Back to the future: Misadventures in exposition

If you’re thinking of writing a novel and wondering where to start your story, a good rule of thumb is:

Start as close to the end as possible. 

There are many reasons for this, among them that your story should be focused and not meander, readers have short attention spans, and 1000 page sprawling Tolstoyian dramas are unlikely to become bestsellers.

Unless you’re this lady, in which case, go nuts.

But often, we don’t know where the end is. Sometimes (perhaps, MOST TIMES?) we don’t even know what the story is until long after we’ve started writing. This was the case when I first started writing MONA AT SEA all the way back in the sepia-toned days of 2011. I knew I had a character named Mona, I knew she was unemployed, and I knew she was angry. But I didn’t know much beyond that. But I had a great opening scene and a great opening sentence and I figured I was ready to launch.

“I never used to hate going to the supermarket.”

That was my opening line. I was going to use it to springboard into a scene where my narrator, Mona, has a panic attack in a grocery store because she doesn’t know which brand of peanut butter to buy. I also launched into a multi-page side story about how her favorite brand of peanut butter had been discontinued because its manufacturer was caught up in a melamine poisoning scandal. Both the opening scene and the digression were funny, and at the time I believed that they both established us in a place and time (suburban America following the 2008 Chinese milk scandal) and showed readers, as opposed to told them about, a young woman on the brink of a mental breakdown. The problem was: It didn’t advance the plot.

I then doubled down on my digressions. In the next chapter I took readers back all the way to when Mona was in kindergarten. I followed this with chapters from middle school, high school, college, a little more college. I didn’t catch readers back up to present day in the grocery store until a hundred pages into the manuscript. In case this wasn’t clear already:

Don’t do this!!

It was important for me to know this backstory about my character, but it wasn’t important for my readers to know any of this. Readers need to know only enough for them to understand the story. Anything else can be cut, and probably should be cut.

I ended up cutting those first hundred pages, and many more. Another good rule of thumb is that, if you’re aiming to write a 300 page book, you’ll probably end up writing about 1000 pages when all is said and done. It sounds like a lot, it is a lot, but all those deleted scenes and free writes and meanderings and musings and dead ends are important to the process. They are how we understand what the story is, and how to tell it in the best way possible.

And if you take away nothing else from this blog post, please, I beg of you, do not start your novel with 100 pages of backstory! Start close to the end, as close as you can. But also know that it may take you a long time to know where the end is. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the process. And we wouldn’t be writers if we were looking for shortcuts, right??

Sláinte!
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Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.

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