I’ve been thinking about exposition, prehistory, that part of the story that comes before the story actually opens and how writers handle it. If you read stuff that has to do with story structure, you find that most writers who describe exposition have it coming at the beginning of the story, a kind of pre-chapter if you will.
But mystery writers don’t usually do that, and here’s why: mysteries open, usually, with some extreme event, a murder, an accident, something to catch a reader’s interest. At least that’s what I’ve been told by people who should know, like Penguin editors. Maybe it has something to do with our short attention spans these days, or how easily we get bored, or even our apathy which seems to require some extraordinary impulse to penetrate.
I know my own manuscript was sent back for a number of reasons, among them the lack of a satisfactory opening grizzly enough to catch and keep the reader reading. The other dissatisfactions I’ll consider in another post.
So what do mystery writers do? A whole lot of things. Some don’t even bother with exposition, some put it in the novel much later on where it helps the current action, and some introduce it in bits when necessary. In “Harry One Sigh,” some gets in at the beginning with the murder of the researcher and her assistant in the university library. And that requires some prehistory of the assistant and even a little about the researcher. It gets complicated sometimes. The rest of what needs to get in there to give a character greater depth gets in in bits and pieces, and usually is required to explain some current action or event and the character’s reaction to it.
There are exceptions however. Mamma Jing, the matriarch of Chinatown in my first novel, doesn’t need any exposition. She is what she is, and that’s all she has to be. But the main characters, like Willow and Will and the detective, really need something. Often enough, it’s not personal stuff. In Willow’s case, it’s background on her culture. It’s essential to get that material in there to give some heft to the narrative. Will gets just enough to justify who he is and what he does. You’d think that Harry, the main character, the protagonist, would need a pile of background, but he doesn’t need much at all. There’s hardly any prehistory for him. I don’t really know why. I guess if he’d needed it, I would have realized it and written it in. A few lines is enough for him and none of it is very important. I think for me, at least, exposition gets into narrative when some event triggers it, when it seems natural to shove it in.
At one point in my second novel, “Bloodlust,” Sabina and Harry witness what appears to be a murder near Harry’s office. The two of them see the commotion caused by the cruisers and their flashing lights and watch the ambulance paramedics trolley out two bodies in black bags. Harry is curious about what might have happened, but Sabina is quiet, withdrawn, and as they continue their day, Harry is more and more concerned about what’s going on with her. Here’s where the exposition comes in. Harry finally asks her and she explains that her parents were victims of a shooter in a convenience store when she was much younger. They were innocent customers who just got in the way and were what’s called collateral damage. Why did I put that in at that place? Because she needed to be more human, to have some emotional depth that hadn’t been apparent earlier.
Exposition has to do with the intersection of narrative and character. Here it adds dimension to Sabina, to make her more rounded, more likely to capture the reader’s sympathy by offering an explanation for such a sudden shift in mood. The reader gets to know Sabina better, especially since as a tranny she was seriously estranged from her father just before he died suddenly. Some backstory was needed for my character. And in this way, Sabina and Harry witnessing the murder gave me the opportunity to add more dimension to her.
The only thing I’m sure about is that that’s what exposition should do and if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there.