Posts Tagged avoiding exposition
Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued at @Litopia by literary agent @agentpete , reader @kaylie_finn and me!
I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s longtime members Kaylie Finn, who knows her way around a critique.
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)
As always, the submissions had many strengths. And also much to teach us. Issues we discussed were unfortunate connotations in names, how to make fantasy ‘special’ enough, what signals a blurb gives about tone and genre, whether a blurb is misleading, how a title sets up expectations, whether a prologue is a good idea or an unnecessary distraction, how much exposition to include in a first scene, when we might need more explanation in a first scene, when action might be confusing, how much you need to explain when your story world is a well known historical event, and tricky considerations when writing in dialect.
Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
Weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, unsatisfying endings… Although Chez Morris we’ve taken time off from writing, we’ve seen some DVDs that have roused me to write posts of protest. So, to keep your critical faculties ticking over until life resumes as normal, I thought I’d share them with you in this five-part mini-series. (And yes, beware spoilers…)
Today: Doctor Who Christmas special – The Runaway Bride
In some ways I liked this as Russell T Davies is a slick, economical storyteller. I admire the way he takes a few intriguing ingredients and builds a script. In this case they are the rock that seeded planet Earth when the solar system was being formed, and ancient particles that have been deleted from the universe. I can imagine Davies daydreaming in school physics lessons and thinking ‘can’t we do something more interesting with the boring old atom?’. He mixes in a bit of showmanship and mayhem at London landmarks (and some soap opera, which I’m a little more doubtful about).
However, although he’s good at the big picture, he’s slipshod with details – and these undermine the whole story.
Writing sin 1: inconsistency in the pseudoscience We’re going to get technical here, so pay attention. Remember the deleted particles? They are attracted to the TARDIS. So one minute the bride, who has been secretly dosed with the particles, is walking down the aisle to get married. The next, she finds herself teleported to the TARDIS – which kicks off the whole story.
But later we meet other characters riddled with the particles who aren’t teleported anywhere.
The Doctor makes a flimsy attempt to explain this by saying the bride’s stress hormones and endorphins activated the particles in some way, but that’s a fudge. It’s obvious as a Dalek in your living room what the real reason is – if the other characters teleported too it would cause story chaos (and inconveniently get them out of a tight spot they weren’t supposed to escape from).
If you invent science, it has to be robust and stick to its own rules. If you find the rules are inconvenient, you can’t add exception clauses in small print. It’s particularly bad to bend them with a dose of exposition from a character who miraculously knows everything (and is therefore a get-out-of-gaol card whenever you like). If your pseudoscience rules don’t work the way you want, you have to rewrite them at a fundamental level or find another solution.
Writing sin 2: absurdity The big baddie is an alien spider creature who is millennia old. Despite this, it inexplicably knows the vows in the modern Church of England wedding service – and makes gags about them. This is clearly Russell T with his pantomime boots on, and it’s irritating. Yes, I do realise a Christmas special needs gags, but they need to make internal sense. Otherwise they smack you out of the world of the story. Oh yes they do.
Tomorrow, or next year: Salt
Until then, Bonne Annee x
Daisy Hickman from SunnyRoomStudio has sent this question. ‘How soon, when writing in first person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how do I weave it in? It always feels awkward.’
Slipping in your first-person narrator’s name is a small matter but often feels awkward. It’s logically unnecessary, since the narrator is talking to the reader directly. Of course, naming shouldn’t look like a piece of explanation for its own sake, the dreaded exposition. So writers can tie themselves in knots bringing in other characters who will intrude with a plausible reason to utter their name.
Dickens and du Maurier
Here’s how Charles Dickens handles naming in Great Expectations:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
This is the opening paragraph of the entire novel. No messing there. But actually, Dickens has another reason for giving us his MC’s name so early. For much of the book Pip isn’t very likable, but every time we see the name Pip used later on, we are reminded of his child self.
