So, this chapter may be long, but it’s important.
Having a good weekend so far? Well it’s about to get even better because we are going to talk about your exposition. This is the first box on the picture attached, and is the beginning to any plot diagram.*
The exposition is Where you introduce the story. You give some background, introduce the character, what they are doing, where they are, when your story starts, and even foreshadow a bit.
Don’t take this to mean that you need to tell the horrors of your main character’s childhood, what age they were potty trained, and what high school they went to in the first chapter. Honestly, a reader doesn’t really ever need to know that unless it has something to do with your story. Extra information is good, of course, to build the character, but it always has a point. It can come up to show how they are different, or how things have changed, or to show the reader something about them.
Now, background can be more than just your characters. It could come with the setting, or the time period, like historical events, or even with characters in the story who are never actually seen, like an old family feud that started generations ago. If your story is in a small town that existed in the civil war, maybe you should mention that some of the families now had descended from the people who were famous in that time.
One thing about background information that makes it so important is that it can tell a story of its own. You can have an entire story within itself that could hook the reader, and tell it through flashbacks or interesting discoveries. But don’t give it away all at once. It would be like saying the punchline before telling the joke.
Introducing the Characters
This is one of those things that are obvious, but still need to be said. Again, don’t give it all away at once, but don’t wait until the end of the book to explain how your main character knows someone. Imagine getting to the end of the story and one of the characters calling the other “Mom”, and freaking out because you thought that they were just friends.
Unless, of course, this is like a discovery or something that the character makes along the way. But if the character knew the entire time, the reader should have too, assuming that it isn’t a plot twist or anything like that.
Plot twists are just breaking all of the rules at once, including things like how to introduce your characters, but we’ll get to that in another chapter.
But really, all you need to do to introduce your characters is say their name, or what the reader will know them as anyway, and give them a visual representation of them. Remember that golden rule? No not the “Do onto others… Blah Blah Blah.” Though that one is important too, of course, I mean the writing golden rule. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
Don’t give a description of your characters in extreme detail on the first page if it isn’t necessary. In fact, don’t describe them. Don’t write, “Clary had bright red hair and was short for her age. She wore green sketchers and…”
Instead, show the reader. Write “Clary pushed her red curls from her eyes as she spoke…”
And yes, for all of you Cassandra Clare fans out there, I am using Clary from the Mortal Instruments series as an example of a unique character. The point os, though, that giving one detail at a time over the whole book will eventually build up a great description of them, but if you unload a ton of description of them on the reader in the first chapter, odds are they will forget it by the end of the book.
And another thing too. You don’t need to describe every character that is involved in the story in chapter one. You don’t even need to mention all of them. Just start small with the characters that are involved with chapter one and build up. That’s what a story is: starting small and building into something that just keeps drawing in the reader, making them want to read more.
How to show what your characters are doing
This one is easy. Let’s say that your story starts out with your character at their summer job at a chick-fil-a. Show the reader that by having them say to the next customer, “It’s a great day at chick-fil-a, how may I help you?”
For anyone working at chick-fil-a, I am so sorry for the butchering of your words, but I think that’s what you say, right?
Anyway, the point is to show it through dialogue, and this works for almost everything else too. Have the character say something that leads to only one obvious conclusion, the conclusion you want your reader to make. If you heard someone saying this, you would think that the most likely place that they would be at is chick-fil-a.
There are other places you could say something like this, I guess, which is why you might want to use your character’s actions to support it. Maybe they continue taking their order. Maybe they pass on the order to the chef, or whatever happens after the customer tells what they want. I honesty don’t know what magic happens behind that counter to get me my food, but whatever it is, you could use it to emphasize your point: they are at chick-fil-a.
Where they are
Pretty much everything for what they are doing applies to where they are. Show it through their actions, their dialogue, or even describe the place. Sometimes, of course, you do need to tell the reader some things. Even though the golden writing rule says otherwise, it needs to be done sometimes. The writer is the one doing all of the hard work, not the reader. They don’t want to have to work for the details of things that aren’t actually important to the story. So just give it to them.
