Tag Archives: bloated exposition

Details and Exposition #amwriting

For me, as a reader, the skill with which the delivery of background information was handled in a given work is what makes a great story. Yet as a writer, I must continually battle the foes of Bloated Dialogue and Too Much Information. Fortunately, I have a large contingent of writing friends who keep me on my toes in that regard and editors who show no mercy.

In my previous post, we spent a great deal of time on world building. We created a mountain of information, the details we, as the authors, needed so we would know what we are writing about.

Now I’m telling you to keep the details to yourself We’re weeding through that field of dreams and constructing the skeleton of the world for the reader to flesh out in their imagination.

The trick to walking the fine line between too much and not enough is to consider what the characters must know to advance the story. In some ways, writing in the first person makes controlling the dispensing of important details easier for me. When writing in this voice, the story unfolds for both the character and the reader as they go. For this reason, many of my short stories are written in the first person.

Background information should be delivered as the characters require it, no matter what voice we write in. Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those become info dumps laced with useless fluff, sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. This is referred to, in the industry, as bloated exposition.

When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things.

 “Remember the first day at the academy? We showed up wearing identical uniforms. I was so humiliated. I hated you for that. I didn’t speak to you at all until Commander Janson forced us to be partners in the biology lab, but I managed to get us through that with all A’s. But look at you now, you lucky dog. Here you are, my second in command.”

“I know, sir. I despised you too, especially when you made me do all the dirty work, cutting up that alien amphibian. And you took all the credit for it. But now here we are, the best of friends and in command of the finest ship in the United Earth Space Fleet, the USS George Lucas. I really, really love being your flunky. It is just the most awesome gig ever.”

Probably not gonna happen. When two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. The only time exposition in dialogue works is when both the reader and the character being spoken to don’t know the information being dispensed, but need it to move on to the next event.

In the second draft, we seek out and remove

  • Repetitions
  • Nonessential dialogue that does not advance the story
  • Nonessential historical information

We check to make sure the story

  • is cohesive,
  • only has events that flow logically,
  • has dialogue that contains information the reader must know.

If I were to tell you my story and place myself in my setting, I would say

It’s three in the morning. A woman sits at a broken desk, surrounded by dusty boxes. Bowed shelves filled with books loom above her, worn volumes, some more abused than others. The flickering glow of the computer screen illuminates the woman, the boxes, and books.  A train rumbling in the distance and the clicking noise of her keyboard are the only sounds to be heard in the night-silent house.

I’m not going to go into details you don’t need because you don’t care what is in the boxes, who our mortgage lender is, or that the furnace filter was just changed. The boxes, the books, and the keyboard are important—I write in our storeroom, also known as the Room of Shame. Right away, you know I’m not much of a housekeeper, I write at odd hours of the night, and you may suspect that trains symbolize an important thread in my life.

In real life, you might want to talk at length about the small details, but most of the important information is dealt with right away, and the rest is just socializing. When I think of the novels I enjoy the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.

Including nonessential socializing “just to show who the characters are” is where many first-time writers lose the reader. Your characters must socialize, but their conversations must revolve around the matter at hand.

Consider a private phone conversation you receive while you’re at work. Perhaps a friend just had a car accident. Your friend has a story to tell, and you have questions, but you don’t have time to get into the details. “Are you hurt? Can you drive the car? Do you need anything?” While the boss is glaring at the back of your head, you won’t ask if the other driver had insurance or if your friend will sue.

If writing a concise, cohesive narrative that readers will enjoy is not enough of a reason to keep your background information to just what is needed, I have another thought for you to consider.

In the real world, Indies and self-publishers pay the costs to publish their works up front. The length of the book determines these costs. In the eBook format, costs are minimal, and length doesn’t matter, but a paper book by a new author priced at more than $12.99 may not sell well.

Remember, with a longer book, external circumstances can also increase your out-of-pocket costs. Until you’re established, you must purchase your own stock to sell on consignment in local book stores. You’ll also need to buy books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and book-signings. Traditionally published authors also pay these costs, although they may not have to pay upfront as these costs will be taken out of their royalties.

