To Expose or Not to Expose…That is the Question

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Walking the path along the Credit River, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In fiction, exposition breaks away from the ongoing action of a scene to give information. It can be a paragraph or go on for several pages. Exposition often provides contextual information critical for the reader to buy-in to character-motivation or the ideas promoted in the story. It gives a story its perspective and larger meaning by linking the reader with the thematic elements. If scene is action and plot, exposition feeds reflection and theme. Exposition can appear in the form of background, setting, back story, or overview. It is most often expressed through a POV character’s reflection and observation.

There are points in almost every story where exposition is necessary. Most stories would suffer without information that adds past, context and overview.

WardIsland wall in forest

Ward Island, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Exposition in writing lets you:

  • Describe a person in detail
  • Describe a place for more than a phrase or two (important especially if a place serves as a “character”)
  • Skip over periods of time when nothing important or compelling is happening, without a jarring break in the narrative
  • Draw back from a close-focus action scene to give the reader a meaningful overview (and to say how things got that way)
  • Give some background and history of characters, location, event, etc.

You need to balance the show and tell part of your narrative and to maintain a rhythm in your pace and tone. This means doing several things, including:

  • Restrain yourself and keep your notes to yourself: I’ve seen excellent writers add too much exposition on a subject that obviously excited them but didn’t necessarily excite me. This often occurs when a writer feels impelled to share their invention or discovery at the expense of story-telling. Doing your “homework” in writing (e.g., research) also includes keeping it to yourself, no matter how much you want to share it. Doing your homework is the “iceberg” and the story is the “tip”. Many genre books (e.g., science fiction, thrillers, mysteries, etc.) must be supported by solid research. The writer takes what she needs for the story and keeps the rest.
  • Arouse then explain: introduce your character by letting her act and show herself and engage the reader’s curiosity and sympathy, then explain how and why she got there.
  • Build exposition into the scene: get creative and include expository information as props in a scene. This is a great way to add information seamlessly.
  • Put exposition in between scenes: instead of interrupting a scene in action, exposition can be used to give the reader a breather from a high paced scene to reflect along with the protagonist on what just happened. This is a more appropriate place to read exposition, when the reader has calmed down.
  • Let a character explain: have your characters provide the information by one questioning and the other replying. There is a danger in this kind of exposition, in that the dialogue can become encumbered by long stretches of explanation. Take care to make this realistic and enjoyable to the reader. If done well, this type of exposition can also reveal things about the characters.
  • Use interior monologue: use a character’s inner reflections to reveal information, which also reveals something of the character herself. Be careful not to turn this into polemic, however.

Now, go and have fun exposing!

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Ten Things to Consider When Revising Your Novel

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Spalted log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

No piece of writing is complete without submitting it to the scrutiny of revision. A colleague of mine once shared the story of what a student of hers had said about revision: it’s “like beating up a nice friend. Why would I want to do that?” Because, my colleague replied, without a little pummelling all you have is a “nice draft”.

Here are ten things you can do to revise your first and subsequent drafts into something stellar.

  1. Let Your Work Breathe

Once you’ve completed your draft, set it aside for a while. This is key to helping you make objective observations about your writing when you return. The longer you leave it, the more objective you will be. Don’t worry about losing momentum or interest; they most certainly will return. But if hey don’t, then you didn’t have a story in the first place—and that, too, is a good thing to discover.

  1. Dig Deep

Now that you have the whole story in front of you, you’re in the position to restructure plotlines, subplots, events and characters to best reflect your overall story and its main theme. Don’t be afraid to remove large sections or even whole characters; you will likely add others.

  1. Take Inventory

Take stock of how each chapter and scene/sequel contributes to plotline and theme; root out the inconsistencies as you relate the minutia to the whole. You may decide to merge two characters into one or add a character or change a character’s gender or age to better serve your plotline and theme.

  1. Highlight the Surges

Some passages will stand out as being particularly stunning; pay attention to them in each chapter and apply their energy to the rest of your writing.

  1. Purge & Un-clutter

Make a point of shortening everything; this forces you to use more succinct language and replace adjectives and adverbs with power-verbs. Doing this will tighten prose and make it more clear. Reading aloud, particularly dialogue, can help streamline your prose.

  1. Check Point of View

This is the time to take stock of whether you’ve chosen the best point of view style for your story (e.g., first person, third person limited, omniscient). Many first manuscripts by my students have suffered from shifting or inconsistent point of view. Ensure that yours is consistent. You may wish to experiment with different points of view at this stage (e.g., changing your narrative from the third person to the first person, for instance); the results may surprise you.

