Want to hear something good...
Here you’ll find some key advice on important aspects of storytelling that don’t fit neatly into any other category.
In this article we’ll look at:
How to give your story a good start
Show, don’t tell
How to write flashbacks
Exposition - explaining your story to the audience
Ways of delivering exposition
How to give your story a good start
This is advice stated elsewhere in this book, but worth repeating — if you don’t capture the attention of your audience quickly you might lose them. And your audience also includes the editor/publisher/producer/agent reading your manuscript. If their interest isn’t engaged from the beginning they’ll soon go on to the next manuscript on the pile.
A good opening will engage the curiosity of your audience and deliver information that helps set up the main story. Here are some openings of famous movies. How do they excite/interest us?
Source Code: a man wakes up on a train and finds himself oddly disorientated. He tells his bemused companion that he’s not the man she thinks his is, but is, in fact, a US Army helicopter pilot… Watching this we’re as disorientated as the man. Is he crazy or joking? Then the man sees himself in a mirror and his horrified confusion makes us realise that something very odd is going on.
The Godfather: in a darkened room a man begs the Godfather for revenge… The man’s story is harrowing and there’s a curious contrast between the gloomy room and the sounds of the wedding party outside. Who is this Godfather and why is he being grovelled to as if he were a king?
Star Wars: screen captions introduce the story so far, then a small space ship crosses the screen — chased by an enormous Imperial battle cruiser…! We plunge straight into the action and meet two of the main characters (Princess Leia and Darth Vader) within the first few minutes.
Here are the openings of three famous novels. Do they grab our attention? Do we want to read on? How do the openings set the scene for what’s to follow?
“It is cold at six-forty in the morning of a March day in Paris, and it seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad. At that hour on 11th March 1963, in the main courtyard of the Fort d’Ivry, a French Air Force colonel stood before a stake driven into the chilly gravel as his hands were bound behind the post, and started with slowly diminishing disbelief at the squad of soldiers facing him twenty meters away…”
The Day of the Jackal Frederick Forsyth.
“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord — the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s Heaven — and Mr Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name…”
Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte.
‘‘Oh my God!’ my friend Arnie Cunningham cried out suddenly. ‘What is it?’ I asked. His eyes were bulging from behind his steel-rimmed glasses, he had plastered one hand over his face so that his palm was partially cupping his mouth, and his neck could have been on ball bearings the way he was craning back over his shoulder. ‘Stop the car, Dennis! Go back!’ ‘What are you —’ ‘Go back, I want to look at her again.’ Suddenly I understood. ‘Oh man, forget it,’ I said. ‘If you mean that ‘thing’ we just passed —’ ‘Go back!’ He was almost screaming. I went back, thinking that it was maybe one of Arnie’s subtle little jokes. But it wasn’t. He was gone, lock, stock, and barrel. Arnie had fallen in love…”
Christine Stephen King
You’ll notice that many of these stories start with the aftermath of a previous dramatic event. The Star Wars opening is the end of a chase. The start of The Day of the Jackal shows the fate of a man who planned to assassinate the French President.
Aftermath openings are useful as they launch us straight into the drama. Some overlap the previous story, such as the opening of Raider of the Lost Ark where the movie starts with climax of an earlier tale, or they might provide the impetus that sets the new story rolling. For example, in No Country for Old Men the story starts with the protagonist coming across the survivor of a drug gang shootout and a case full of money. The end of the gunfight is the springboard for a new story.
Let’s break down these novel openings and see what hooks are being used to reel us in.
In The Day of the Jackal the key element is the firing squad. This is dramatic in itself but in other circumstances might not be so remarkable, for example if the story was set in a far-flung war zone. However, the text tells us that this execution is taking place in the centre of Paris and in the Swinging Sixties. This is a time and location we’d normally associate with chain-smoking dilettantes lounging in street cafes, not sudden, violent death. This juxtaposition is highly unusual and the fact that a senior French officer is about to be executed for something tells us we’ve entered into a high-stakes game. It’s impossible not to be curious about what led him to this end.
