Exposition Should Serve the Scene, Not the Other Way Around

Image: coastal cliffs at sunset

Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Submit your first page for critique.

First Page

Easter sat on the clifftop looking out over the bright sea. There was a steady onshore breeze blowing, stinging her eyes and tossing her hair out behind her. She refused to bind her hair, as her mother bid her do, for the eyes of the young men followed the hair as it bounced and swayed and danced. The eyes of the young men were a novelty and a delight. Not so long ago a child’s smock had hung from narrow shoulders straight downward to the ground. But now a woman’s dress flowed over curves like the tide flowing over smooth stones. The eyes of the young men followed the curves. They hung around her like seagulls hanging on the wind, eyes hungry for something beneath the surface of the wave.

Nor was she shy about looking at the young men. In the autumn, when the harvest had called every able body, man, woman, child, noble, free, and slave, into the fields from dawn till dusk, she had gloried in their broad backs, the flow of their muscles under the skin, the salt sweat of their tanned faces. And in the quiet of the evenings, she had found herself delighting in the thought of lying beside this one or that in the soft new-cut grass, and of the rasp of a calloused hand upon soft flesh.

She was not for them, of course. She was a thegn’s daughter, and promised long since to an ealdorman’s son. Their eyes had no right to follow as they did. Her thoughts had no right to stray to hard hands or soft grass.

She was herself the product of a harvest tryst, as she had learned the year before, when her mother, Edith, a little wistful and a little tipsy, in the glow of a winter fire, had told how the daughter of a Welisc slave had become the wife of an Anglish thegn. Her mother’s tale had, for a while, made a pile of straw beneath of dome of stars seem a richer bed than any hall or villa could provide. But the tale had ended with a moral. Had her father not chosen to take her mother to wife, he had only to place a few shillings in a freeman’s pocket to marry Edith and raise the thegn’s child as his own. That would have settled that matter, and Edith would have lost nothing. But there was no such option for a thegn’s daughter, particularly one who had been promised from birth to the son of a greater lord. From where she sat, she could only fall. And so Easter had not lain in straw beneath the stars, not tasted salt sweat or a warm mouth, not felt hard hands gentle on her softness. She had lain, as she always did, at home in the hall in the bed she shared with her sisters.

First-Page Critique

In Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s drama about a group of desperate real estate salesmen, there’s a scene in which an aggressive head-honcho from headquarters (Alex Baldwin in the movie version) arrives to remind them of the most important imperative of real estate sales, the “ABC rule”: “Always Be Closing.”

I share a similar injunction with my writing students: Always be writing scene, with the understanding that a scene includes not just the basic elements of drama—action, dialogue, and setting—but descriptions, exposition, flashbacks, and any other contextual matter that helps us to understand and appreciate the scene in question. If “show, don’t tell” isn’t always good advice, it’s because it ignores the fact that more often than not telling and showing go hand in hand. They need each other.

Sometimes, though, showing may be at odds with telling, and vice-versa, as on this first page, one that—however beautifully written—raises the question: When is a scene really a scene, and when is it just an expedient for exposition?

The scene: a woman (“Easter”) sits at the top of a cliff overlooking the sea, the wind tossing her hair behind her. The exposition occasioned by the scene: how for years Easter’s hair has been an object of fascination among the local “young men,” and how, as she has matured, to the presumed consternation of her mother who consistently “bid her” to wear it bound, she has become an object of sexual intrigue and conjecture.

The image of Easter sitting on that wind-swept cliff in her “woman’s dress [that flows] over [her] curves like the tide flowing over smooth stones” is powerfully evoked and no less alluring than her hair to those young men. But no sooner is it evoked than we leave her sitting there on that cliff to be taken to a vague location where “[t]he eyes of the young men [follow those] curves.” Or are the young men actually watching her from a distance as she sits on that cliff, as suggested by their eyes being likened to the seagulls “hanging on the wind”? Though it’s possible, I doubt it. To me the scene finds the protagonist distinctly alone, out of sight of those probing eyes.

Which raises the question: does this clifftop scene, this action of a woman sitting alone on a cliff, furnish the best opportunity for the exposition about the young men and their probing eyes? Does that exposition arise organically from the scene, or is the scene merely an excuse for it? While it’s entirely possible to imagine those young men’s eyes forming part of Easter’s experience as she sits there, either because she’s aware of them watching her at the moment, or because she’s aware of having escaped them, neither of those motives would seem to apply here. The wind tossing her hair: that’s the one thing that connects the cliffside scene to the exposition about those young men and their eyes, but it’s a tenuous connection. From there we proceed to the young men’s broad backs as they work the fields during the autumn harvest, and quiet evenings during which Easter contemplates “the rasp of a calloused hand” upon her “soft flesh.” From there we go on to some exquisitely written exposition concerning Easter’s birth and lineage: “She was herself the product of a harvest tryst”.

All this vivid exposition comes at a price: it leaves the scene of the girl sitting on that cliff in the dust. By the end of the page we’ve all but forgotten it. No wonder, since the author, too, seems to have forgotten all about it.

But was it ever really a scene to begin with? Where a true scene might occasion exposition that furthers and deepens our understanding of and involvement in it, in this case the author has given us a “pseudo-scene” the purpose of which is merely to provide a tenuous occasion for the rich exposition it gives rise to. No sooner did we engage the scene than we, along with the author, bailed out of it.