Whether you are traditionally published or Indie, you’ll want to keep your cost as low as possible and still turn out a good book.

To do that, choose your words so they express what you want to say. Use them creatively to show the story, and employ every trick you can think of to keep the word count down to your target length without gutting the narrative.

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Achieving balance

the balanced narrativeYou’ve heard the saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” The implication is that a small amount of knowledge can lead to overconfidence and leaping to invalid conclusions based on what you do know without taking into account the things that you don’t know.

When we are newly-hatched authors, we eagerly soak up the wisdom offered to us through writing seminars and handbooks on the craft of writing.

But if you are an avid reader, someone who reads widely and in many different genres, you can see that writing is not simply a matter of following rules.

This is especially true in regard to the many-layered concept of exposition, introducing background and necessary information into the narrative.

Sometimes there is life in a manuscript that has broken all the rules. The work shines because it’s clear that the writer had passion and it was conveyed in the written word. Life is a natural consequence of the rush of creativity and is set into the manuscript when the first words are written.

Unfortunately it is easy to murder what began as a beautiful story. Consider those writers who spend years carefully combing every spark of accidental passion out of their work, creating textbook-perfect sentences that are flat, toneless. The reader has no desire to care about the characters or their struggle.

kurt-vonnegut_quoteI’ve also known people who use “the ‘f’ word” regularly in their work  because they think it’s cutting edge, and then they have the balls to say they write like Kurt Vonnegut.

They don’t.

Blindly breaking rules without understanding them is not good writing craft. Vonnegut understood the rules, and when he broke them, he did it to inject life into his work.

He understood balance and was not afraid to use it.

You want to create a balanced narrative:

  1. Information must be delivered only as the protagonists need it.
  2. The information can never be something everyone already knows.
  3. You must offer SOME information–people appearing out of nowhere mean nothing if you do not offer an explanation for them.
  4. No one will die if you use an adjective to describe an object, once in a while.
  5. Show people by using simple, general descriptions such as handsome or dark-haired, and use their mannerisms to convey their moods–things that allow the reader to form their own idea of what the characters look like and how they are feeling. But do give the reader something to build their visualization around.
  6. Stick to simple basic speech tags like said and replied, and if the conversation has only two people, skip them sometimes for a sentence or two.

I know a few authors who are like pendulums. They have no concept of balance and leave each meeting of their writing group with the notion that they have to go all or nothing when deploying information.

Thus, if they have been told they gave too much information, they go too far and now their characters appear out of the ether, with unexplained powers and do things that make no sense.

First you have to realize that no one writes a perfect, completely flawless manuscript, not even Neil Gaiman. And then you have to decide: are you writing for the critics who might be out there, or because you love to write.

If you are not writing for the joy of writing, quit now.

Otherwise, keep writing. Only by continued practice will you develop the balance you know you need. And you don’t have to be committed to only writing novels. Some of the best work I’ve ever read was in the form of short stories.

You can gain a handle on balance by writing short-stories and essays.

With each short-story you write, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition. This is especially true if you limit yourself to writing the occasional practice story—telling the whole story in 1000 words or less. These practice shorts serve several purposes:

  • You have a finite amount of time to tell what happened, so only the most crucial of information will fit within that space.
  • You have a limited amount of space so your characters will be limited to just the important ones.
  • There is no room for anything that does not advance the plot, or affect the outcome.
  • You will build a backlog of short stories and characters to draw on when you need a good story to enter into a contest.

Go for the gusto, and try writing flash fiction–give yourself less than 1000 words to tell a story. Or really challenge yourself–tell that story in around 100 words ( a drabble):

Drake - a drabble by cjj

Drake, © Connie J. Jasperson 2013, All Rights Reserved

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Bloated exposition and the power of the “No!”

 

Book- onstruction-signTwo-year-olds are awesome little balls of angst and joy. It’s either all happiness or all misery for them. I just spent the last two days babysitting my youngest grandson, who is two, while my daughter, a well-known musician, was in the recording studio. The dialogue between me and my grandson went something like this:

Me: “Would you like to eat dinner?”

