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Writer's Digest presents an excerpt from my webinar, "Three Secrets of the Greats: Structure Your Story for Ultimate Reader Addiction."

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers, interviews me about storytelling, writing, independent editing, and the difference between literary fiction and genre, with an impromptu exercise on her own Work-in-Progress.

Editing client Stu Wakefield, author of the Kindle #1 Best Seller Body of Water, talks about our work together on Memory of Water, the second novel of his Water trilogy.






  • By Victoria Mixon

    A bizarre thing happened to a client of mine the other day.

    This writer that it happened to is one of my best clients. She’s been writing all her life. She has a fabulous imagination and sees her characters moving and acting and speaking with wonderful vividness. She’s written lots of screenplays, so her dialog is especially sharp—dialog, in fact, is part of her style. (Not as blatantly as Amistead Maupin or Ivy Compton-Burnett, naturally, but still her style.)

    She knows the premise of every novel she writes, so she knows where she’s headed all along as she delves deep into creating the plots and scenes that illuminate her stories.

    She’s humble and dedicated and willing to write and rewrite and think and rethink everything she needs to in order to make her novels just right. She’s completely, utterly committed learning to this craft.

    And I’ve been teaching her to minimize her use of exposition.

    1. Exposition is telling

      Yes, this is shorthand, but it’s still pretty much the gist of it. We can get into the finer definitions of exposition and telling (and we will further down), but, really, fiction in general can be broken into showing and telling—scenes as showing, and exposition as telling.

      As it happens, I know a whole lot about exposition.

      It’s a fascinating technique that can slip information unobtrusively into story, throw in a little backstory without taking time for flashback, carry rhythm, and—mostly wonderfully—in the hands of a master create strong voice, even plumb the depths of profundity.

      Some of my favorite authors (Elizabeth Bowen, Jane & Paul Bowles, Isak Denisen, et cetera, et cetera) were whizzes with exposition, so I’ve studied and practiced exposition for many, many years.

      However, exposition is really hard to do so well a story simply can’t exist without it. And stories are best-written when they’re written only in the words they absolutely need and no others.

      The truth is that good scenes are within the reach of pretty much anyone with three or more senses and the ability to type (or write longhand). Flannery O’Connor was a great one for advocating the use of your senses and your writing hand to skip over all that fal-de-rol about deep thought and just write great stories about what you perceive.

      I think we can safely say O’Connor knew what she was talking about.

      What she described is showing, and if you study O’Connor you’ll see she stuck strictly to scenes. So did the vast majority of the other canonical writers still making money for publishers.

    2. Pink Is not necessarily the new red

      However, I know you’re seeing articles floating around recently turning “show, don’t tell” inside-out into, “tell, don’t show!” That’s partly because exposition can play a role in fiction if you know what it’s for and have practiced learning to do it well.

      It’s also—largely—because those of us who blog about craft have said most of what we have to say over the past few years of the explosion of the blogosphere and are now looking for ways to say something new and unexpected.

      “The anti-rules are the new rules! Pink is the new red! Telling is the new showing!”

      It gives us something to talk about.

      Yes, we can get into complex high-level academic discussion about whether or not details included in exposition make that exposition ineligible for the term telling. And we can contemplate together the ways in which a line or two of exposition dropped adroitly into scenes can illuminate subtext and the meaning story has for its characters, thus complicating the term showing.

      Both these techniques blur the distinctions and give those of us who like that kind of discussion all kinds of good material to chat about. We like chatting about this stuff.

      But most of the aspiring writers who come to me aren’t looking for complex high-level academic discussion. They’re just looking for useful, straight-forward guidelines that they can remember as they focus—and rightly so—upon writing their stories.

      Fiction lives and breathes through scenes.

      So, as the greats have been saying for over a hundred years: “Show, don’t tell.”

    3. Dialog is NOT telling

      Of course, it wasn’t an unbelievable surprise when my client got this rejection the other day. Although she’s querying a lovely novel with good, strong writing, aspiring writers always get rejections. In fact, lots and lots of aspiring writers are getting rejections lately. It was bad ten years ago. Now that we have the current publishing industry it’s an epidemic.

      What was depressing about this one was the agent saying they’d rejected the novel—even though they thought it was “well-written” and “were crazy about” the premise—because it didn’t have enough of that good stuff about the characters’ feelings in it. The agent didn’t know what to name that stuff, but they did know they wanted to be more constantly directed what to feel rather than mostly given their head to react to the characters and the events of the novel with their own feelings in their own way.

      It was, in a word, too subtle.

      The agent thought focusing on telling the reader how to feel would be more commercial.

      Although they didn’t know the word for it (and their resume lists working as an editor at a major publishing house), what this agent meant was exposition. They meant the novel needed more telling, less showing.