At the other end of the naming spectrum is Daphne Du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca. She doesn’t have a name at all until she marries Max and becomes Mrs de Winter. This is logical because until she marries she is a paid companion, with no status and nothing of her own and no one ever uses her name. It is also resonant– the girl has no identity, to herself or to the rest of society, until she becomes Mrs De Winter. And of course she feels like she is an impostor… I could go on.
Dickens had a good reason for giving us Pip’s name at the very start. And Du Maurier had a good one for not giving a name at all. So the reader isn’t going to feel lost or annoyed if the protagonist’s name isn’t revealed for quite some time.
Names in a first-person narrative are usually pretty peripheral anyway, unlike third person, where the name can be a profound symbol. You can get interested in a first-person character without knowing their name. We do it all the time in real life.
A terrible memory for names
How many times do you hear people say they don’t have a good memory for names? When we first meet people, we remember them more by what we connected or disagreed over. I have a friend who I first met when she was crazy for a handsome Italian guy she worked with. It was a few weeks before her name was ingrained in my brain, but I remembered every detail of her romantic plight effortlessly – and always will, even though they have married, had a daughter and divorced.
Your first connection with someone who talks to you as ‘I’ has little to do with a name. (Usually. Except for Pip. And Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who has chosen a symbolic name that tells us something about his character.)
Also, to an extent, you have a safety net. Where is the first place a reader looks once they’re enticed by your title or cover? The blurb. Most blurbs – or the Amazon version – slip in the protagonist’s name anyway. If the reader really starts to feel rudderless, they can look there. (This may seem like a cheat but it’s not a bad idea to write with an awareness of what is on the blurb. Lionel Shriver was spurred to find an extra twist in We Need To Talk About Kevin because she knew the flap copy would give away the novel’s main event. But I digress.)
- Don’t be in a panic to slip the name in. It takes as long as it takes.
- If you have a brilliant reason for doing it at the beginning, like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick, then do it. If it doesn’t naturally arise until later, don’t fret – it’s not the most important thing the reader wants to know.
- Don’t try to shoehorn in a tired scene where the character picks up the morning post and sighs that someone has misspelled their name.
- As with all kinds of back story, see if you can use the name-revealing for something else as well.
Thank you, Daisy, for a great question, and Thunderchild7 on Flickr for the picture. Let’s share some examples: first-person introductions that work brilliantly – and ones that make you cringe
Sometimes writers have to state the obvious or
put in a scene everybody is expecting. But that’s
not a licence to coast. Here’s how Stephen King’s
The Green Mile makes an obligatory scene into
Some writers might coast here – surely the material is startling enough that you don’t have to do anything else with it, right?
Here’s what The Green Mile does.
It shows two execution scenes, in stark contrast.
The first isn’t real, it’s a rehearsal. One guard plays the ‘condemned’ man. He gibbers like a loon and makes lewd last requests. When the other guards throw the switch he writhes and screams with glee. The prison governor allows them to lark about, knowing he is seeing nervous men struggling with a difficult job. He also tries to keep the joking to a minimum because there is a newcomer who needs to be trained. This allows us a way in – in several ways: the prison governor trying not to let the hi-jinks get out of hand, yet realizing the men need to let off steam. The guards themselves, coping with the stress the best way they can. And the new guard, seeing all this for the first time. It also gives the author a licence to dump in as much exposition as he wants. Masterful.
And then he goes one better by showing an actual execution. And how different it is. The prisoner is frightened. The governor handles him with great sensitivity. The guards who were roaring with laughter before are nervous and gentle.
The Green Mile could have gone straight to this scene, relying on the content to speak for itself. But because he put the other one before it, the real one becomes much more appalling. We see how strange and difficult a thing it is to extinguish life.
I often see manuscripts in which the writer assumes there are some things they don’t have to explain. Execution is a nasty business – who’d have thought? Surely you don’t have to spell that out.
Wrong. For two reasons.
