First Page Critique: Watch That Exposition

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



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.
Amateur.
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.
I’d    
hadn’t    
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.
Finally:
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? 
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Avoiding the Tar Pits of Fiction

@jamesscottbell

Nothing slows down a novel quite like large mounds of exposition and backstory. Expositionis material the author puts on the page to explain context. Backstory is story material that happened in the past but for some authorial reason is dropped in the present. When this kind of material appears in the middle of a scene it can slow the pace, sort of like a Mastodon trying to escape a hungry caveman by way of the tar pits. 
Now, let me be clear that not all exposition and backstory is bad. In fact, properly handled, it’s tremendously helpful for bonding reader with character. But if it’s plopped down in large doses, and without a strategy in mind, it becomes a pool of hot goo where the story gets pitifully stuck.
Here is how to handle exposition and backstory, especially at the beginning.
First, ask yourself is it necessary at all? Quite often the writer has all this story info in his head and thinks the reader has to know most of it to understand what’s going on. Not so! Readers get into story by way of characters facing challenge, conflict, change or trouble. If you give them that, they will wait a LONG TIME before wanting to know more whys and wherefores.
You can do yourself a favor by highlighting the exposition and backstory in your opening chapters and then cutting all of it. Make a copy of the material. Look it over. Then dribble in only what is necessary. And I do mean necessary. Be ruthless in deciding what a reader has to know, as opposed to what you think they have to know.
Second, put a lot of this material in dialogue. Dialogue is your best friend. Make sure there is some form of tension or conflict in the dialogue, even if it is simply one character feeling fearful or nervous. Arguments are especially good for exposition and backstory. Recently I watched the Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine, and nodded approvingly at an early scene between Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and his ex-wife, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). They’re arguing about Ginger’s sister, who calls herself Jasmine. A lot of background is revealed in this exchange:
“What’s the rush, Ginger? You got a date?”

“It’s none of your business. It happens to be Jeanette, so…”
“Jeanette?”
“Jasmine.”
“What’s she doing in town?”
“She’s living with me till she gets back on her feet. She’s had a bad time.”
“When she had money she wanted nothing to do with you. Now that she’s broke, she’s moving in.”
“She’s not just broke, she’s screwed up. And it’s none of your damn business. She’s family.”
“She stole our money.”
“Okay!”
“Understand? We coulda been set. That was our whole chance in life.”
“For the last time, Augie, he was the crook, not her, okay? What the hell did she know about finance?”
“Don’t stand there and tell me that. She’s married to a guy for years, up to his ass in phony real estate and bank fraud. She knew nothing about it? Believe me, she knew, Ginger.”
Third: Act first, explain later. Stamp this axiom on your writer’s brain. Or put it on a note and tape it where you can see it. This advice never fails.
Let’s have a look at the opening of one of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, Stranger in Paradise:
Molly Crane stuck her head in the doorway to Jesse’s office.
“Man here to see you,” she said. “Says his name’s Wilson Cromartie.”
Jesse looked up. His eyes met Molly’s. Neither of them said anything. Then Jesse stood. His gun was in its holster on the file cabinet behind him. He took the gun from the holster and sat back down and put the gun in the top right-hand drawer of his desk and left the drawer open.
“Show him in,” Jesse said.
As we will find out, Jesse Stone knows this Cromartie very well. He’s called “Crow,” and he’s a Native American hit man. There is lots of backstory between Jesse and Crow. But Parker doesn’t reveal any of yet.
What he does instead is show Jesse getting his gun ready. That’s intriguing. He knows something about this man after all, and it requires his gun being ready. Act first, explain later. The scene continues:
Molly went and in a moment returned with the man.
Jesse nodded his head.
“Crow,” he said.
“Jesse Stone,” Crow said.
Jesse pointed to a chair. Crow sat. He looked at the file cabinet.
“Empty holster,” he said.
“Gun’s in my desk drawer,” Jesse said.
“And the drawer’s open,” Crow said.
“Uh-huh.”
We now know that this Crow is someone who notices things, especially when it comes to guns. What kind of person is that? We don’t know and Parker isn’t telling us. We only know this guy is probably dangerous. This is not friendly small talk. The air is crackling with potential trouble.
Half a page later, we get this:
“Last time I saw you was in a speedboat dashing off with a lot of money,” Jesse said.
“Long time back,” Crow said. “Longer than the statute of limitations.”
“I’d have to check,” Jesse said.
“I did,” Crow said. “Ten years.”
“Not for murder,” Jesse said.
“You got no evidence I had anything to do with murder.”
Boom. Now we get backstory information, but notice where it is. In dialogue! And that, indeed, is how Parker delivers almost all the essential information in this novel.
Of course, Parker is writing in a particular, stripped-down style. But the principles he uses will serve you as well.
It may be your choice to render some backstory in narrative form. If you do, let me give you a rule of thumb (not the same as an unbreakable rule!) that I’ve given to many students with good results: in your first ten pages you can have three sentences of backstory, used all at once or spread out. In your second ten pages you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all at once or spread out. But if you put backstory or exposition into dialogue, then you’re free to use your own discretion. Just be sure the dialogue is truly what the characters would say and doesn’t come of as a none-too-clever info dump (I explain more about this in my book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue.)
We place a lot of emphasis here at TKZ on sharp, intriguing openings. For good reason. That’s what editors, agents and browsing readers look at first. We don’t want to leave them in the tar pits—we want them to keep on reading!

