Friday, April 28, 2017

Basic Training

A popular post from January 2008

By Julie Wright

This is just some good old fashioned nuts and bolts writing information for today. I am writing this post mainly because I've done a lot of editing books for new authors, and because I've done a lot of reading of author's first books and think we could all benefit from a little refresher course.

There is a broadway musical called Urinetown. In the opening scene officer Lockstock explains the musical to the audience.

Little Sally comes along and asks, “Say, Officer Lockstock, is this where you’re going to tell them about the water shortage?”

To which Officer Lockstock replies, “Everything in its time, Little Sally. You’re too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”

Little Sally ponders this, and then replies, “How about bad subject matter? Or a bad title? That could kill a show pretty good.”

“Yes, yes, a bad title and too much exposition!” Since the subject matter of this musical is pretty bad, the title is outright horrible, and the fact that the whole first ten minutes was exposition and explaining why exposition is bad, it all worked as a marvelous parody and a downright funny scene.

In a new author's manuscript where he isn't trying to make a mockery of the scene, it's not funny.

You've all heard it--show don't tell. Exposition is where we find ourselves giving a summary of events and dialogue rather than putting it into real action and dialogue. Exposition reads like a laundry list of things the character did and said today. Readers don't want to be told a story. They want to be in the story.

Instead of TELLing your readers that Emma is depressed and frustrated, SHOW her taking a bite of her favorite cake and pushing the rest away.

Instead of TELLing your reader that Sam's car is a broken-down wreck, SHOW him twisting two bare wires together to get the headlights to come on.

Instead of TELLing your readers. “Amanda took one look at the hotel room and recoiled in disgust.” SHOW the cockroach crawling over the edge of the bathroom sink, crawling down the cabinet (hanging by a single hinge), scurrying across the threadbare carpet, and disappearing under the rusty bed that sags in the middle.

Instead of saying: My mom hated my new hair cut. Make it: Mom reached for my head, but her hand halted at the place where my long curls should have been as though she could still sense them there, as though she were one of those amputees who still felt phantom pain in a leg long gone. "What have you done to your hair?"
"I cut it."
"I can see that! Why would do such a stupid thing? You look like an army sergeant. You need to fix this!"
I snorted at that. "What do you want me to do? Should I go back to the salon and demand they glue it all back?"
My mom pulled her hand away and wiped it on the front of her skirt as though she'd touched something dirty.

The exposition was dry . . . part of a laundry list. But showing the scene creates tension and character development. Now you don't have to tell us that Anne and her mom don't always agree. You don't have to tell us that Anne is independent, and does what she wants in spite of other people's opinions. You don't have to tell us that Anne falls into sarcasm in an effort to win arguements. You don't have to tell us that Anne's mother is a more traditional person. You can sense that by the fact she disapproves of Anne's new hair style--by the fact that she's wearing a skirt.

One conversation of realistic dialogue and we know quite a bit about these characters. The exposition would have put us to sleep.

In your writing, avoid lengthy bouts of exposition. Avoid the laundry list of what your character did and said today. Put your reader in your story by making them feel as though they are living it.


Celise said...

I was emailing a teen today who's writing a book and had asked me for some advice. One of the things I told her was to edit, edit, edit. Then edit some more. And then have it professionally edited. I also told her about this phrase and the fact that it's something I don't do very well.

I have a habit of telling and not showing. As I go back and start the editing process again I want to thank you for the reminder.

Annette Lyon said...

Awesome post--great examples! My favorite line: "Readers don't want to be told a story. They want to be in the story."

Writers should put that on a banner near their work space.

Heather B. Moore said...

Thanks for sharing, Celise. It's true that the hard part of writing is the editing. I have to go back and work on this after my first drafts. Great examples, Julie!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the post. Thank you.