I was tossing and turning and thinking about this stuff, so I got up to post.
Some writing groups forbid “exposition” in storytelling. Now, I can’t quite grok this, but what I suppose they mean is that they don’t want you to have a lot of backstory and explanation in your rising action. I don’t think you can do completely without exposition, but let’s examine some of this more closely.
You don’t want to do an infodump. Neither do you want to have one character say to the other, “As you know, Bob, we all live in a jar of Tang.” (Even if they do.) So how are you to clue readers in on what is going on and who these people are? How do you keep them reading when they’re stopping to ask, “Who’s Joe? What’s a grimfrasq?”
First, let me address this last question. Maisie Gotta-Know: you’re going to have one like her in every crit group. You write, “I was closing up shop when the phone rang. I hoped it was Joe, but it was a synthesized voice. It said, ‘Stop asking questions or you’re dead.'” She immediately says, “WHO IS JOE? Tell us who Joe is. We need to know RIGHT NOW!”
Maisie doesn’t realize that part of what she’s supposed to be curious about is who Joe is. It’s good to mention your main characters as early on in the narrative or dialogue as you possibly can, and then when the guy comes onstage readers can say, “Aha, Joe! Here he is. We expected him.” That’s a minor story question, and you don’t want to stop the story right away to answer it. If you write, “I hoped it was Joe, our company president,” you’ve taken away some of the curiosity/mystery, slowed the pace of the sentence, and distracted readers from the impact of the threat. That’s not a perfect example, but I’ll bet you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve been challenged by critiquers to go back and put in explanations RIGHT AWAY for every little detail or clue you drop, just ignore them. They’re wrong.
(Although sometimes you DO need to add that little appositive about a character who won’t be seen again. “It was Officer Krupke, that dumb cop who gave me the parking ticket.” You’ll know when to do this.)
STORY QUESTION! Raise one right away. Keep a story question raised. If beta readers keep notating, “Who is Joe? Why does she shy away from discussing him every time he’s mentioned?” you are doing it right, as they don’t need to know all of that up front (even though they will encourage you to do infodumps RIGHT THEN so they KNOW IT ALL NOW); that’s why they keep reading–they keep reading to find out.
Okay, back to incluing. Jo Walton coined the term, but now I hear it everywhere– it’s the process of giving information subtly and mixed in with the dialogue and action of the story, rather than having it dumped in a lump of exposition. Some people call it “leaving breadcrumbs,” like Gretel when she and Hansel went into the woods: you leave a trail of clues and minor mentions for readers to glom on to and figure out as the story winds along an unpredictable (we hope) path. Others call it “salting” or “sprinkling in” various points of story background, setting, and so forth. (Stop–you’re making me hungry.) It’s what we’re supposed to do.
You can show readers the grimfrasq being used, rather than telling them that it’s a tool for purifying water. You can show readers how Joe is anti-Semitic by having him sneer, “Isn’t he a Jew?” when someone is suggested as a new member of his golf group (or something similarly creepy.) You don’t have to tell them all at once about Jane’s phobias and enumerate them (although this can work well, done properly)–you can salt them in and have them be crumbs that only the savviest readers pick up on until it’s time to have it all come to a crisis point (the elevator gets stuck just as the snakes are loosed and a spider lands on Jane’s head!)
It’s tougher than just doing an expository lump.
However. There you are. It’s tough. Resist that impulse to go back and explain. When readers say they’re lost, it sometimes means that something is wrong a few paragraphs or pages BEFORE the place where they complain. Let them figure it out and feel smart. Don’t rush to stuff the text full of explanations. (Don’t be like me, in other words. Do as I command, not as I actually do.)
In my current for-fun YA novel, I try to clue readers in that the silver ring June’s cousin gave to her “for safekeeping” is actually one of those cliched little cursed-magic rings. I tell readers that the ring gleams when she puts it on, that she doesn’t want to take it off (and that when she HAS to in order to color her hair, it’s really HARD to take off after wearing for a couple of days), that she is slowly changing and acting differently from what is in character for her, and so forth. I tell readers that the man who keeps turning up and asking her and her sister whether they were given anything to keep for their cousin is after something . . . duh . . . could it be that ring and the book the cousin left? Now, I don’t want to bash readers over the head with it, but my critique group was not getting this from the incluing I’ve done, so I may have to ramp it up. It’s hard to be subtle and still get the point across!
