, shoving, shouting, arguing, pleading. Names were called out over the loudspeakers as babies squalled, kids tap-danced for pennies, a Four-Minute Man gave a victory speech, and a man wearing a dusty black suit and a dirty white clerical collar staggered through the crowd warning that the end was near.

“Bible, lady?” he said, breathing whisky fumes on her. “It’s 1918 already and Armageddon is coming. Read all about it. Only six bits.”

Mayflower took a Bible from the box under his arm and handed him a dollar bill. “Come with me, I need your help,” she told him. “And please hold the sermon. I’m a deist.”  

“Disciples of Christ, myself,” he said. “At your service, ma’am.”

She took his arm and moved him in front of her as a shield and they started walking. When she was a young woman locked up in a Catholic boarding school she had learned a number of ways to sneak out late at night. She intended to use that experience and make a discreet exit here out a service door. But her plan was interrupted by two uniformed cops who directed the incoming passengers into a gauntlet of detectives and government agents holding wanted fliers. They looked everybody over, comparing faces with photos.

***

JSB: I’m not going to micro-critique this page, because there is one huge lesson the writer must take away from this, and that is how to distinguish between, and artfully use, the four modes of fiction. Once that is understood, the writer must then practice, practice. Indeed, this is going to be your task the rest of your writing life (as it is for all of us!)

What do I mean by the four modes of fiction? Just this: there are four ways to convey “story stuff” to the reader: scene, summary, exposition, and backstory. You need to know what each of these does, and when to use them.

Let’s define them first.

Scene is the action on the page. In movie terms, it would be what you see onscreen, and what you hear in dialogue. It’s the show part of show, don’t tell.

Summary is a narrative recounting of action in order to transition to another scene, or to cover a long period that would be too cumbersome to show. Thus, it’s the tell part of show, don’t tell. (There are other “tells” in fiction, but that’s another topic).

Exposition is story information delivered to the reader. Such information is usually about a setting (description, history, social life) or a character (description, skills, education).

Backstory is history relating to the characters or plot, something that happened before the novel begins. A flashback is all backstory, but sometimes backstory bits are dropped in as part of the narrative.

So here’s today’s question: Which mode should the novelist specialize in, especially in the opening pages?

**Jeopardy music**

If you said scene, you move on to the championship round. Readers want scenes. They will tolerate the other modes so long as they are in service to the scenes.

With that in mind, let’s unpack this page.

Her code name was Mayflower and her mission was to crack the vault at the White House. It would have been a dangerous assignment for anyone, much less a neophyte with no formal training in espionage, but Mayflower’s handlers in Moscow had seen to it that she was briefed, photographed, fingerprinted, outfitted, inoculated, weighed, coiffed and for good measure given a palm reading by a politically reliable seer. All that aside, her late husband, Frederick, had been a career intelligence officer and she had picked up a good bit of tradecraft from him. Her confidence was high.  

[This paragraph is not a scene. It is all exposition and backstory. You, the author, are simply telling us these things. There is nothing happening “onscreen.” It is essential that you understand this. Here’s a tip: If you use the word had you are indicating backstory.]

Mayflower had arrived in New York yesterday from Russia on a passenger liner out of neutral Norway, a voyage fraught with storms, U-boat scares and truly awful food at the captain’s table.

[See that had? Backstory!]

She felt better now as she stepped down off the train into Union Station in Washington,

[This is the first bit of action, and the start of a scene]

a place that brought back fond memories of when she and Freddie had lived in the capital.

[Had! Backstory!]

This was the fourth year of what the press was calling the World War,

[Exposition. This is the author telling us the information.]

and the platform was packed with military police and railroad officials frantically trying to maintain order. People were running, shoving, shouting, arguing, pleading. Names were called out over the loudspeakers as babies squalled, kids tap-danced for pennies, a Four-Minute Man gave a victory speech, and a man wearing a dusty black suit and a dirty white clerical collar staggered through the crowd warning that the end was near.

[This is exposition in the form of description. Now, description is necessary to set a scene, but it’s more effective if you filter it through the point-of-view character. For example, have a running person bump into her. Have her ears hurt from the loudspeaker, etc.]

“Bible, lady?” he said, breathing whisky fumes on her. “It’s 1918 already and Armageddon is coming. Read all about it. Only six bits.”