      There are, of course, reasons for why this agent thought exposition would be more commercial, which I intend to delve right into next week. (And just this morning my husband sent me a link to a letter by C.S.Lewis explaining quite simply why telling the reader what to feel is a bad idea.) But for now let’s just politely say. . .that agent should probably have been better trained at that publishing house where they were employed as an editor.

      Because then they got bizarre. The agent informed my client the real problem with her manuscript was the dialog, “which is telling, not showing.”

      And that’s when I started to bang my head on my desk.

      Dialog is not telling. Good heavens! Dialog is the characters’ voices. “Telling” is the narrator’s voice telling the reader what to think and how to feel. That’s exposition—exactly what this agent wanted more of.

      Dialog is part of showing. “Showing” is where the author shows the characters as they act and speak and move in their described environment—and keeps their own big trap shut.

    This is my head on my desk: bang, bang, bang.

    O, ye innocent aspiring writers querying in today’s industry: beware.

    Not everyone associated with publishing knows what they’re talking about. A great number of them are quite young and therefore understandably low on professional experience. Some of them have picked up terrible advice and, without the guidance of experienced editors or in-depth study of literature to correct them, they pass it on to aspiring writers, secure in the assumption that the unpublished will take anything publishing professionals say as gospel.

    If you want to be involved in this industry, you must simply be prepared for such shenanigans.

    Truly, folks—it’s a very bizarre era.

    NEXT WEEK: We’ll get into the reasons behind why heavy exposition might be considered more commercial in today’s publishing industry.





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18 Responses to “3 Things to Know About Exposition & Telling”

  1. “We’ll get into the reasons behind why heavy exposition might be considered more commercial in today’s publishing industry.”

    Let me guess, because mainstream novelists have less time? :p

    Oh, and while dialog can be done wrong (“as you know, Bob…”), it’s probably a good way to figure out how to compress information into a more natural form, right?

  2. Victoria said on

    It’s all craft, babe. Never be afraid to let your reader guess.

    Curiosity is a great motivation for turning pages.

  3. […] That is what I thought. But not everybody thinks dialog is “showing”. Read the rest of her post here and find out why she was banging her head on her desk. Thanks, Victoria! This entry was posted […]

  4. Great post. Admittedly, I was especially enthused by the Bowen and Bowles shout-outs, but the advice is absolutely on point, I think.

  5. Victoria said on

    Oh, yes. Bowen’s short stories are extraordinary. Paul Bowles was a brilliant writer—how else could he have written so beautifully of such horror?—while my beloved Jane Bowles was just marvelously weird.

    I interviewed the Bowles’ biographer Millicent Dillon some time ago. After admiring her bio of Jane for fifteen years, I finally got up the nerve to meet her. She really is a lovely woman.

  6. So important–what you have begun to point out.
    I write. I also paint. And long ago I learned not to “spell out” everything in a painting for the viewer–as in photo-realism in which every detail is in sharp focus from corner to corner. If the painter does that, she leaves nothing for the viewer to do. Hence boredom sets in quickly with such a painting–not to mention visual exhaustion from reading all those details!

    I learned to engage the viewer, leave areas for the viewer to interpret for herself. That’s more engaging. It draws the viewer in to become more deeply involved.

    And so it is with fiction too. Actually all writing to a dregrfee.

  7. Victoria said on

    Bill, I want you to know that one of my clients who is too shy to comment notified me of what you said because she thought it was so beautiful.

    Yes—Hemingway once said he’d discovered writing is best if you omit what you most think needs to be said. After he made that discovery his previously belabored style became utterly luminous.

    (Also, Flannery O’Connor was a painter and strongly recommended that all writers practice some sort of visual art, as it teaches you how to look. So you can see you’re in mighy fine company!)

  8. Great article, so true! I find this in many a writer’s groups I’ve been in, the show don’t tell issue. I called it “TMI” (too much information) that gets in the way of the story. One helpful tip for writers who tell too much or show too little is to read more poetry, as well as turn a short story they wrote into a poem.

  9. Victoria said on

    “TMI” 🙂

    Poetry is a wonderful idea, Lisa. Especially if you’ve studied a little poetry and know it’s about the details, not the emotion. Poetry will clean your language right up!

  10. Jeffrey Russell said on

    After many prods from you, Victoria, I’ve begun to see that exposition, no matter how clever and well written, pales in comparison to exploring a scene more deeply right along with my characters. The characters can paint the scene far better than me. And as Bill Polm pointed out, a painting is worth a thousand words.

  11. Victoria said on

    It’s true.

    Tell your reader about your fictional world, and they’ll take your enthusiasm for it under advisement.

    Create your fictional world, and your reader will step right into it.

  12. Wow, that editors’ ignorance is frightening. Even I know that dialogue isn’t telling. Sheesh. The problem with this kind of feedback is that because it comes from someone who has the power to accept or reject us, even if it’s not valid, it’s hard not to let it niggle away in the back of your mind.