2 yr old: “No dinner!”

Me: “Do you have to potty?”

2 yr old: “No Potty!”

Me: “Would you like ice-cream?”

2 yr old: “No ice-cream!”

It doesn’t matter what you ask the child–he is currently hardwired to say “NO!” to everything, no matter how badly he really wants it.  Everything is high drama and terrible tragedy for him–and his gut reaction to every question is driven by his newly acquired “power of the NO,”  a super-power that regularly goes to his head.

Unlike the two-year-old with his simple cut-and-dried answer for everything, we authors have a large amount of backstory that we are just sure the reader must know every minuscule detail of, and in order to avoid info dumps, we write conversations to do just that, so that the reader will not lack for information.

But this is where we authors need to exercise the power of the NO. It is also one of the hardest things we do–trying to decide what is crucial to the advancement of the plot and what could be done without. I am currently looking quite closely at one of my manuscripts, and I may cut an entire chapter that is only background. It’s awesome background, and I love this background–but when looked at with an independent eye, it doesn’t do anything but stall the forward momentum of my book.

Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those can become info dumps laced with useless fluff and are sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. This is referred to, in the industry, as bloated exposition.

When the dialogue is trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of unnatural and awkward things.

 “Remember the first day at the academy? We showed up wearing identical uniforms. I was so humiliated. I hated you for that. I didn’t speak to you at all until Commander Janson forced us to be partners in the biology lab, but I managed to get us through that with all A’s. But look at you now, you lucky dog. You are fortunate enough to be my second in command.”

“I know, sir. I despised you too, especially when you made me do all the dirty work, cutting up that alien amphibian. And you took all the credit for it. But now here we are, the best of friends and in command of the finest ship in the fleet, the USS George Lucas. I really, really love being your flunky. It is just the awesomest gig ever.”

Probably not gonna happen. When two characters go back and forth explaining precisely what they are feeling or thinking, it doesn’t seem remotely real. The only time exposition works in a novel is when both the reader and the character being spoken to do not know the information being artfully dumped.

dump no infoWhen reading, even dedicated readers will skip over large, unbroken blocks of words. Elmore Leonard said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” I feel this goes double for dialogue.

Cut to the chase. In real life, you might want to talk at length about the small details, but most of the important information is dealt with right away, and the rest is just socializing. When I think of the novels I enjoy the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.

Consider a phone conversation at work or when you’re in a hurry, and a friend just had a car accident. Your friend has a story to tell, and you have questions. “Are you hurt? Can you drive the car? Do you need anything?” While the boss is glaring at the back of your head, you won’t ask if they had insurance or if your friend will sue (unless you work for a legal firm and you’re fishing for business.)

There’s another important reason to avoid fluff in your dialogue besides the fact it makes a book more enjoyable:

In the real world, Indies and self-publishers pay the costs to publish their works up front. In the ebook format, costs are minimal and it doesn’t matter, but a paper book by a new author that has to sell for more than $12.99 may not sell well. Remember, with a longer book, your costs are increased because until you’re established, you must purchase your own stock to sell on consignment in local book stores. You’ll also need to buy books for your table at trade shows, conventions, and at most book-signings. You’ll want to keep your cost as low as possible and still turn out a good book.

Shakespeare_ICountMyselfFor an indie who writes fantasy, which tends to be longer books and is my genre, it’s most cost-effective for you to keep your work to between 90,000 and 120,000 words if you intend to print through CreateSpace, which prints my paper books. So, wise authors will avoid empty filler in their conversations at all costs.

Having said to keep it short, I know there are times when a character will have a long story to tell, and if it’s done right, it works. Usually, these are stories within stories, and they’re a bit tricky to do right. Deploy the facts, and go light on the fluff.

Remember, what worked in a Shakespeare monologue does not work in a dialogue between two people. Fictional dialogue is about give and take, meant to sound realistic but sharpened by the fact that each character needs something, and by the fact that their needs do not mesh. You won’t get two-page speeches if you remember to visualize your conversation.

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