[Scene! Dialogue between characters is always a scene. That’s why it’s perfectly acceptable to start a novel with dialogue. Indeed, this would be a good place to start this page. However, notice that exposition slipped into the dialogue. Would this guy really tell her it’s 1918? Everybody knows it’s 1918. Many new writers do this, especially in opening pages. They want the readers to know certain information, and try to “hide” it in the dialogue:

“Oh hello, Stan, my family doctor. Nice to see you.”

Here’s a simple solution. If, and only if, the exposition is essential, put it into more confrontational language:

“Bible, lady?”

“No, thank you.”

“Armageddon’s coming!”

“Excuse me.”

Mayflower tried to move past the man but he stepped in front of her.

“Save yourself,” he said. “The world ends before the year is out!”

“Tush.” She brushed past him, through the fog of his whiskey breath, and headed down the street.

“You’ll never see 1919!” he shouted. “And where will you spend eternity?”]

Mayflower took a Bible from the box under his arm and handed him a dollar bill. “Come with me, I need your help,” she told him. “And please hold the sermon. I’m a deist.”   

“Disciples of Christ, myself,” he said. “At your service, ma’am.”

She took his arm and moved him in front of her as a shield and they started walking.

[Scene. The expositional dialogue “I’m a deist” is at least in a bit of confrontation.]

When she was a young woman locked up in a Catholic boarding school she had learned a number of ways to sneak out late at night. 

[Had! Backstory.]

She intended to use that experience and make a discreet exit here out a service door. But her plan was interrupted by two uniformed cops who directed the incoming passengers into a gauntlet of detectives and government agents holding wanted fliers. They looked everybody over, comparing faces with photos.

[This is summary. You’re summarizing the action, not showing it to us on the page. Here’s the difference:

A cop put up his hand. “That’s far enough, lady.”

“Excuse me,” Mayflower said. “I’m not one of the—”

“We got orders,” the cop said.

He looked at some papers in his hand, one by one. Mayflower strained to see what they were. She caught a glimpse of face under big block lettering. A wanted poster?

The cop looked Mayflower in the eye. “Let’s see somethin’ with your name on it,” he said.]

From all this, draw the following lessons:

  1. Learn to identify in what mode of fiction you are writing at any given time. You can learn by analyzing other novels, page by page. Use four different colored highlighters. Teach yourself.
  2. Start your book with a scene.
  3. Filter exposition and description through the POV character. Here’s how Robert Crais opens Demolition Angel:

Charlie Riggio stared at the cardboard box sitting beside the Dumpster. It was a Jolly Green Giant box, with what appeared to be a crumpled brown paper bag sticking up through the top. The box was stamped Green Beans. Neither Riggio or the two uniformed officers with him approached closer than the corner of the strip mall there on Sunset Boulevard; they could see the box fine from where they were.

If you read on, you’ll see Crais majoring in scene (primarily through dialogue) with occasional exposition/description through Riggio’s eyes.

  1. Use backstory sparingly in the early pages. I have a little exercise I give new writers: three sentences of backstory in the first 2500 words, all together or spread out. Three paragraphs of backstory in the next 2500 words, all at once or spread out. This is not a “rule” but simply a way to practice and get disciplined about writing in scenes.

We are now open for comments.

11+

32 thoughts on “Mastering the Four Modes of Fiction

  1. Great lessons for Anon. There has to be a balance. My problem is I love scenes so much that I have to go back and put the mundane into summary and/or exposition. Or jump cuts – that was the most scary piece of writing I ever did when I was starting … “By Friday ….”

  2. What a great way to do a first page critique by including feedback into a broader lesson on writing. This is definitely a common issue with writers, aspiring or experienced.

    The first line is intended to set the stage with an intriguing premise but the rest of this intro is filled with writing that distances the reader from the character and any action implied in the writing. Your examples of the scene rewrittten puts the reader into the scene and the action. Thanks for your Sunday lesson, Jim.

    • Thanks, Jordan. It’s so crucial to being with a scene. Just yesterday I started a short story and looked up a few minutes later to see all this exposition. Sometimes that’s done in short stories to get us to the action.

      But I switched it to a scene, and was so much better. One of the big reasons why is that by withholding information you have the reader thinking “What’s going on?” which is a GOOD thing to think (so long as the question isn’t posed because things are confusing). More and more, I stress the idea of creating some soft “mysteries” in the opening pages. You don’t do that by larding on exposition.