These tips will keep you out of the goo.              

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Limit the Exposition in Your Opening Pages

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell


Since I am the resident zombie fiction guy, the first page I’ve been given for critique is, not surprisingly:
Z.O.M.B.I.E. Squad:  Hot ZOMBIE Nights
Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. Drat. ZOMBIES. Not what she needed at the moment. How would she explain this to her new boyfriend?  Not the ZOMBIES per se, but the fact that this would be the third time this week that she’d bailed on dinner with him. Well, if he was a quality catch, he’d let her make it up to him, if not, there were other non-ZOMBIES out there in the world. Right?
There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of her M3, and it would definitely leave a mark.  Ok, “drat” just officially became “double-damn” the minute both her love life and her car became casualties. Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley. It always seemed to be us or them and just a street away from normal. Whoever thought that all aliens were smarter and more techno-savvy, never met a pod-ZOMBIE.
The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. Jaz could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. Ok, maybe she could see why someone who didn’t know better might think they were just the walking. Jaz’s chest heaved a bit as she took in one, deep, cleansing breath. It was warm, wet, and tasted a bit like the Cuban carne asada she’d planned on having for dinner. She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra: her $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Yes, they did match her Beemer perfectly. That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.
It pained her to risk her Dior bra by using it as a weapon holder, but without stockings, there were few choices to secure a pen-sized super weapon and keep it accessible.
****
Paranormal fiction. Zombies. You have to build a world, and that’s what the writer is attempting to do here, plus give us exposition to boot. And the instincts are good: weave the exposition within the action.
However, this opening is weighted too heavily on the informational (notice how “blocky” the text is on the page). It’s a common mistake made because the writer feels the reader has to be clued in to a lot of background before he can understand what’s going on.
Almost always a wrong choice. Because readers will wait a long timefor explanations so long as something is happening that is disturbing.
This first page delivers a great opening disturbance. To make it even more effective, let the action be primary and drop exposition in later, a bit at a time.
To show you what I mean, here is the opening rendered with just the action sentences:
Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of the M3.
She could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. 
She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra.
***
I am much more in this scene now. I want to keep reading. I want to know what that thing in her bra does.
The author has me hooked, and can begin to drop in exposition as needed. But keep it brief. The next lines might be:
Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley.  
Then get back to the action. Then later the stuff about the boyfriend. More action. And so on.
Also, I’d cut: The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. This is a “tell” just before the “show” of the next sentence. The latter creates a picture for the reader, who can then draw his own conclusion.
I like the voice that is “lurking” here. But it sounds “once removed,” e.g. in this line: That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.
This is the author commenting on Jaz, not something from Jaz herself. I wonder if the author might consider turning this into a First Person narration. Then the fun aspects of the voice could come out more naturally, e.g.:
I pulled the transonic pen-dart from my $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Matched my Beemer, too. But this was about date desirability. Hard work, but then again it was 3DP-vid god Wylie Taylor I was going to meet up with.
If I ever got away from these Zs.
That’s just a suggestion, something to consider. You can achieve pretty much the same effect in Third Person, but you should make sure the narration sounds like thoughts your character would actually think, and keep author commentary out of it.
I like this concept. Hey, fun zombie thrillers are my bag. So hook me with action in this first chapter and drop in only the exposition that is absolutely, positively necessary for the understanding of the scene.
It is much less than you think. And a much better start without it.

