1. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Exposition vs action - to start a story which is better?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by peachalulu, Jun 4, 2012.

    I'm working on a piece for the Writers Workshop a short story that needs to have some background , but I'm unsure wether to start with background information first or plunge into an action scene - it's a humorous sci-fi piece. Just wanted some opinions on what you prefer to start with when writing or which you prefer first when reading. Or do you find that it depends on the piece you're reading/writing?
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Always start with action. It need not be flaming cars and explosions action; it can be as simple as a broken shoelace at an inconvenient time.

    As for background the reader needs to have, excuse me if I raise a skeptical eyebrow. More often than not, the reader has no need to know that material at all, and almost never needs it before the action for which it first becomes relevant.
     
  3. Protar
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    Protar Active Member

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    I find it's usually best to open a story with action, or at least some form of action, but overdo it and you leave your readers confused and they may not like the piece because of this. To strike a balance in the middle, perhaps open with some action that is not entirely connected to the rest of the plot and also casually slip the exposition into this action.

    EDIT: Keep in mind not to underestimate the importance of backstory. Every story needs backstory unless you're starting from the origin of the universe. Just know when to put it in, in an interesting manner.
     
  4. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't care what it is. Just make it interesting. Better exposition that's actually interesting than boring action thrown in for the sake of starting with action. And better yet, start with what the story is supposed to start with. Go with what feels most natural. If you have something and you feel uncomfortable with it, you might be onto something. Don't just open with something because somebody says you have to. Both can work; both have worked for many a writer. It's all about execution.
     
  5. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I always make it a rule that the first page has to introduce a character (not necessarily the MC) and have him doing something.

    You'd be amazed at how little exposition the reader actually needs. I've said before that the writer's best tool is the reader's imagination. Readers are great at imagining and at figuring out what's going on based on a minimum of exposition. Give your readers some credit for brains. Err on the side of too little exposition rather than too much, and I bet most of your readers will go along with your story, anyway.
     
  6. Eddie O'Neil
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    Eddie O'Neil New Member

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    I have to agree with what's been said so far. If you start with exposition, I'll feel like you're telling me a story; if you start with action, I'll feel like I'm a part of it.
     
  7. ManOrAstroMan
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    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

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    I think action is maybe the way to go. But exposition is important, especially in sci-fi and fantasy. I recommend an "exposition drip." Something like:
    "I sighed and tapped my foot, waiting for the elevator to arrive. You would think that a space station the size of a large city wouldn't have to rely on such slow transport. I mean, it's the 24th century, for cryin' out loud."
    Just a thought.
     
  8. Siena
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    Siena Active Member

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    Without a doubt, the action scene.
     
  9. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    Yes, starting with action is the best bet of getting the readers' attention so I will also recommend it specially to new writers. But I have also seen action beginning not working, like for example when the character is waking up and doing his daily routine. On the other hand a well written sweet and short exposition of a beginning may just do the trick.
     
  10. Mr.
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    (I have no idea how to handle humor in particular, so I'll generalize a bit.)

    Long-winded exposition probably isn't needed or wanted, but always bear in mind how much information your readers have. If it begins with ducking behind a corner with a sniper's bullet narrowly grazing by...well, grand. We know nothing about the MC--body type, clothing, sex, race, etc.--whether this is happening at day or night, in a suburban neighborhood or a bustling city. Blazing straight out with all action and zero description forces readers to fill in those gaps and come up with details that are flat-out wrong. A major writing skill nobody talks about is being able to look at your own work with new eyes, as if you're seeing it for the first time. Read it like you're ignorant of the details, then ask yourself whether there's too much of one thing or too little of another.
     
  11. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Most of my favourite works have started with exposition, not action. That needs to be treated with some caution, though, because it takes no account of the proportion of works that never made it to publication. Perhaps a work that starts with exposition needs to be blisteringly good to make it that far because editors are biased towards works that start with action. Still, I'd go with Show's advice, not Cogs on this one. If it's interesting and hooks the reader it doesn't matter a jot whether it's exposition or action. Action can be the easier way to do that, but it's not always the best.
     
  12. NeedMoreRage
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    I always start with action and throw in only the most vital details as the beginning progresses. I've never understood why people feel it is necessary to slow the story down to explain things. And in most stories, there definitely isn't enough in it to warrant several pages of explanations before the book even begins. But I am an impatient reader and that clearly reflects in my writing. So if you are writing a slower story, an exposition might work, but it's tricky and I have no tips on how to make it interesting.
    Also, make sure your introduction is relevant to the plot.
     
  13. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The reason for starting with action is to immediately start showing a character's qualities.
     
  14. djunamod
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    djunamod New Member

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    I think it depends on the story and, at times, the genre. IF it's humorous sci-fi, I think an action opening might work better. I write stories that are slower going and more "literary" (I guess - I hate that word) because they focus more on the inner workings of character. So action is important but I usually start with some exposition, especially because place makes a difference. Granted, I have a tendance to put in way too much, so I always have to edit later, but I guess I'm just more comfortable that way.

    I once read a book by editor Sol Stein where he relates a story about a film director showing the opening of his film to a bunch of producers. There's a spectacular chase scene with all the works - blow ups, fires, cars, etc. At the end of the opening, the car drives off a cliff. The director turns to the producer and says, "well, wasn't that fabulous?" (paraphrasing here). The producer says, "who was in the car?"