  3. Great advice, Mr. Bell. I had a friend who wanted help writing his biography. He was stuck on the sixth chapter. But the first five were all telling summaries, at about a page each, covering the first 25 years of his life. I suggested he pick a few points and write them in scenes and he looked at me like I was crazy.
    He died before he finished another chapter.

    • Well that’s too bad! But you’re so right. When writing a memoir the temptation is to “tell” everything. Boring! But read, e.g., Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and you are put into a scene every bit as effective as a bestselling thriller.

      I recall what Steven Wright once said: “I’m writing an unauthorized autobiography.”

  4. There is nothing better than having something complex broken down into digestible chunks. Thanks, Jim. This was valuable to me as a teacher, as well.

    As for a first draft “writing lean,” I tend to do the opposite. I often am lured into exposition openings like description (just to get it out of my system, I think) and then I go back and look for that more enticing “scene” door. I used to get frustrated by this method but now understand it’s my own way. As long as I don’t get stuck in “exposition gear,” I’m okay.

    • I wonder, Kris, if it’s a difference between plotters and pantsers. I would think a plotter, knowing the story, might write leaner the first time, while a pantser “discovering” the story might tend to write more because that is HOW they discover. What do you think?

      • Huh…had never thought of it that way, but yes, I am definitely a pantser. And I sort of wander down the road finding my way, looking at the scenery, watching the clouds. I think about half of my books I have thrown out the first chapter (or two) and started over. It’s as if I wandered down a pretty path and realized it led nowhere so I had to go back and discover a truer road. But that initial walk still helped me find something essential about the story. Hard to articulate!

        • This makes so much sense. As a “plantser”, when I know what’s coming several chapters down the road, I tend to hurry up to get there, and the writing is “lean” because I can’t wait to arrive. But if my visions are sketchier, then I take a more meandering route, discovering as I go.

          Eventually, we all reach ‘the end.’

  5. Thanks for the refresher course on scene, summary, exposition, and backstory. Very helpful.

    As to plotters writing leaner, yes, I do that. I’ve been trying to learn to write my rough draft “hotter.” I thought you wrote in one of your books, “Write hot, edit cold,” or something to that effect. Maybe you meant something else.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Steve, when I say “write hot,” I mean with emotion and fire, not thinking about craft issues. When you actually write, write. It’s after you write that you revise cool, look things over, and learn.

      It’s like golf. When you play, you can’t be thinking of the 22 things to remember at point of impact. After the round, you think back and find areas to practice!

  6. Thanks. I appreciate the hands-on lesson. I’m about to embark on a new project & will keep this in mind.

  7. I love your first page critiques; we all learn from them.

    I was oddly intrigued by this first page despite all the exposition. I do agree on all the changes you suggested, though I doubt that’s how anon wants it to sound like. But hopefully, anon, you get some ideas from all this.

    I have a weird mix of writing lean and following the scene in my head to a t. Sometimes my descriptions are so nonexistent that the actions start feeling like they’re happening in outerspace, but then I follow the character step-by-step till I have to remind myself to throw in a summary line or scene break.

    • AZ, your comment prods me to add a comment: I like the this concept. It reminds me a bit of The Man From St. Petersburg by Ken Follett. Historical thriller/mystery set in WWI era. A great setting for intrigue.

  8. Jim,
    Just curious … can you think of an example in fiction where a true extended exposition opening worked well?

    • Kris, it seems to me that it “works” only if the writer has a style that enraptures all on its own. I think, therefore, it’s seen more in literary fiction. I think of the opening of Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey; and The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton. You get swept up in the language. Not so common in a thriller.

      • Went to my bookshelf here in Michigan (not many books here, most are in Florida) and the only expository opening I could find was “Gone With the Wind.” Mitchell opens with a long description of Scarlett (after telling us in the opening line that “she was not beautiful.” Then there is about four pages describing the indolent plantation lifestyle as personified by her suitors, the Tarleton twins.

        It works, in an old-fashioned, fusty sort of way. But you’re right, I can’t think of one example in thrillers or modern mysteries. Maybe sci-fi, where the story often depends on world-building in the opening moments?

