Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Scene, summary, exposition, backstory

At Killzone blog, a post by  James Scott Bell: Mastering the Four Modes of Fiction.

Scene is the action on the page. In movie terms, it would be what you see onscreen, and what you hear in dialogue. It’s the show part of show, don’t tell.

Summary is a narrative recounting of action in order to transition to another scene, or to cover a long period that would be too cumbersome to show. Thus, it’s the tell part of show, don’t tell. (There are other “tells” in fiction, but that’s another topic).

Exposition is story information delivered to the reader. Such information is usually about a setting (description, history, social life) or a character (description, skills, education).

Backstory is history relating to the characters or plot, something that happened before the novel begins. A flashback is all backstory, but sometimes backstory bits are dropped in as part of the narrative.

Bell then uses a particular opening scene to discuss these modes, ending thus:

[T]hree sentences of backstory in the first 2500 words, all together or spread out. Three paragraphs of backstory in the next 2500 words, all at once or spread out.

I’m intrigued, partly because Bell says explicitly that this is not a “rule,” just a suggestion to help a novice writer foreground action and scene in the opening, putting backstory and exposition on the back burner.

2500 words is roughly 8 pages, or maybe a little more, especially if there’s a lot of dialogue. I’m quite sure I have more backstory and exposition in the opening of my most recent WIP … pretty sure, anyway … but you know, maybe not too much more. Let me open it up and check … okay, I have 22 sentences of backstory and exposition in the first 10 pages. Most are in the first 2500 words.

Is this too much? No, I don’t think so. I think in a secondary world, it’s important to draw the scene and establish that this is not our world, and I think it’s important to do that early. Let’s label that “worldbuilding exposition.”

Without opening a bunch of novels to check, I bet it’s likely that most secondary world SFF is going to include more worldbuilding exposition in the opening than most contemporary thrillers.

Still, it’s quite true that the vast majority of the sentences in these first pages are scene, not anything else. I think Bell’s (mostly) right about his emphasis on scene.

It’s a pretty good post. Click through and check it out if you find the subject of novel openings interesting.


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