  1. Make a Plot (Story) Promise

Given that you are essentially making a promise to your readers, it is advisable that you revisit that promise. Tie up your plot points; don’t leave any hanging unless you’re intentionally doing this. But, be aware that readers don’t generally like it. Similarly, if you’ve written a scene that is lyrical, beautiful and compelling but doesn’t contribute to your plotline, nix it. You can file it away for another story where it may be more applicable.

  1. Deepen Your Characters

The revision process is an ideal time to add subtle detail to your main characters: a nervous scratch of his beard, an absent twisting of the ring on her finger, the frequent use of a particular expression. Purposefully adding unique qualities to your characters, like vernacular, body language, and inflections grounds them in reality and makes them more personable and memorable. However, if you want a particular character trait to stick with the reader, you should repeat it a few times throughout the story. This applies to minor characters as well. When you paint your minor characters with more detail, you create a more three-dimensional tapestry for your main characters to walk through.

  1. Write Scenes (show, don’t tell)

Use the revision process to convert flat narrative into “scene” through dramatization. Narrative summaries often read like lecture or polemic. They tend to be passive, slow, and less engaging. Scenes are animated by action, tension and conflict, dialogue and physical movement.

  1. Be Concrete

Ground your characters in vivid setting and rich but unobtrusive detail. Don’t abandon them to a generic and prosaic setting, drinking “beverages” and driving “vehicles” on “roads”; instead brighten up their lives by having them speeding along Highway 66 in a red Carmen Ghia while sipping a Pinot Noir.

Remember to pace yourself when revising; otherwise you may become overwhelmed and discouraged, even confused into incessant rewrites. Your story needs to settle between revision stages. As my colleague said, “you don’t need to beat up your nice friend all at once.”

 

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

 

Simplify Your Writing

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Spalted log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

One of the best ways to have less clutter in your writing is to simplify it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a Spartan and write sparingly like Hemingway. You can use rich language like Jacqueline Carey but apply that language with purpose. While Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart contains rich narrative description, the language is appropriate for the time period and always portrays motion. But you wouldn’t use that “voice” and narrative style in a contemporary thriller, say.

Fluid writing lies at the basis of uncluttered prose. The seven suggestions below will help.

Reduce Extraneous Words 

When constructing a scene, it is wise to pay attention to cadence, rhythm, number of phrases or clauses and general length of sentences. Sentences in early works tend to be full of extra words (e.g., using “ing” verbs, add-ons like “he started to think” instead of simply “he thought”) that slow down narrative. Try reading your sentences out loud; this practice often helps you to find the “clutter”.

Use Active & Powerful Verbs

Active verbs are the key to vivid writing; and, ironically, to uncluttered prose. The very choice of active verbs helps you minimize the use of clutter-words. Consider, these two example paragraphs, which describe the same scene.

Example A: Joe walked slowly into the room. His lip curled in disgust as he looked around the room. There were empty beer bottles all over the filthy floor that was covered with stains and garbage and there was a naked couple in the bed. They were almost buried under the rumpled covers. They now struggled to get up and Joe saw the big man staring up at him angrily.

Example B: Joe sidled into the room, lip curling at the stench of empty beer bottles and garbage strewn on the stained floor. A naked couple struggled out from the rumple of clothes and blankets. The man reared up and glared at Joe.

Example A contained 68 words while Example B contained only 41 words. It is obvious which paragraph is more vivid.

Cut Down the Words in Your Paragraphs

Cut down your words by at least 20%. Be merciless; you won’t miss them, and you will add others later in your second round of edits. Find the most efficient way to say what you mean.

Reduce Redundancy

The introductory sentence of a narrative paragraph is often paraphrased unnecessarily in the very next sentence, as though the writer didn’t trust the reader to get it the first time. Say it once and say it right the first time.

Embrace Anglo Saxon over Latin Words

For every three syllable word of Latin origin there is a simple Anglo Saxon word. Consider these examples:

 

Latinate                                   Anglo Saxon

 

assassinate                            kill

emotion                                  feeling

diminutive                              small

consternation                        fear

juvenile                                   young

originate                                 begin

masticate                                chew

prevaricate                             lie

abbreviate                              shorten

perspire                                  sweat

assuage                                  soothe

emancipate                           free

diffident                                 shy

Latinate words slow down narrative and often arise from supercilious luciferous logolepsy; if overused, such effulgent emanations may render your promulgations cumbersome and will likely exacerbate acataleptic obfuscation and promote embulalia.

The simpler Anglo Saxon term is often more visceral in both meaning and sound. Consider the first example: “kill” evokes a much more powerful and immediate response than “assassinate”. And how about those “f” words for sexual intercourse? Fornication has a whole other nuance than its Anglo Saxon four-letter cousin. I’m not advising that you avoid Latinisms altogether. Latinate words, when used judiciously—and sparingly—provide cadence, lyricism and points of interest in narrative. If you use them sparingly and purposefully, they provide color and texture to your narrative landscape. The key—as always—is achieving a balance.