1 One of the things audiences have paid their money for is details of the grisly process. They need to get it somehow. What they don’t realize they want is for you to make it way more powerful than they were expecting. So you can’t just cruise with scenes like this.
2 In the world of your story, anything is possible. You could have, if you wanted, a bunch of prison guards who were completely blase, and no more affected by executing a man than if they were squashing a fly. You set the rules of the story, what is right, what is wrong, what is difficult and what is easy. And you have to demonstrate them.
So, an execution must be shown and it must be shown to be a difficult job. But The Green Mile turns this into storytelling gold.
Have you got any favourite examples of exposition and obligatory scenes that have been handled with panache? Have you solved similar problems?
We usually do all we can to ensure readers suspend disbelief.
But there is a story technique that directly invites the reader to reject everything they are seeing.
I call it challenging the reader’s oath of faith (although more literary types call it distancing or alienation).
Here’s an example. In the film Total Recall, the action stops and a psychiatrist tells the MC, Doug, that he is not on Mars, but in Rekall Inc’s offices on Earth, dreaming a pre-ordered fantasy – go to Mars, get the girl, kill the bad guys, save the planet. Now the psychiatrist tells Doug it’s gone wrong and he must exit.
The audience knows this may be true. Right at the start of the story, we saw Doug go to Rekall Inc for a virtual vacation to Mars. Everything has happened as he asked and now somebody has appeared to tell him the fantasy has to stop. It is a question not just for Doug but the audience. Choose logic, or know you are going with a delusion.
Done badly, it’s asking for disaster. But done well, it’s powerful indeed.
It tests our faith and reinforces it. We are given evidence that Doug’s whole adventure might be a dream – and we decide we don’t care. We give him and his cause our wholehearted commitment.
There’s a classic oath-of-faith moment in The Matrix. Morpheus tells Neo: ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.’
Here’s another example, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We have shared Marion Crane’s confusion and guilt, been chilled by the creepiness of Norman. Then, in a long scene at the end of the film, a man perches on the edge of his desk and analyses everything Norman did in clinical, academic terms. Norman’s dead mother is living as an alternate psyche in Norman’s mind and that explains everything.
We think, is that all? Can this experience be summed up by psychobabble? Some commentators even complained this was Hitchcock having an off day – telling not showing, blatant use of exposition, stopping the action etc etc. They missed the point – it’s meant to make us pull back and think, this cannot be the truth.
In both these examples, the ground was prepared. Doug went to Rekall for a virtual vacation to Mars, and his adventures have been just what he asked for – so the logical objections have to be despatched at some point. And with Psycho, we do seek an explanation. But when we hear it, we shake our heads and say, no there’s so much more to it than that.
The writer’s skill was in tackling the question at the right moment. Slipping in the moment of distancing that would make us choose with our hearts.
Stories are about belief and faith. Yes, they must work logically, but that is just the surface. Underneath this, good stories tap into what we want, what we love, fear and care about. We respond to people we like and dislike, what is right, satisfying, inexplicably wrong – and what we feel to the core of our souls.
If you dare, tell the reader it isn’t real.
If you simply must explain a process or procedure in your story, make it into a bit of an adventure. Like this recipe…
I wanted to do a festive post. Many blogs I follow offer recipes for brain-stimulating confections, Holly Cupala and jmartinlibrary to name but two. With a handle like Dirty White Candy it surely was my duty to create a signature goody. Especially as no one can tell me what the real stuff was.
I imagined the photo that would accompany the post. Heaps of something yummy, mainly white, streaked with trademark ‘dirt’. Perhaps chocolate. Or coffee.
I polled some friends. ‘Suggest a recipe that could be Dirty White Candy.’ Try divinity fudge with a twist, said one. How about bashed up biscuits instead of nuts? Perfect.
Only, in order to take the sumptuous picture, I would have to make the darned stuff. And, as any of you fudgemeisters will know, this entails faffing with molten sugar and thermometers.
