Exposition means background details provided by the storyteller or narrator. It is sometimes called setting the scene.
In a short story everything hangs on the start. You need an explosive start to grab the reader’s attention. Skilful writers can introduce key information about settings, characters and themes. The best authors can intrigue the reader enough for them to go further. Short stories do not have the luxury of starting slow. Hooking the reader in the first paragraph is essential.
1. Be imaginative when introducing intriguing information about your characters.
Gillian Mears starts the first paragraph of her collection of short stories Ride a Cock (1988):
Sss, sss, sss, the men sounded deadly and wielded imaginary whips. Beetle lifted his leg at the bottom of one pair of trousers, but nobody yelled or noticed. Albert laughed secretly and pressed on to be within sight of the finishing post.
Background information we need for this story is found in this paragraph.
We learn about one of the main characters. We know that his name is Albert and he is somewhat sardonic. Also he has a dog called Beetle and is keen on the races.
There is information about the setting. We know they are at the track and the horses are racing to the finish line.
This makes the reader ask more questions. It suggests interesting character information and hints at Albert’s motivations.
The fourth paragraph:
‘Go it girl,’ he hugged himself tightly as he recognised the big bay mare he’d bet Jinnie would lead all the way. From where he stood, she looked a certainty. Then suddenly it came to Albert that she was yawing into the straight all wrong.
The introduction of Jinnie, the second character occurs and we want to know more about the mare.
2. Create questions readers want answered.
Mears has cleverly piqued our curiosity. She has done this in the following ways.
There is involvement with the characters and what they will do: Why is the dog there? Why are they racing? How is Albert involved? Who is Jinnie?
There is a dramatic event without explanation: Why is the mare not running correctly? Why is this so important?
3. Use dramatic contrast.
The scene starts with the mundane act of going to the track with a pup. We can already sense something is wrong with the situation and anything but ordinary. The strange circumstances are juxtaposed to an everyday occurrence.
4. Use a strong narrators voice or a memorable setting.
A strong narrator’s voice combines with a captivating start in Recipe for Bees by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (1999):
“Have I told you the drone’s penis snaps off during intercourse with the queen bee?” asked Augusta.
‘Yes,” said Rose. “Many times.”
Before August dragged her luggage upstairs to the apartment, before she checked on the welfare of her elderly husband, Karl, even before she hugged and greeted her seven kittens, she had made her way, with the aid of a cane, across the uneven ground to inspect the hive of bees she kept in Rose’s garden.
A memorable setting is found in her second book. This detailed setting exposition is intensely nostalgic.
“When it came looking for me I was in the hollow stump by Turtle Creek at the spot where the deep pool was hidden by low hanging bushes, where the fishing was the very best and only my brother and I figured we knew of it. Now, in spring, the stump blossomed purple and yellow violets so profusely that it became something holy and worth pondering. Come fall, the stump was flagrantly, shamefully red in a coat of dying leaves from the surrounding trees. This was my stump, where I stored my few illicit treasures: the lipstick my mother smuggled home for me in a bag of rice; the scrap of red velvet…
Told through the eyes of 15-year-old Beth, living in rural Canada, this novel is an intense sensory experience set during World War Two. Anderson-Dargatz’s lament for yesteryear is driven by the reflection of the first-person narrator. This places it in the memory of the storyteller. The nostalgic treatment delivers a lyrical history amidst a stunning landscape of purple swallows and green skies.
The remote Turtle Valley in Canada almost becomes a character in its own right, as the poignant significance of it threads through the novel.
Enjoy writing the start of your story. When you have finished all sections you can enter it into the Mary River Press Services competition. Winners get a free appraisal.