How many times have you said, “The book was OK, but the movie was fantastic”?
Common knowledge says the difference is because movies have to trim the plot and cut scenes to fit the story into a shorter format. That’s part of the reason, but I think there’s another, subtler and far more important ingredient lost in the translation—the telling. With the exception of voice-overs, movies are all show and no tell. Books, on the other hand, have loads of telling.
I know, I know—the phrase show-don’t-tell is probably the most repeated bit of writing advice ever. It’s almost a writing mantra, but it’s vague advice that means different things to different people, and I think it misses the mark.
Good telling, at least in stories written from a third person perspective, is an integral part of a good book, making up 40—60% of the text. (Seriously, here’s a link to my previous post Exposition Exploration: Part 1? where I explain the experiment I used to come up with that number.)
Good telling—whether you call it exposition or non-scene writing like I do—blends seamlessly into and weaves around scenes, so much so that people think of it as part of a scene even though it wouldn’t translate into showing on the big screen. Good telling adds insight, tone, mood, texture, mystery, poignancy and makes the reader feel. Telling that doesn’t flow, however, sticks out from the scene and drags, or worse, tells the readers what the writer thinks they should think. (I do get really annoyed when an author tells me a character is insightful, kind, brave, insane or corrupt. Those are conclusions I want to make for myself based on how the characters think, act and speak. Nothing kills a story for me like an author telling me the protagonist is brilliant then shows her making one stupid decision after another. Maybe that’s the authors version of smart, but it isn’t mine.)
So, to me the real question is not how to avoid writing exposition, but how to write it well. My first step in learning how to do that is to study/analyze books with great exposition and come up with some basic guidelines that I can apply to my writing. The first rule I’ve come up with so far is that exposition needs to be anchored to a character.
Here’s a brilliant example from M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts.
“… There haven’t been any new children for a long time now. Melanie doesn’t know why that is. There used to be lots; every week, or every couple of weeks, voices in the night. Muttered orders, complaints, the occasional curse. A cell door slamming. Then, after a while, usually a month or two, a new face in the classroom—a new boy or girl who hadn’t even learned to talk yet. But they got it fast …”
There’s a lot of great things going on in that paragraph, but for my purposes here, I want to highlight the second sentence. Though the paragraph isn’t about Melanie, in the second line Carey anchors the subsequent background information to Melanie.
Here’s another great example from A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
“… Only those few who could move among the Londons needed a way to keep them straight. And so Kell—inspired by the lost city known to all as Black London—had given each remaining capital a color.
Grey for the magic-less city.
Red, for the healthy empire.
White, for the starving world.
In truth, the cities themselves bore little resemblance to one another …”
Again, a lot of great stuff is going on in that excerpt, but I want to focus on the fact that Scwab, like Carey, anchors the world-building to a character, Kell, in the second sentence.
And here’s a sample from The Warrior’s Apprentice, a fabulous book by Louise McMaster Bujold.
“… The eliminations for officers’ candidacy in the Barrayaran Imperial Military Service took a grueling week. Five days of written and oral examinations lay behind Miles now. The hardest part was over, everybody said. There was almost an air of relaxation among the young men around him—more talking and joking in the group, exaggerated complaints about the difficulty of the examining officers …”
In this one, Bujold anchors the exposition to Miles in the second and fourth sentence. She continues to do that in the paragraphs that follow, as well as sprinkling small actions by Miles as she gives the reader context to keep the background information anchored to Miles.
My point with all this is that good telling needs to be anchored to a character. There are a lot of other things that also go into making exposition good, but since I believe the best way to learn something is one step at a time, that’s where I’m starting. I’m going to make sure all my exposition is well anchored, then I’ll move on to rule number 2. I just don’t know what it is yet.