Do you really have to start your novel with “something happening?” What if your reader desperately needs to know some important backstory? Or some basic facts about your story world? What’s wrong with a little exposition?
Celine posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi Randy, you said a scene has to be either a Scene or a Sequel and that anything that isn’t an MRU must be thrown out; but what about opening scenes, set-ups? Don’t you need some plain old exposition for that? E.g.: I’m writing a story in which the opening scene is of my character riding into the woods to hunt a beast, an angry reaction to something nasty his wife said (which I’m only going to reveal at the end of the story and not in detail). As he rides I need to inform readers about the beast; that people have tried to hunt it before but failed, what it’s like, what it’s done, etc. How, if possible, can I get all this information out with MRUs?
Randy sez: This is a great time to answer this question, because National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has just started, and tens of thousands of writers around the world are writing a novel this November. I hope many of my Loyal Blog Readers are taking up the NaNoWriMo challenge, and I wish you great success.
A little context will be useful. A crucial part of my teaching on fiction writing has been about Scenes and Sequels. Here are a few places to read more about them, if you want to know much more than I can cover in this blog post:
- My article Writing the Perfect Scene on this Web site.
- My book Writing Fiction for Dummies.
- My book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method.
As Celine noted, I strong recommend that every scene in your novel should be either a Proactive Scene or a Reactive Scene. (These are my terms. The famous writing teacher Dwight Swain called them “scenes” and “sequels”, but those have always seemed to me to be confusing terms.)
So what are these things? We need a couple of definitions:
A Proactive Scene is a scene with the following three parts, which serve as the beginning, middle, and end:
A Reactive Scene has the following structure:
Now let’s be one clear on one thing. You don’t HAVE to do anything. There aren’t any scene cops who will delete scenes that don’t fit one of these shapes. I’m told that Herman Melville has an entire chapter of exposition on the biology of whales in his book Moby Dick. Sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it? That’s what you’d like to read first, isn’t it?
Well then. I’d say you should treat your reader the way you want to be treated. Most readers want the story to start out with something interesting. And the result of the last hundred years of analysis by fiction teachers has shown that the two kinds of scenes that work REALLY well to get readers’ interest are Proactive Scenes and Reactive Scenes.
Your goal as an author is first to entertain your reader. Everything else has a lower priority. Proactive Scenes entertain. So do Reactive Scenes. Because they engage your reader’s emotions, not her intellect.
You entertain your reader by creating a movie in her mind.
Now Celine has a second part to her question, which has to do with MRUs. This is another term that Dwight Swain used. “MRU” stands for “Motivation-Reaction Unit” and you can read all about it in Chapter 3 of his classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. I love this book. It’s the book that taught me how to write fiction. I also discuss this at length in Writing Fiction for Dummies.
It’s not easy to boil down Swain’s idea of the MRU, but let me take a stab. There are five basic tools you can use that will help create a movie in your reader’s mind:
- Interior Monologue
- Interior Emotion
- Sensory Description
Dwight Swain’s MRUs just combine these five basic tools in a particular format that alternates between what’s inside the viewpoint character and what’s outside.
There are some other tools you can use: narrative summary, exposition, etc. These cut off the movie that was playing in your reader’s head. Instead of a movie, these things put a piece of an encyclopedia into your reader’s head.
You can do that if you want. But your reader may very well not like it.
One way you can give information to your reader is via dialogue or interior monologue. If you do so, then pass in the information in bits and pieces, and always make sure that they serve the conflict in the scene.
Because fiction is about conflict.
Celine, you might ask yourself the question, “How would James Patterson write this scene about the hunt?”
My guess is that James would start it out with the beast charging wildly at our hero. He’d have our hero fire twice and miss. Then his gun would jam, and he’d frantically try to clear the jam. Then the beast would be on him, and he’d whip out his knife and stab at the beast’s eyes. The beast would claw him, writhing in agony. A pitched battle would go on for a few pages. After a ferocious struggle, our hero would kill the beast–and then collapse because the beast nicked his artery. As the scene ends, our hero realizes he’s got about twenty seconds before he bleeds out. Then the next scene would be back at home, where the wife is still mad at our hero. Maybe she’s gossiping with her friends. Maybe she’s poisoning hubby’s underwear. Maybe she’s seducing the butler. Or whatever. You get to choose. Whatever she’s doing has CONFLICT in it. Meanwhile, the reader is dying to know what’s going on out in the woods where our hero is BLEEDING TO DEATH.
Celine, here’s one question to think hard about: Exactly how much information does your reader need to know before she can enjoy these two scenes? My advice, and the advice of most fiction teachers, is to give the reader just that information.
Now you might choose to be a bit more restrained than James Patterson and that’s fine. But there’s a reason James is the best-selling author in the world. Because he plays a movie in your mind.
The nice thing about being a writer is that you get to decide. Nobody can force you to not start your novel with exposition and backstory. But nobody can force the reader to read your work, either. The reader decides what to read based on what she likes. So it seems like good advice to write what readers like.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.