Sunday, April 22, 2012

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 time for 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.

10 comments:

  1. I the past few months I've read more Zombie books than ever in my life (WWZ for fun, Dead Souls and Defining Moments as narrations for Audible, and the absolutely coolest story, Septic Zombie by the 7 year old daughter of my friend Jeremy Robinson.

    Add to that the fact that one of my shooting buddies has nothing but zombie splatter targets every time he comes to range and I feel like I am being sucked into liking zombie stuff in a way I didn't think possible.

    That being said, follow Jim's advice, tighten this thing up a bit and I would definitely want to know more about what happens. I feel a Men in Black moment coming on.

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  2. Well, Basil, looks like we've got it all covered. Well done, sir!

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  3. I'm in a Zombie-free zone in TX, you guys. I love how you sifted through the excess exposition, Jim, to arrive at the essence of the action. I agree with your thoughts on sticking with the action to allow the reader to care about the character.

    Also, if the character is so flip about her own safety, the reader will never believe she's in danger, so the author loses any emotional punch & the scene turns flat. I like unexpected humor peppered in, but it loses it's special touch when it never lets up.

    Nice critique.

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  4. Excellent advice. (No surprise there.)Despite the heaviness of exposition, I LIKE this character's voice and moxy. I am not a zombie story lover, but I'd read more about this gal and her pint-sized weapons.

    That and the fact the zombies are extraterrestrial gives a great twist to a new zombie world.

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  5. I agree Jim, and your advice is terrific. I think the story will be very compelling if the exposition is toned down a bit. I for one was interested to keep reading!

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  6. I had this feeling James Scott Bell would get this one because it had ZOMBIE in the title - I apologize. I appreciate the critique, I always love how you give examples and make it so easy to see things.

    In this case ZOMBIE is an acronym. They can be aliens, man made menaces, genetic mutations, etc.. I'm not one for zombies, vampires, or werewolves, so I had to put a twist to it.

    This is the first story I've tried in 3rd person. I usually write in first person. As the story has continued I think I am getting a better grip on it and working on the depth of character feel with it. I ended up choosing to try third person for this story because it is a group and it gives me more options for showing things from various team member's points of view. As I get ready to revise this story I hope to smooth out and strengthen things in the ways that you mentioned.

    Again, thank-you so much for the critique and advice. I love when you do the first page critiques here. I always learn so much from each one.

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  7. Anon, no need to apologize!

    I get the group idea. It's a challenge, because each POV is going to have to have a unique voice to it (the narration in 3d should "sound" like the individual characters). Also, POV's equally weighted dilute the intimacy of any single one.

    So if you do decide on the group idea, approach each POV as if it were a new novel that you'd have to sell on its own merits.

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  8. Thank-you so much. Will do.

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  9. Ah, that's what's slogging down the story I'm working on right now. I've got some work to do. Thanks for pointing the problem out. I'll get on fixing it right away.

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