        • Yes, perhaps sci-fi or fantasy can support an elegant exposition. But I still think it’s more effective to give us a character in motion as in, e.g., the beginning of Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara.

          • I was going ask a similar question regarding a good backstory/expository beginning. Then it occurred to me that you recently encouraged readers to take a gander at the opening of Mikey Spillane’s “One Lonely Night“ (which I promptly did and mostly enjoyed). Perhaps that’s a good example?

            I haven’t decided.

            Spillane lasts about a page before pushing his protagonist into an extended flashback, though the transition slide is sly: from an action (burying face in hands), through a hypothetical (I wonder what the judge would say), through a description (only a little judge), until we’re finally dipped into a memory that’s signposted by the inevitable “had“ (“He had looked at me with a loathing louder than words”).

            Does that work for long-time readers of the series who are familiar with the setup?

            For me, having just met the character, the narrative slowed down the longer the flashback continued. That said, the language sparkled and I was spell-bound for a while longer (because: hard-boiled detective fan), but it didn’t last. I read another two-three pages till he let Velda out of the car and twice looked in the mirror, and then I dropped it. One reflection (!) too many. Where’s the action?

            (I happily checked over the first chapter of a favourite, Chandler’s “Big Sleep“, and smiled when I realised Marlowe had made it through using 0/3 of his “allotted” info-dumps. Unless you count as exposition him wanting to help that stained-glass knight untie the lady with the conveniently placed hair. At the other extreme, there’s Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon“, which makes a fine use of the backstory prologue in the hard-boiled genre, admittedly of cyberpunk-flavour. And of course the prologue is an action scene.)

            As always, a stimulating post. Thank you!

  9. Ta-dump-bump! (Think vaudeville!) Oh, yeah, let’s hear the lion roar!

    In a world of writerly you shall and shall nots, JSB always rivets my attention.

    Once in scene, my ‘side trips’ – memory flashes, “seeing” what’s before my first person POV, rarely go half a graf. Yes, I write very spare, but by focusing on character, bring texture to the reader’s experience. Any exemplars you like in high fantasy, as opposed to epic like Terry Brooks?

  10. Wonderful critique! *applause*

    I hope our brave writer takes JSB’s advice to heart, because nearly every first page submitted here (or elsewhere) has similar problems. I find myself providing links to the same articles, like Paula Munier’s famous highlighter exercise (https://www.janefriedman.com/your-first-scene/). This stuff is so important to master. Once you know what to look for in openings, these kinds of problems leap off the page. Writing only lookseasy. Just like you (I hope) wouldn’t expect to perform with a symphony orchestra without taking music lessons, you shouldn’t expect to write a book without serious study. Learn the rules first before you try to break them. I know published authors who break the rules, but they have very large followings and can get away with it.

    I won’t give as many detailed comments as I normally do since this page needs some revision, but here are a few things that I noticed:

    “Mayflower had arrived in New York yesterday from Russia…”

    When writing in past tense, it would be better to say:

    Mayflower had arrived in New York from Russia the previous day. I apologize if this sounds picky.

    Also, our brave writer makes extensive use of the word was:

    “Her code name was Mayflower and her mission was to crack the vault at the White House…”
    “…that she was briefed”
    “Her confidence was high.”
    “what the press was calling”
    “…platform was packed…”
    “…end was near”
    “When she was a young woman…”
    “…plan was interrupted…”

    Read “Send up the (Red) Flag: Telling Words That Often Spell Trouble” on Janice Hardy’s blog. Let’s take one example from the list above:

    Her confidence was high…

    Instead, write something that shows the character taking an action that would indicate confidence. There are many times when using was is appropriate. However, this submission is filled with “telling” and not enough “showing” (action and dialogue).

    That’s enough for today. Best of luck, brave writer. In spite of the suggested revisions, I am curious about your story. I want to see you nail your opening. Start with a scene. Keep going! I would love to see your opening after you make your revisions.

  11. Late to the party and it’s been a long day, but… A Russian spy in Washington in 1918?? What?? Russia is out of WWI in 1918. It’s got its own internal problems, namely a revolution and a civil war. OK, it’s a little more complex than that, but it’s enough that the very premise of trained agent being sent to crack the vault at the White House (huh?) just doesn’t make sense to me. I might buy this premise in WWII, and certainly anytime after that war, but not in 1918.

    I appreciated your lesson.

Comments are closed.