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Garlic Breath, or What Not to Do on Your Opening Page


“If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”
– Agent, speaking at a recent writers conference

The opening page of your novel is your big introduction. It’s what an agent will read with most interest, to see if you can write (which is why page 1 is often the first thing read in your proposal. You may have spent 100 hours on a killer synopsis, 50 on an irresistible query, but if the writing itself is not up to snuff, the busy agent can save time by tossing the whole thing aside without reading the rest of the proposal).
Think of it this way. You are at a party and the man or woman of your dreams is across the room. The host offers to introduce you. You walk over. There is great anticipation, even from Dreamboat, who is there to meet people, too. So Dreamboat extends a hand, you take it, and say, “Nice to meet you.”
Only you have a horrendous case of garlic breath. Dreamboat winces, whips out a phone and walks quickly away, muttering, “I have to take this.”
Well, that’s what it’s like for an agent reading your first page. He or she wants to like you, but if you’ve got garlic breath, it’s all over. Bad first impression. See you later.
I taught at a writers conference recently, where attendees were invited to submit the opening page of their manuscripts – anonymously. We then put these on two transparencies. The first one as is, the second I had marked up as a tough editor might.
It was quite educational. I got 12 first pages in all, and none were ready for prime time. There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:
Characters Alone, Thinking
This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.
Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:
Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?
Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.
They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.
Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?
Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.
Dreams
Agents and editors hate it when you open with a dream. And so do most readers. Because if they get invested in a cool opening, and then discover it’s all been a dream, they feel cheated. So you may have a gripping first page, but you’ll ruin the effect when the character awakens.
Yes, I know some bestselling authors have done this. When you start selling a gazillion copies, you can do it, too. Until then, you can’t.
Exposition Dump
In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.
In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.
This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.
Weather Without Character
Another complaint you’ll hear from editors and agents is about “weather openings.” This is a catch all phrase for generic description. Chip MacGregor, agent, described his opening pet peeve this way: “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
If you’re gong to describe weather on the opening page, make sure you’ve established a character on whom the weather is acting. And make sure that character is not alone, thinking.
Point of View Confusion
Another big error was a confusion about Point of View. This comes in several guises.
1. We don’t have a strong POV character. Who does this scene belong to?
2. We “head hop” between different characters on the same page, losing focus.
3. We have the terrible sin of “collective POV.” That is, we get a description of two or more characters who think or perceive the same thing at the same time.
John and Mary ran from the gang, wondering where they were going to go next.
The 300 Spartans turned and saw the Persians approaching.
4. We have First Person narration without a compelling voice. First Person needs attitude.
5. We don’t have a POV at all until the second or third paragraph. We have description, but no idea who is perceiving it. We need that information right away.
So these are some very big don’t’ on your first page. Care to add more to the list?
And next week, I’ll tell you how to write an opening page that works . . .every time . . .in any genre . . .

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Show and Tell

by Michelle Gagnonpot stove

Last week Joe had a great post about figuring out where your story actually begins. I’m in a group that posts online excerpts, mainly of first chapters, and today I thought I’d discuss something that seems to crop up again and again in those posts.

The old nugget, “Show, don’t tell” relates to exposition; ideally, you want to limit spoon-feeding your reader, watching out for adverbs that drive home what a character is thinking and feeling. But what should also be taken into account is that you don’t need to “show” your reader everything either.

Here’s an example:

“I went into the kitchen and grabbed a pan. I put water into the pan and placed it on the stove. Then I added the seasoning to the water. After the water boiled I placed the noodles into the water.”

Now, I think what the writer was attempting to do was build suspense; the problem with this passage is that unless you’re writing a cookbook entry on how to prepare pasta, this is way too much information. By the time I got to the third sentence, my eyes glazed over. It’s a common error. Where it tends to crop up most frequently, I’ve found, is with entering and leaving a room: “I turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped inside,” rather than just, “I went inside,” for example.

There are other ways to build suspense with a passage like this. For example, “She put water on the stove to boil. The doorbell rang. When she answered it, she found the UPS man standing there with a package. Could this be what she was waiting for?”

So…the water is still on the stove, set to boil. The heroine has apparently forgotten about it- but the reader hasn’t. If you consider how you go about your day, many of your actions are automatic. You don’t think through every step of putting on a pair of pants, walking across a room, or turning on your car; neither should you walk a reader through those steps (unless it’s critical to illustrate a character struggling to accomplish those tasks).

I prefer to start a story by dropping the reader into the middle of an action or conversation, forcing them to do a little work to catch up. After all, when it comes to eavesdropping (not that I ever do that, of course), the point when your ears perk up is not at the initial hello, but when something really juicy comes out. That’s what you want to begin with. Assume that the reader will figure out the parts you’re not telling them outright- engaging with a book should require a little effort, after all. You want them to wonder what the character is thinking, and what they’re going to do next. I want to know what’s going to happen with that boiling water- but assume that the rest of it, whatever isn’t critical, is a given and not something I need to know. For that, I’ll buy a cookbook.

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

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