I don’t have a sugar thermometer. I have never dabbled in such things. Years ago, chemistry A level put me off heating sugar vigorously. It’s a short step from caramel to tar-plating your pan. But I am an optimist. And I had set my heart on posting a festive recipe for dirty white candy.
I am also not patient. I could have waited to buy a proper thermometer, but I wanted to do it right away. Besides, knowledgeable souls said a bowl of iced water might do. That’s all I needed to hear. After all, I have chemistry A level. Surely I could manage.
I’m not saying I felt totally confident. I chose a pan I didn’t mind ruining. I read the instructions several times, even though they seemed simple. Put sugar, corn syrup, salt and water in a pan and heat until boiling. When it’s soft ball, dollop a spoonful into the beaten egg whites. Somehow, keep beating the egg whites with one hand and your volcanically hot sugar with the other. Steady the pan with your tail, if you have one.
I started. The sugar melted and in seconds was bubbling violently. Cripes, it was a monster. I spooned gobbets into the iced water until one drop formed a tiny pearl. Hooray, soft ball. Or maybe beyond. (Wished I got that thermometer; black tar was possibly moments away). I whisked a bit into the egg white and it took on a glossy appearance, like meringue. So far, so good.
Now I had to keep stirring everything, while testing for light crack, or something. Here my confidence got shaky, as did my multitasking. A spoon in each pan AND dropping stuff into water? That required three hands. And the testing instructions were alarmingly vague. It would leave streaks in the air when you pulled the spoon out, apparently. Even better, it would happen VERY FAST and if not turned out immediately would stick in the pan like a pot of set glue. As if the first stage hadn’t been fast enough. Eek.
By now I had no idea what I was doing. Every time I dropped it into the water it looked the same. But wasn’t it supposed to change VERY FAST?
Perhaps it had already.
I lost my nerve, whipped it off the heat, whupped it into the egg whites, shook in the bashed biscuits, spread it on a tray and heaved a sigh of relief. Whoo, I made dirty white candy. No blackened disaster, and no glue.
Except it didn’t set. It remained there like a big white splat. I had peaked too early.
‘Um, what is it supposed to look like?’ said Dave.
‘Divinity fudge,’ I said.
‘And what does that look like?’
‘Actually, I’ve no idea.’
(In England, we don’t have divinity fudge.)
We prodded it. Ate spoonfuls (several in fact). We left it, in case it wanted time to think. It developed a light skin, like custard does, but that was as solid as it got.
I’d come this far. Darn it, I wanted my signature candy. But in no way could I cut this up and display it on my prettiest plates, as cake gurus insist you must. Pretty plates wouldn’t hide the truth.
I wondered about doing it all again. No; without a sugar thermometer there might be worse outcomes than a big white splat.
Dave said: ‘Let’s smear it on ginger biscuits and make it look as though it’s worked, then you can take the picture.’ We did. It looked like sticky white stuff smeared on biscuits, (although it didn’t taste bad). I reckoned even if we didn’t have a clue what divinity fudge looked like, you guys would spot the subterfuge.
We ate spoonfuls until our teeth felt like they were wearing socks. Considerable amounts remained. We squashed it into a bowl and stuck it in the fridge. Next morning it had not transformed. It reproached me every time I went to get the milk.
In desperation I spooned dollops onto a baking sheet and shoved it in the oven at 200C. In 12 minutes they had swollen into golden cookies, light as clouds, and sticky within. Delicious.
And so, after much ado, I can present to you, dirty white candy… the cookies! Happy holidays. Or as we say in the divinity fudgeless world, merry Christmas and a happy new year. It’s not what I set out to make, but hey that’s part of the fun.
Stories are like that too. The best scenes or anecdotes, expositional or not, don’t turn out as anyone expects.
How have you handled scenes that were in danger of being exposition?
And have you tried making my cookies 😉 ?