Your First Page Selgin

I see two solutions: either dispense with the pseudo-scene and launch us directly into exposition setting up a genuine scene, or make the cliffside scene a genuine one, an active here-and-now scene in which the exposition about the young men and their eyes is interspersed and out of which it springs organically and urgently, motivated either by Easter’s having momentarily evaded them, or by her gratified if guarded awareness that they are nearby, watching her as she sits on that cliff.

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.) Here’s how to submit your first page for critique.

Note: The publisher of Your First Page is offering free shipping if you order the book directly from their site. Use code YFPfreeship.

Posted in First Page Critiques, Guest Post.

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer's Digest, Serving House Books, Broadview Press), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. A novel-in-manuscript, “The Water Master,” won the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Best Novel. His memoir, The Inventors (Hawthorne Books), which won the Housatonic Book Award, was among Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2016. He is Associate Professor of English at Georgia College & State University. Find out more at his website.

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Melissa Alexander

I agree that, at the end, there has been no action that moved the story forward. I could also say there’s a lot of backstory here. But I also have to say, I am captured by the voice and the background, and I’d have KEPT READING. That, to me, is the deciding factor as whether it works as a first page.

Peter Selgin

I agree with you that as written this first page has some strong qualities (especially, as you point out, the narrator’s voice) and may keep readers reading. But for me anyway the point isn’t whether a first page is “good enough,” but whether and how it might be improved.

Julia Pace

There are some beautifully turned phrases in the page, and it kept my interest, though I wondered about two things. First, “Had her father not chosen to take her mother to wife, he had only to place a few shillings in a freeman’s pocket to marry Edith and raise the thegn’s child as his own. ” This sentence made me stop and read it twice. Who exactly does ‘his own’ refer to? It could be her father or the freeman who was paid a few shillings. The story only makes sense one way, but I had to re-read it. Then,… Read more »

Carol F Saller

I agree – beautiful and intriguing, with an opportunity to be improved as Peter suggests. I stumbled and had to reread the same sentences that Julia Pace mentions, however, so a little copyediting is in order.

Francine Howarth

In simple terms this is a critique by an author of another’s author’s work. Albeit I am a author too, the one thing I taught myself from reviewing books for some thirty years as a professional book reviewer for a news rag supplement, that one must indeed read as an every day reader not as an author, not as a pseudo editor. To separate oneself from authorship and avoid any attempt to rewrite a novel to your own writer voice, or worse, your own prejudice of what is written, is really quite hard to do until one stops and thinks:… Read more »

Peter Selgin

Unless I’ve misread you, you seem to be suggesting that the sort of critique I offer here is unhelpful. You’re hardly the first to express this view, but it’s one I have trouble understanding. I’m reminded of my first experience of having my work criticized by the man whom I consider to have been by far my best mentor. Don Newlove (himself an author and a very good one) went through a story of mine line by line, striking through every other sentence, offering his suggestion in its place—“tearing it up,” you might say, but that’s not how I saw… Read more »

Francine Howarth

Feedback in private is fine, and yes editors in particular pick up on loopholes as do beta readers, but I thoroughly disapprove of blogging critiques in public. How does that help you as an author? It doesn’t, it merely shows you telling the author what is wrong and others will agree with you, or not, and yet the piece you chose had credit in its own right. It’s always tempting to cite examples, but again from experience of quality editors, many will say one has to remember we’re not writing the book, therefore we have to be careful we don’t… Read more »

Forrest Castle

I’m a bit confused by your critique of the critique as these are writers who are asking/applying to have professional suggestions in this public forum which they can learn from, incorporate, or ignore. It is truly a wonderful service especially as so many of us who write do so alone without readers or perspective.

Anne Green

I agree. Whether or not the writer who submitted the piece agrees with or likes everything that Peter says about their work, it was their choice to put it forward for critique. And presumably (having done it myself I can make an educated guess to some extent) this is so they can identify ways of improving what they’ve done and finding out how others react to it. Surely this is the point of writing – to engage readers and what writer are always seeking to do. Criticism is always harder to receive than praise, but the best thing about it… Read more »

Mark Baker

As the person who did submit this piece for review (and happily paid for the privilege), I feel the same way. Criticism may be harder to receive than praise, but it is also more valuable and harder to find. So I’m grateful for Peter’s critique and I take something valuable from it. It is certainly true, though, that when you set out to critique, you read differently than when you just read for pleasure. As someone who has participated in critique groups for many years, this is something I am keenly aware of, and it worries me sometimes that I… Read more »

Jane Friedman

Thank you for this thoughtful comment, Mark.

Peter Selgin

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Mark. You’re certainly right that when we read critically we read differently than when reading “for pleasure,” though for certain readers the two forms of reading are inseparable (they have become so for me!). But I prefer to think of what I do as analytical rather than critical, asking myself, as I read, what is compelling or impeding a sense of momentum and suspense: what questions are raised, what information provided, and how does the ratio of information given to questions raised add up to suspense and/or confusion? In the case of your first page,… Read more »

Mark Baker

Thanks, Peter. After pondering it a while, I did a revision based on your analysis. First agent I sent it to asked for a partial!

Peter Selgin


Lynn Shaffer

Although I appreciate some of the points you are making, I interpret this post as offering a general lesson on the interplay between scene and exposition rather than a critique or review of a specific author’s writing. Presumable Mr. Selgin has gotten the permission of this author to use their work for this purpose?

Gail Trowbridge

The young men need to be in this scene in a real way – working somewhere nearby? Otherwise, as a reader, I think of them as amorphous characters, maybe in Easter’s mind but not here, with us. The writing is strong and I think the advice given here is good. The first page is so crucial; I am writing a novel and keep going back to the first page, trying to make it sing.