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.