I once suffered from luciferous logolepsy… and profusely overused Latinate syllogisms, particularly in my line of work as a scientist. When I saw the light, not only did my fiction benefit; but my consulting reports and technical papers were more joyfully read by my clients.

Balancing Show and Tell

Let the characters and scenes speak for themselves through action and dialogue, rather than using narration to explain what happens. Embracing this way of writing may be the single most effective way to reduce clutter and enhance the vividness of your writing at the same time. While “showing” may in fact add more words than simple “telling”, the way it is read (mostly in the form of action) makes up for the added words. Telling also has its place in narrative; for instance, when you wish to let the reader know about an event or action that you do not want to describe in vivid detail. Simple and succinct telling works effectively as transitional narrative, serving as a bridge for critical showing scenes.

Don’t Overload Your Metaphors

Some novice writers fall into the trap of using metaphor overload (some call it “purple prose”). Overuse of metaphor diverts the reader from the story with “clever” turn-of-phrase and distract them from the most important words in the writer’s toolkit—verbs. Here’s an example from one of my favourite shows, Farscape:

Example 1: John strode into the aft deck and caught Aeryn and Crais embracing. He stopped, heart slamming like the staccato percussion of a demon frag cannon on his wounded soul.

If you eliminate the simile here’s what you get:

Example 2: John strode into the aft deck and caught Aeryn and Crais embracing. He stopped, heart slamming.

Removal of the simile activates the verb and focuses the reader’s attention on John’s visceral reaction. Which version is more powerful? If the verb is powerful enough, you don’t need to pad it with metaphor. The verb “slamming” already provides what the metaphor suggests, making it redundant. If the writer has set everything up properly then the reader will provide the context. In the Farscape example, if the writer hasn’t already established a precedent for John’s reaction, she is missing more than appropriate metaphor.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Using the Subtext of Body Language in Storytelling

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Sugar maple leans over the Little Rouge River, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Kinesics is the study of “body language”, which explores how movements and gestures project a person’s hidden thoughts. Blushing is an obvious reaction. But more subtle ones can be used. When body language contradicts verbal expression, tension, conflict and interesting scenarios increase. This is a great opportunity for writers.

According to Janet Lee Carey, author of Dragon’s Keep, body language:

  • Shows the subtle undercurrent of communications between characters (of which either may not be consciously aware).
  • Shows the comic or tragic elements behind the dialogue.
  • Reveals the character’s true feelings (regardless of what he or she is saying).

In order to accomplish this, the writer must learn to accurately interpret the subtle signals of body language and translate them into the written form. One way is to look at yourself. Ask yourself: what do you do when you’re nervous? Excited? Thrilled? Sad? Angry? How do you do housework when you’re angry? When you’re happy? It helps to look at the same action under different moods to distill out the finer nuances of gesture and movement.

Pay attention to your own body, suggests Carey. “How do you sit? How do you move? How do you breathe?” Pay attention to your moods and what your body does then. For instance, what do you do with your hands when you’re nervous? How do you speak when you’re impatient? How do you cook when you’re happy? How about when you’re mad?

Carey lists the areas of the body where emotions can be detected by other characters. These include: skin, breathing (swallowing), eyes, eyebrows, ears, lips, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, sexual organs, legs and feet. On the other hand, physical areas where a character may feel an emotion but not show it is: pain in the body, skin, tongue, throat, heart, stomach, sexual organs, and pulse.

You can use body language imaginatively in several ways. Here are a few:

  • Amplification and contradiction: use body movements and facial expressions to either enhance or contradict the verbal expression
  • Reactions to invasion of personal space: show signs of restlessness, such as hunching of the shoulders, tucking in of the chin, backing up
  • Masking: this is when a character defends personal spac by showing indifference or confidence while masking their true feelings (e.g., remember when Like faced the Emperor in that last battle aboard the Deathstar? Despite his quiet show of confidence, he swallowed [his fear]).

Body language can either amplify or contradict what is said between two characters. The latter, of course, is usually more interesting, because it sets up tension and underlying conflict.

The following is an example of amplification:

“So, what happened?” Jenny asked, leaning forward and gazing directly at Mark.

Jenny’s body language matches her dialogue, amplifying her genuine concern. Here’s an example of contradiction:

“Hey, great to see you,” Dave said, crossing his arms and edging back to slouch against the wall.

Tom wandered to the fridge and opened it to look inside. “Can I have a beer?”

Dave fixed a hard smile at Tom. “Sure.”

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webIt’s obvious that Dave isn’t happy to see Tom, and his body language contradicts what he said. This makes for compelling reading. Subtext (beneath the surface of dialogue) adds interest and intrigue, particularly when it contradicts or complicates the verbal message.

 

References

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.