In Wuthering Heights the main object of interest is obviously Mr Heathcliff who, despite the fact that we have little description to go on, is obviously attractive to our protagonist. The use of evocative words such as ‘troubled’, ‘misanthrope’ and ‘desolation’ promise some drama ahead, and the breezy confidence of the protagonist suggests they’re a person with a lively, outgoing character; a stark contrast to Heathcliff whose brooding personality is suggested by the words ‘withdraw’, ‘suspiciously’ and ‘jealous’. We’re interested to find out what led to this meeting and how this odd-couple relationship might develop.
In Christine our interest is aroused by the dramatic opening line: ‘Oh my god!’ The exaggerated reactions of Arnie suggests that something horrible has happened, or is about to happen, and the fact that his friend appears to be oblivious to this event is puzzling. Arnie’s wish to go back and look at ‘her’ again makes the situation a little clearer, but his friend immediately dismissed ‘her’ as a ‘thing’ which throws everything in the air again. The questions are piling up and we want answers.
Looking at all six of our examples, both movies and novels, it’s not easy to find common threads, but there are a few. The three broad categories we could put our story openings into are:
These openings throw us right into the thick of the story without any prelude whatsoever. Both Star Wars and Christine are obvious contenders here, the action in both openings flowing seamlessly into the main plot. The audience isn’t given a choice about whether they want to be involved or not, it’s like they’ve been thrown into a rushing river. All they can do is be swept along with the narrative.
The Godfather and The Day of the Jackal slot into this category. Both openings deliver information at a more leisurely pace, but this relative slowness is offset by the seriousness of the situations we find ourselves in. In one case we’re witnessing an execution, in the other we’re listening to a man beg for the murder of his daughter’s attackers.
This is something of a catch-all category as all our examples invite questions, but of our six, the openings of Wuthering Heights and Source Code stand out as being question-heavy prologues that do not plunge us straight into the story (Immediate drama) or chill us with brooding, high-stakes menace (Slow-burn intrigue). Instead we’re drawn into the story by a plethora of questions, most of which are personal and focus on the identity and situation of the principal characters.
In summary. The above suggests that a compelling opening either thrusts you straight into the action or poses intriguing questions, and the fewer the questions there are the more weighty and ominous they should be. How does your story compare? Looking at the first page of your script or manuscript, how many questions does your text raise?
Show, don't tell
Imagine you’re describing your walk in a park to a friend. If you present your story as a bare sequence of events, you’re ‘telling’ them about your adventure. However, if you describe it in a way that allows them to see themselves taking the same walk, you’re ‘showing’ them.
Telling (sometimes called narrative summary) can be a way of delivering bland, but important information quickly and efficiently. However, telling is often dead wood that is better removed (see Revision and editing). Take the following:
“On the way to the station Jackson bought a newspaper for the man at the corner stand. He climbed up the staircase to the platform and took his usual place opposite the billboard. They’d changed the poster since yesterday. Cat food had gone. Now it was toothpaste. Jackson unfolded the newspaper and his heart lurched as he saw the headline: ‘Torso Girl Identified’.”
Much of the above is ‘showing’ and if the details of Jackson’s journey to the station are unimportant it’s better to dispense with them and go straight to the action:
“Standing on the platform in his usual place Jackson unrolled his morning newspaper. The headline made his heart lurch. ‘Torso Girl Identified’. He looked up, staring numbly at the smiling white teeth on the billboard opposite.”
But let’s say some of the details in the first example were important (the man at the newspaper stand might later be revealed as an important witness). In this case we would rewrite the passage looking for ways that show the action rather than tell.
“Dodging traffic Jackson crossed the street and approached the station newspaper stand. The usual gnarled old-timer sat behind the counter muffled against the wind. A couple of times Jackson had caught him napping and managed to filch a paper and a magazine or two. Not today. The old man watched his approach with narrow suspicious eyes…”
This version helps draw the audience into the action and has also been used as an opportunity to reveal character. We could have told you that Jackson was dishonest, but it’s better to illustrate the fact, in this case by revealing instances of past misdemeanours. Always avoid naming (telling) emotions and traits if you can, instead look for ways to show them.