    The point? The reader needs to know who's involved in the story in order to even care what happens to them and sometimes that takes a little opening exposition.

    Just my take on it.

    Tam
     
  15. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    But that isn't necessarily the best way to start a novel. Steinbeck knew a thing or two about writing, but he chose to open East of Eden with a couple of pages of description. Of course, you could argue that the Salinas Valley is a character in East of Eden (arguably the principal character), in which case you don't need action to immediately start showing a character's qualities.

    Like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for example? Oh, wait, that starts with description.

    That's the trouble with generalisations like that. The right opening is the one that works best for the thing you are writing. Anything that isn't about the specific thing you are writing is advice for some other work, not yours. And there's a terrible danger that the generalisation will turn into a rule: writers will be told, and publishers will require, that books must start with action, and the world of literature will be impoverished as a result.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I don't care for slippery slope arguments. Generalizations are good guidelines until you have a specific reason to set them aside. At some point, you have to trust that a writer is intelligent enough to know when to ignore the generalization and to choose the exception.

    But when writers are starting out, it's good to have generalizations to assist in the decisions they don't yet have the background about which to make a reasoned choice.

    I also assume submissions editors have a brain.

    Of course there are exceptions. Does that mean we must put a disclaimer at the bottom of every post to that effect? Should posting look like the caution booklet shipped with every consumer product?

    "Do not place hand in blender while the blades are spinning."

    And who's to say Steibeck's East of Eden wouldn't have been even better if he began it with a character doing something? :)
     
  17. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, never mind the slippery-slope. I think that the "begin with action" is bad advice, plain and simple. It can work, but so can the opposite advice of "don't start with action". It depends on the story, and whatever will hook the reader in. One size doesn't fit all. I wouldn't advise a beginner or anybody else to "start with action", I'd advise them to try a few different ways of opening and to judge for themselves which works best. That's how they'll learn their own writing style, not yours or mine.
     
  18. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    A couple of pages? As I recall, and I've read the book within the past year, it's more like a couple of chapters of description. Good description, though, and always interesting.

    But it's important to realize that Steinbeck was already a very well established prize-winning writer with a large readership when he wrote East of Eden. Also, that novel was first published about sixty years ago. He was therefore able to get away with things that beginning writers of today couldn't hope to.

    It's probably pretty hard to find an example of a novel published by a new writer within the past ten years or so that opens with a large slab of description or exposition. I expect those are few and far between.
     
  19. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I answer as a reader and I'd say start with action and sneak in the things we need to know in small pieces. as a reader I don't need to know everything from the start, just enough to get curious and to start caring about what happens to your mc. I'm not sure exactly what kind of things you mean the readers need to know, but as a general advice I'd say start with action. there's always time for background later. Usually the readers need less background info that we think they do.
     
  20. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ah, but we have Cogs assurance that today's editors won't be swayed by such fashions and that I need have no fear of such a trend...
     
  21. jen_h
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    jen_h New Member

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    Answering as a reader, I generally prefer an action opening, and one that leaves me wondering what exactly is going on. That is what makes me want to keep reading. The action can be something as simple as a conversation between characters, but a book that opens with a lengthy description of a world I don't yet have any reason to care about is likely to lose my interest pretty quickly. A scene in which the characters are doing something still leaves plenty of room to add in small snippets of description as the action moves along.
     
  22. Show
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    Show Contributing Member Contributor

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    One thing I notice is that there seems to be this notion that if a story doesn't have action in it's first line, that it somehow means it's got lengthy exposition that goes on for lines, pages, or even chapters. These aren't the only options.
     
  23. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think that is necessarily true. Sometimes there are events taking place, but they are just not that interesting to make the reader want to keep reading. Or the action starts too early from the real events that give the story a reason. Like if something happen in the evening the author think he needs to describe everything the character does right from when he wakes up in the morning. Either way its action, but the wrong kind of action.
     
  24. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Where are you getting this from?

    Seems to me you're rewriting the assumptions. I see it as a simple question of which is better to begin a story with, action or exposition. I don;t see a need to split hairs over whether it must be the very first sentence, or must be maintained for a particular duration.

    Most of the time, I believe it is best to begin exposing a character. My feeling is that it is better to show a character solving a problem. A physical description is unimportant to me, and the setting doesn't require exposure to any of the urgency of connecting the reader to the character.

    Yes, it is a generalization, and yes, there may be good reasons to choose otherwise. But usually you are better off connecting with a character doing something, and that is action.

    Hair splitting serves little purpose other than obfuscation.
     
  25. Show
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    ^^^^It's not hair splitting. It's merely picking up on a notion that I see implied in a few posts that if you're not starting with action, you're writing mounds and mounds of exposition. It feels at least implied by some that the idea is "lengthy description is boring so you have to start with action." I'm not downing on any one way of starting. Just feels like there are some distinctions being blurred in regards to this. Just because there isn't action in the first line doesn't mean there is lengthy description either. It's not about which way I think is better (I know where you stand on it and I don't necessarily disagree). I wasn't even commenting towards your post in particular. ;)

    It seems to be an idea several hold.
     

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