Think about it. Most of the time your characters will be doing things that most people do regularly. So many people drink coffee that reading a book describing the taste of the coffee becomes boring and the reader has to get through it to get to the next part of the story. Don’t go on and on about the flavor of the coffee and how the sugar tasted and how refreshing it was that morning. Just say that the character sipped his or her coffee, thankful for the refreshment. There, one sentence. Your reader can relate, but doesn’t have to sit through all of the description that they are already familiar with.
Same goes for where they are. Don’t go on and on about what everything looks like unless your target reader probably hasn’t been there, or if it is something that not everyone goes to regularly. For example, don’t describe the entire layout of a zoo.
At some point in their life, the majority of your readers have been in a zoo, but could care less about the layout. Instead, describe why this zoo is different, or the actual habitat that they are looking into, or something different than what everyone else sees.
When the story starts
This kind of goes along with everything else. Basically, the scene and how everyone acts and EVERYTHING about your story is going to be different depending on when the story takes place. It is just like how the story would change completely if you put it in a different setting.
If the story takes place in the 1800’s, then do some research. What did people act like back then? What did they wear? What would be their concerns? Was there any important historical event to mention? Add this all to your story and anything else you find in your research.
If it takes place in present day, great. From the fact that you are living and writing in the time period of your story, you have some experience and first hand knowledge to go off of when writing.
But what if it takes place in the future? At that point, it is up to you. You decide what happens to humanity next, and you get to make up everything.
This one is very important. Remember when you read about backstories? How you can’t give away what happened before all at once? Same goes for what is to happen next.
You don’t want to say at the beginning of your first chapter that your character is going to get into a car accident. Unless there’s is a little flashback or it’s a really early on plot twist kind of thing. Instead, let it be a surprise to the reader. The key to getting a reader to keep reading is to continue to surprise them. It’s like opening birthday presents as a kid. You open one and you love or hate it, and then no matter what it is, you still would rather open up the next present than play with it. The idea for something unknown coming next is the reason that you keep opening presents.
For adults, I think this would be lottery tickets.
But who knows, I’m just a writer.
The point is that you don’t want to tell that little kid what their present is. Let them open it. But then where does the foreshadowing come in? That would be when you give the little birthday boy or girl a hint as to what is in the present.
Don’t say that their car is going to crash as soon as your reader starts reading. Show them how distracted they are, or how the road is iced over and they really shouldn’t be on the road or even how old the car is and how they hadn’t brought it into the shop in years.
And then the possibility opens up, but nobody knows for sure what is going to happen, but when the car crashes, they are surprised. If you don’t foreshadow, it may not feel real enough to the reader, and they may not really understand what happened.
But this way, they open their present, yet all they can think about is what happens next, and what lies in the next gift.
I hope all of this helps you to set up your story, and sorry if it is a little repetitive of previous chapters. This is just really important to your story.
Another thing I forgot to mention was pacing. acing is how fast or slow you tell the story. If you pick up a book written a hundred years ago versus today, you will notice that the exposition is set up much slower. Today, there are so many distractions, especially with technology, that can draw your reader away from your book. So you need to set up the story fairly fast, but don’t rush it or anything, to keep them from wandering away to another book or, god forbid, to a television. In other words, there are too many fisherman and not enough fish. Unless you hook your reader in really quick, they may swim away to another fisherman’s bait.
Next week’s chapter will be about introducing your conflict, and maybe even talking about rising actions. Thank you for reading, and for anyone who is interested, Holding My Breath is now back up on wattpad and is being updated regularly. I might end up putting it on the A Writer’s Dilemma website soon, but I’m not sure when.
Thanks, and write to you next Saturday!
*The link from which the plot diagram photo was found is here: http://www.portnet.k12.ny.us/Page/10210 . I don’t any rights to this photo so I’m giving this website the credit, but you should check out that site for more things like it that can help with writing:)