How to write flashbacks
A flashback describes events that took place in the past. Some authorities dislike flashback because it puts a break on the main story happening in the here and now. It’s true that a misplaced flashback can ruin a suspenseful situation (it would be peculiar to have a man wrestling an alligator suddenly slip into a reverie about yesterday’s dinner) but flashback, like telling, can be a useful way of summarising important background information. To continue our Jackson story...
“Jackson stared at the teeth beaming at him. The girl had given him a smile like that. Before she saw the look in his eyes and her expression had changed to doubt, then fear as the knife had slipped from his sleeve. The grime-coated train rattled to a halt and the doors slid open. Jackson pushed his way past the mother and toddler trying to get off, anxious to find a seat in a secluded corner and read the rest of the story.”
The above illustrates three points.
Firstly, you must introduce your flashback with the past tense. When we read “The girl had given him…” we know we’ve gone back in time.
Secondly, the point at which we return to the present has to be clear — in this case it’s signalled by the arrival of the train.
Thirdly, it demonstrates the overuse of the word ‘had’. Flashbacks are often riddled with ‘hads’ and most are unnecessary. In this example we only need the first had so the passage could be re-written as:
“Jackson stared at the teeth beaming at him. The girl had given him a smile like that. Before she saw the look in his eyes and her expression changed to doubt, then fear as the knife slipped from his sleeve…”
Count your ‘hads’ in flashback. Often one or two are all you need to set the scene.
Exposition - explaining your story to the audience
We’ve all seen a story where one character turns to another and tells the second character something they should absolutely know already:
Prison guard 1: The main gates open at 7:00. We’ll escort McClusky onto the prison bus at 7:30.
Prison guard 2: Okay.
This information exchange is clearly aimed at the audience rather than ‘Prison guard 2’. Every guard should know when the gates open, but the audience are now aware that they apparently need to know this as well. All too often clumsy exposition like this will stick out like a sore thumb.
In reality a conversation of this sort might more realistically proceed like this:
Prison guard 1: The main gates open at 7:00. So we’ll escort McClusky onto the prison bus at 7:30.
Prison guard 2: Why are you telling me about the gates?
Prison guard 1: I’m reminding you they open at 7:00.
Prison guard 2: They’ve always opened at 7:00.
Prison guard 1: I’m just saying…
Prison guard 2: Do you think I’m stupid? Do I have brain problems?
Prison guard 1: No…
Prison guard 2: I’ve worked here longer than you have…
The trick to delivering this kind of information is to find a way of doing it naturally. For example, in the above example we could have Prison guard 2 be a rookie who still hasn’t learned the ropes (though we’d have to do a little work to identify him as a newbie) so it would be more understandable if the other guy (presumably a grizzled veteran) had to explain standard procedures to him. Alternatively we might indicate that the basic routine has changed and that Prison guard 2 might not have caught up yet. For example:
Prison guard 1: The gates open early tomorrow. At 7:00. We’ll take McClusky to the bus at 7:30.
Prison guard 2: How come 7:00?
Prison guard 1: (Shrugs) Ask the governor…
Delivering exposition in a realistic way is less of a problem in novels since an author can usually rely on the inner monologue of characters to get information across. It’s more of an issue in movies and television shows where exposition often has to be delivered quickly in order to get the audience interested and up to speed. This is why many productions rely on tropes such as ‘the new guy on the job’ to get it done. However, this technique is now so well-worn it’s become a little stale.
Ways of delivering exposition
The fish out of water
We’ve already touched on this above. One of your protagonists (or occasionally a minor character) is new to a job or situation and needs things explaining to them. Although this method might be overused it’s often the most efficient and natural way of delivering an exposition dump. After all, every story involves a character being exposed to something new and/or unusual so it’s not surprising that they would actively seek out information.
