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Be a Better Writer--EXPOSITION AND HOOK

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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glorybee
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Be a Better Writer--EXPOSITION AND HOOK

Postby glorybee » Sat Dec 05, 2015 10:08 am

EXPOSITION is defined as passages early in the story or novel that give the reader information about the characters and the setting.

I’m a bit hesitant to use that definition, though. I’d hate for people to think that in order to have a “correct” story, they have to provide names of the major characters and their locations in space and time within the first fifty words.

However, you don’t want to keep your reader guessing for too long. I’ve read stories where I assumed the narrator was a male until halfway through, when someone addresses her as “Susie,” and stories in which I never learn whether the main character is male or female. I’ve read stories where I’ve had to mentally revise the time period or location several times. Show your reader these things early in the story—unless you’ve got some compelling reason (like a surprise ending) to keep it secret. In particular, if your story is happening in a time and place other than here and now, your readers need to know—and the more distant or unusual your setting, the more important it is to include it in your exposition.

However, don’t feel as if you have to tell your readers the characters or the setting. I see this sort of thing frequently:

17-year-old Patrick was a junior at LaVille High School.

Contrast that with this:

Patrick flicked on his iPod as he slumped into biology class.

The second example uses almost the same number of words, but it allows the reader to make some implications. It shows, not tells. The reader understands that Patrick is a teenager (is it really important to know his exact age?), that this is set in a modern time period, in a high school—and she also can infer that Patrick has a bit of an attitude.

Your exposition also might include some of the backstory of your characters (or, in some cases, the world you’ve created). However, the same caveat applies here—you don’t have to give a paragraph that summarizes the past three years of your character’s life or the entire past history of the village where your story takes place. What you should do is lay a groundwork for that backstory—like Goldilocks, drop some crumbs for your reader throughout the story that will lead her on and on to greater understanding. The first few crumbs should fall during the exposition.

Those of you who are fond of rules might be wondering, how long should the exposition be? What percent of my story should I devote to this before I get into the meat of the story? I’m sorry that I can’t give you an exact number—in a very short piece of writing like the Writing Challenge, the exposition might be only a sentence or two, or it could be a few paragraphs. In a full-length novel, the exposition might be the first few chapters. In any case, while the exposition is orienting the reader in time and place, it can also start to set the plot in motion.

I also don’t want you to feel that you have to write a formulaic piece in which the first paragraph always introduces a character and a setting. A typical short story plot structure consists of these elements, in this order: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. But writing is an art form, and it may serve your purpose to do away with the exposition altogether. Still, I think it’s helpful for writers to have these terms in their toolboxes.

Back to my example of Patrick and his iPod—the 2nd sentence above uses words like “flicked” and “slumped”—which leads me to the next term for this class:

HOOK—Writing that grabs a reader’s attention, making him or her want to read on.

Here are a few tips for writing a great hook:

1. Use strong and interesting word choices, particularly nouns and verbs. I’ve mentioned salsa words and rice cake words before. It’s particularly important to use salsa words in your hook.

2. Consider writing a short opening sentence. Some readers will only give you one sentence to reel them in. Make it a good one, and don’t force a potential reader to give up before she even reaches the end of the first sentence.

3. Write something unusual—something to make the reader think “huh?”

4. Think about introducing the conflict within the first few sentences. If a backstory is needed, you can fill the readers in once you’ve hooked them.

5. Most effective hooks will contain action over description.

Now I know you’re probably wondering how you can include information about the main character and the setting and something unusual and some conflict and action—all within maybe just a few sentences. The answer is that you may not be able to do all of those things—but you can certainly do some of them.

For an example of a Writing Challenge entry with a discernable exposition, here’s Something Like Light. I’d say that the first two paragraphs definitely provide the characters and the setting—I’ll let you determine which of the listed points for hook apply to this story.

HOMEWORK:

1. Copy and paste the exposition of a short story or a book that you’re familiar with (be sure to cite it). Make a comment on its effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness). Did it hook you? How?
2. If you have a Writing Challenge entry with an exposition or hook that matches one of the points in this lesson, link to it and say something about it.
3. Make a comment or ask a question about exposition or hook.
Jan Ackerson -- Follow me, friend me, give me a wave!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--EXPOSITION AND HOOK

Postby itsjoanne » Sat Dec 05, 2015 2:13 pm

For hook, the very first thing that popped into my head as I was reading through the lesson was the first line of 1984 by George Orwell: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." An absolute (in my view) perfect example of #3 under hook - Who DIDN'T say "Huh" at that line? And who can resist reading more?

I love how the first part of the sentence is "ordinary world," yet before the sentence is over, we are thrown into something odd, foreign, strange - and we have NO idea what it is. All in 14 words.

Great lesson, Jan.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--EXPOSITION AND HOOK

Postby glorybee » Sat Dec 05, 2015 3:22 pm

itsjoanne wrote:For hook, the very first thing that popped into my head as I was reading through the lesson was the first line of 1984 by George Orwell: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." An absolute (in my view) perfect example of #3 under hook - Who DIDN'T say "Huh" at that line? And who can resist reading more?

I love how the first part of the sentence is "ordinary world," yet before the sentence is over, we are thrown into something odd, foreign, strange - and we have NO idea what it is. All in 14 words.

Great lesson, Jan.


Totally agree, Joanne! In fact, when I used part of this material for a presentation, I used that very sentence as an example. Great minds...
Jan Ackerson -- Follow me, friend me, give me a wave!
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