    A young editor told me that she considered that a story I wrote that was edited by a professional with 20 years in the business was unedited, not in terms of grammar, punctuation etc, but in that she didn’t think I’d given enough information. I felt that her comments showed that she had little understanding of the short story form, but it still shot my confidence.

    I reevalutated my editor and checked the 4 & 5 star reviews of the story written by industry profeessionals to see if they thought anything similar, and even after deciding that it really was just her opinion, it still niggles. If I’d done what she said the story would have been bogged down in explanations with nothing left for the reader to work out for themselves. The idea that we should tell the reader everything is a worrying trend. Reading should encourage people to think for themselves

  13. Victoria said on

    Oh, Tahlia, I’m so sorry. I know—this agent’s response was really hard on my client, too. I made a bit merry for her at the agent’s expense in private, and she cheered up after awhile, but it still set her back a few days.

    What you’re describing about not having “given enough information” is exactly the same thing. A terrifying ignorance.

    We could probably get a good ghost story out of the whole situation if we tried. 🙂

  14. Jacob Norton said on

    Victoria,
    The main character in my current story is a historian, but I’m struggling with trying to weave in excerpts from his book without having too much exposition.
    So my question is, how do I make the history of a fictional world seem legitimate without making it boring and telling rather than interesting and showing? History seems to lend itself to exposition and not much else.

  15. Victoria said on

    That’s a really good question, Jacob. You’re layering excerpts from fictional history book? That’s a fascinating technique but might be a hard sell with some of today’s agents.

    Tolkien, as usual, is probably our best model for how to handle this. He used landmarks, historical characters, dialog (but only pertaining to the dilemma at hand), and most especially his characters’ adventures to illuminate the vast history of Middle Earth, of which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are, of course, only the tip of the iceberg.

    Who warns Frodo against the Black Riders? Aragorn. Why? Because he’s the lost King on the secret forefront of the struggle between good & evil in Middle Earth.

    Where is Frodo’s gang headed? To Rivendell. Why? Because that’s where Elrond, the King of the Elves, has established his base in the fight against Sauron.

    Where is Gandalf lost? In Moria. Why? Because the dwarves dug too deep into the mountain and disturbed an ancient evil.

    You see that every single event that occurs to the characters occurs within the context of history.

    It does help to have a historian—as Tolkien commonly used Gandalf, although he also used the Council at Rivendell and the negotiations with Galadriel—so your characters have someone to bounce things off as they writhe in the coils of their catastrophes.

    None of this is coincidence. All of it is moving the story forward toward Mordor and Frodo’s final terrible choice. (Okay, Bombadill is a non sequitur.)

    And don’t be afraid to drop mysterious hints and references to history into the story as it progresses. All of that is a snowball building toward the avalanche that is your Climax.

  16. […] talked last week about an alarmingly bizarre piece of writing advice one of my clients got from an agent in response to her…. We also talked about exposition & telling and why they’re pretty much exactly the same […]

  17. Say you start the main character in your story off in a certain setting. He’s in this new setting because of situations that arose in his previous one. How do you explain that without going about how it was because of family drama etc.

  18. Victoria said on

    That’s a good question, Warren.

    I’d probably give him an argument with someone about that situation so they both get a chance to air their views. That’s fabulous material for talking at cross-purposes.

    You can also use a flashback in chapter two or three to show the situation that created your hook situation. Readers are conditioned to follow you into an illumination of your hook at that point and then follow you back to your story again.




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Authors


MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .


SASHA TROYAN is a Professor of English at Montclair University and author of the critically-acclaimed novels Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island, both Booksense Selections, tragic and beautiful stories based upon her childhood in France. I worked with Troyan to develop her new novels, Marriage A Trois and Semester. Read more. . .


LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .


BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s best-selling debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by Pan Macmillan. Read more. . .


SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, published by Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I'm working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. Read more. . .


SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway. Read more. . .


M. TERRY GREEN enjoys a successful self-publishing career with her three sci-fi/fantasy series based on her dual careers in anthropology and technology. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .


DARREN D. BEYER is an ex-NASA experiment engineer who worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In Casimir Bridge, the first novel of his debut sci-fi series, Beyer uses every bit of his scientific expertise to create a galaxy in which "space bridges" allow interstellar travel based upon the latest in real theoretical physics. Read more. . .


ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights, and her second novel, Sandara. Read more. . .


STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .


GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans' fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .


JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and line edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland. Read more. . .


LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ writes literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I edited Mercado-Fernandez' debut novel The Shoebox and second novel The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .


JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff's abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .


LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star, which agents had told him to throw away. Read more. . .


In addition, I work with scores of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this wonderful literary art and craft.

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