Why Chapter One Expo Dumps Must Burn

Cover of Virals by Kathy Reichs
Ever read this book?
One of my reader's peeves almost killed two books in the past. A few months ago, it claimed its first victim.

Due to the nature of these circumstances, I will refer to the novel as Jane Doe, but despite other flaws that made continuing on with the book impossible, it proves a flaw that can break a book for me.

So, what does ViralsAshes, Ashes; and Jane Doe have in common?

They have excess exposition in Chapter One during a scene that serves little purpose except be exposition.

One Day, I Was Cleaning Seashells When...

A pile of seashells.
Are these worth talking about?
First of all, let me clarify something before I go on a semi-pseudo-rant: I consider prologues not mandatory by nature. If you're using a prologue to cover up a less-than-stellar Chapter One, you might need to arrange another round of revisions, because your story is going to suffer a dip anyways.

Katy Reichs, even though you're a best-selling author, it doesn't give you the excuse to slack on your beginning.

I'm not saying that the rest of Virals is bad. It was quite thrilling, but if it wasn't for the fact I was reading your book for school-related purposes, I would've set your book down during your multi-chapter exposition hurricane.

Rule of thumb: Exposition slows pacing. This is a rule agreed on most authors.

When you dump it in entire chunks, it slows the story to a standstill. Therefore, what's more ideal is to yearn more on the side of letting the reader be oblivious, and use mostly "scene". This means, mostly conflict, characters, dialogue, etc. Scene first, exposition second.

So why can I summarize Chapter One as this?

Tori was cleaning seashells one day when Hi, one of her best friends, came running toward her house. She ran out to meet him.

That is all. It can be easily expanded to an entire page, but from my last count, the entire chapter was six pages--most of it exposition.

I could post the page-to-page breakdown that I have figuring out how much exposition was to scene, but all you guys need to know that almost nothing happens but exposition. No conflict, just Tori cleaning seashells.

You can move the prologue to its proper position to the narrative, condense the entire first scene to an intriguing opening paragraph, and then cut back on the snark-filled info and decide what the readers really need to know from the get-go, and what can be jettisoned out of the story.

Oh, and rise-and-repeat for the next few chapters.

By the way, I consider the first "good" scene in Virals is when the point-of-view switches to the initial antagonist, Carson. Exposition dropped to more-than-acceptable levels, and I enjoyed the intrigue of not knowing about what he's cooking up.

At the same time, I wondered, "why weren't the other chapters like that?"

Some Writing Advice

Lean toward leaving readers in the dark as opposed to killing pacing with information dumps.

Also: If you have a character alone in a scene, at least have an active purpose for them. Sure, Tori cleaning the seashells characterizes her, but she isn't going to win the "Best Establishing Character Moment" award. You can glaze over the scene, get right to the action, and let the information pour out in a steady stream while getting a quick tour of the setting.

But Can It Be Done Right?

This has to be said.

I'm a stern believer that 99.99% of fiction elements can be done both right and wrong. I'm not a fan of saying "you might" or "always" and "never".

This kind of exposition isn't an exception. It's just that I tend to have bad experience with it.

The question is about how to do it correctly.

YOUR TURN: What type of beginnings do you have a peeve with? Or: What is one of your reader's peeves?

Answer in the comments, or blog about it and link back!