However, what should be avoided are situations where a protagonist is managing to extract information from someone who normally wouldn’t want to give them anything at all, for example, the secret agent holding a gun on a rival and getting all the details of the super villain’s hidden base (down to the villain’s inside leg measurement). If two characters would naturally be antagonistic towards each other we should give them a strong motive to cooperate, even if unwillingly. Ideally this motivation should be more interesting and complex than a simple desire to avoid pain and death.
The voice-over/screen text
Many creatives consider the use of a narrator’s voice-over (or hearing the thoughts of a character) to be an admission of failure, but sometimes it might be your only solution, especially if you’re quickly trying to get something complicated across. Both the movie versions of Dune use these techniques and, given the depth of Dune lore and the consequent potential for audience bafflement, it’s forgivable. Screen text also falls under this category, perhaps the most famous example being the, now iconic, rolling text at the start of every Star Wars movie. Some novels, often those on a fantasy theme, have their own equivalent of screen text with chapters being preceded by snippets of information taken from other sources connected with the story (diary fragments, written histories, quotes etc.). It’s perhaps no mystery why these techniques are often used in science fiction and fantasy properties which are often based on a great deal of complex world building
This applies as well to novels as it does to movies and television. A huge amount of exposition can be delivered through scene setting and non-verbal communication. If a character walks into a building like they own it, the chances are that they do own it. Humans are adept at summing up people and situations quickly and often only a fleeting look at a person or the placing of a few clues in their living space is enough to tell you their age, profession, prosperity, pastimes etc.
Many television series and movies use visual storytelling as the background to the opening titles to help the audience get up to speed with the story before the formal start of the action. In the opening of the Harrison Ford movie Patriot Games a single shot moves through the main character’s house and virtually tells us his whole life history through the examination of family photos, awards and newspaper headlines. The opening titles of the Expanse television adaptation is another example of this, a series of sped-up graphics showing the spread of humanity across the planets and moons of the solar system. We don’t get much actual plot, but the visuals and the ethereal, other-worldly (actually Norwegian) singing that accompanies the graphics do a great deal to seal the location, themes and tone of the series.
Hidden exposition: the 2+2 rule
A better way of dealing with exposition is to try and hide it. Find ways to drip-feed your audience information without letting them know what you’re up to and trust them to be able to figure stuff out for themselves. Zoo animals often enjoy their food more if they have to look for it. For this reason keepers hide fruit in odd places or hang up meat where it’s a challenge to get at. In the same way your story-hungry audience will appreciate being made to work a little rather than being constantly spoon-fed exposition. In other words, if the answer is ‘4’ give the audience the ‘2+2’ (or ‘3+1’) instead and let them do the maths.
Let’s say a key plot point in your story is that one of your characters (Vince) robs the apartment of another character (Jim). We don’t know about the robbery yet and we see Vince at the bus stop. He take off his beanie to scratch his head and a small piece of broken glass falls on the pavement. Vince flicks it into the gutter with his foot. No explanation is offered. Later, we see the police at Jim’s apartment looking at the signs of a break in. In the background there’s a broken window and shards of glass on the floor. How much attention you give to the glass will depend on how heavily you want to get the hint across. Eventually the truth will be revealed, but in the meantime you’ve given the audience a clue — something that not only provides them with information but also invites them to become more engaged with your story as they mull over the possibilities.
Don’t tie yourself in knots over exposition. Sometimes a little quick and dirty exposition might be your only way out of a fix, but the trick to good storytelling is to look ahead and avoid any narrative traps you might be heading into. If you know your character needs to go from A to B at some point in the future, figure out how they’re going to get to A in the first place and then what will propel them to travel to B. If your best solution is that a ‘mysterious stranger’ pops up and tells them to go to B, then you need a better solution. If the character finds a written clue on a scrap of paper telling them to go to B, then fair enough, but give them a good reason to pick up the paper in the first place. Think ahead and don’t rely on coincidences — many great writers have relied on coincidences to propagate their plots (Charles Dickens, for example) but it’s more usually the sign of bad planning.
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