Now, about your characters sitting over there yammering on. Maybe something could be done to tighten up that scene. You see, dialogue is not “really” realistic, nor is it supposed to be. It’s not like a tape recording written down. It’s a condensed model of the way we really talk. And we have to figure out how to in-clue readers with the minimum of gabble while still charming them and keeping them reading with whimsy and witticisms AND making them think that this is just like real speech. Yow!
“Yo! Howie! Wazzup?”
“Hey, Jake. Long time no see. Still at 3M?”
“Yeah, you know. It’s a living. You working?”
“Got a gig down at the Dew Drop Inn.”
“Yeah? That’s, like, cool. I mean, um, I ought to come down there. What nights you play?”
“Tuesdays and Fridays. Some Saturdays. Depends. Check my Facebook page.”
“Right, I should do that. Don’t get online much these days. Even though I live alone now.”
Okay, so it’s taking a long time for them to get around to the business of the scene: Howie’s wife has just discovered he cheated and has walked out, vowing to get half of all he’s got, and Jake needs to borrow $500. We’ve seen some things about the characters in this snippet, but by this time, the reader may be wondering if the point is that gig or Facebook or if something else is going to happen.
Real conversations are repetitious, full of meaningless “ums” and “likes” and “you knows.” There may not BE any subtext, and it could get really boring. So we can’t just duplicate conversations from real life.
What if we rewrote this snippet?
“Yo! Howie! Wazzup?”
“Hey, Jake. Long time no see. Still at 3M?”
“For the moment. Things look a little grim. I’m kind of short, actually, and the rent’s due.”
“Yeah, you know. I don’t suppose you’d be able to kind of, you know, lend me a couple hundred until payday?”
“Sorry, no can do. Don’t have a regular job, just a gig down at the Dew Drop Inn. Which is cool, and I’m hoping the band will go somewhere, but things are rough. Janet got kind of fed up with me and how I really don’t function well in the cubicle farm life, and went home to her mother. I only get the kids every other weekend.”
You get the idea.
I don’t know. Maybe I like that first version better! Those guys sounded like GUYS in the first version, and then went a little more girly (admit it–women are more apt to explain what they are upset about and Share Everything right away with their friends) in that second version, which is not good. But it depends on what you are doing with the scene. Are you introducing the characters who are going to hang around, or are you just letting people know that this one guy is a mooch who never has any folding money in his pockets and the other is a bum? It all depends on the type of book you’re writing, too.
Read your dialogue out loud now and then. It’s a revelation to find that two characters sound alike, or that one of them speaks in such a stilted manner that it’s totally unbelievable, or that someone is talking in tongue-twisters. I often find I can cut a word or two or rephrase after I read a passage aloud. Other times, I find that the internal voice that reads to me when I’m reading silently NEEDS those extra words. This isn’t a play–it’s a recording playing back in the reader’s mind’s ear, and sometimes the “extra” words are good for silent reading. You’ll get a feel for this after a while, if you don’t have it already.
Now, what about narrative? I often hear that “narrative is out” and that you shouldn’t fall into narrative, but this is silly. Some stories can fly on mostly dialogue, but most stories benefit from insightful narrative and (gasp) internal monologue or musing on the part of the POV heroine. We aren’t writing screenplays. Novels are supposed to be novels.
If you’re writing in first person, you’re going to find that the narrative voice has the same flavor as the POV narrator’s dialogue. This means you don’t have to type “she thought” all the time–we know these are her thoughts. She’s *telling* the story. And that’s OK! I like getting glimpses into the narrator’s head, hearing her internal monologue, figuring out her preferences and beliefs from what she chooses to notice and mention. This will be part of the appeal of your book for the right reader.
The kids today say, “Random is good.” But not in your book’s plot. You should have some cause-and-effect showing, or readers will balk. You get one coincidence per book, and no deus-ex-machina. Not these days.
Just a few thoughts in the middle of the night. The long dark tea-time of the writer’s soul.