CRAFT OF WRITING: Sgt. Exposition, meet Detective Backstory

“And now,” Dr. Zurückgeschichte said, “please explain to me how an infodump works.”

*snrrrk* Go read.

This reminds me of an old setpiece (some might call it “preaching”) that I used to paste into the FidoNet WRITING echo now and then. I think I must have written it myself . . . it has been so long that I can’t really remember, but if it was a collaborative effort, one of you others speak up so I can credit you.

PHONY DIALOGUE–Sergeant Exposition and Major Payne

The question for today is: What exactly do you consider Exposition? And why is it such a “no-no”?

“Good questions, Sgt. Exposition. Care to explain?”
“Of course. As you know, Detective Backstory, you and I have worked at the Slippery Rock Police Department for three years together as partners. And you remember last week when we stopped those evil doughnut thieves outside Don Quinn’s doughnut shop and recieved the Big-Time Good Guy awards to wear on our badges?”
“Yeah, Sarge. I do. But remember, the boss isn’t really happy with us anyway, and so we’re hoping we won’t hear his voice crackling away on our radio any time soon. If the dispatcher, Molly–who is my cousin’s daughter and is dating my son’s roommate–calls us back to the station, we’re in big-time doo-doo.”

…And so forth. That’s an extreme example of dialogue misused as exposition and to tell backstory. What you want to do–since the reader prolly needs to hear this stuff or become aware of some of it–is to either show what you can of it, or dribble those details in and work them in among events. For example:

The dispatcher’s voice crackled as the radio came alive. “Cousin Ernie, the chief needs to see y’all two. He says right away.”
Sergeant Exposition nearly spilled his coffee. “#*$&#@,” he muttered under his breath as his partner turned the squad car around to head back to the station. “Why does he have a problem with us? We’re doing our jobs.”
“Politics,” said Detective Backstory. “Hate that. Can’t get away from it, even way out here in boonieland. Anyway, answer her. I’m busy navigating traffic, and besides, she’s your cousin.”
Sgt. Exposition picked up the mike. “That’s a ten-four, cuz. We’re heading in. By the way, heard anything on the doughnut case? Have they decided to pursue it, or did old Jeb drop the charges?”
“Haven’t heard. Jeb’s busy making another complaint about a guy who didn’t pay for his doughnut holes.” Papers rustled in the background. “See you in a minute.”
“Over and out.” He sighed. “Slippery Rock used to be such a quiet little tow–”
“Give it a rest,” his partner said. “Spare me. Can we talk about something else?”

And so forth. That’s all off the cuff, so it’s a mess, but you get the idea. If you can work in a paragraph or two of explanation, more the better, but usually you can only get a line or three in over the course of some type of action.

You don’t want to have lots of meaningless action just so you can have places to sprinkle in these lines, though. I did *that* when I was learning how to not have a block of coredump text up front. Crit partners would say, “You mention Herbie here. Who is he?” So I’d go insert a line about that. The next time someone read it, they’d comment on that line (’cause it was outta place, but all the reader knew was it was odd.) So I would add three paras on Herbie and where he went to school and his blood type and what he wanted for Christmas. This led to the opening of the book being ruined, completely ruined, I tell you, and then after a few “fixes” like this, I’d end up scrapping the story. Most of those books were fixed by deleting the first chapter or two (but I usually kept my opening hooks, because people didn’t comment negatively on the good ones.) Live & learn.

So. Always be wary of using dialogue in a dum-dum way to get information across to the reader and/or advance the plot. Readers know when characters are telling others things that they already know, or should know. “As you know, Bob, we all live in a giant jar of Tang in Gramma’s cupboard.” There are only a few situations in which you should allow one character to say to the other, “Tell me again, Bruce: What are we doing next?” If you do this, you’d better be showing how Bruce’s friend is getting forgetful because he has a concussion or is being affected by a magic spell, or whatever.

I also think that it’s unwise to “date” your work (and I don’t mean ask it out to Denny’s for a noodle-burger) by using trendy talk. Ann Packer’s characters are so trendy that they already seem like caricatures:
“‘What’s up with that?’ I said. ‘Is this a thing [love affair]?'”
“Like, I dunno,” she said. “It’s like, you know. WhatEVer. D’oh!”
“‘What is it with him?’ I asked. ‘I mean, really.'”

Dialogue offers a glimpse into character that a writer simply can’t get across any other way–and it’s a painless and usually enjoyable way for the reader to figure out things about the characters. Hidden wit, thoughtful observations, a shy “secret” revelation, or a charming aside will show what the author can’t tell. If Junie makes remarks that are out of character, it had better be a signal, or mean that she’s succumbing to the drugs, or reveal that someone’s promoting a hidden agenda

In the novel “Three Junes,” every male character started to sound like the author’s version of Noel Coward: fey, acerbic, witty, superior, puckish, diffident. At first I laughed, but eventually the book hit the wall.

Do your best to give each character his or her own voice (which is a lot more important than the physical description that the reader will skim and then promptly forget as she forms her own inner picture of each person), and perhaps your book won’t get bruised by hitting the wall all those times. . . .

# # #
Typical critgroup babble:
McSweeney’s take on Ulysses at the crit group

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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