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.
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.
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.”
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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A. VICTORIA MIXON: Freelance Independent Editor
VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN: For Writers
A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR
VICTORIA’S ADVICE COLUMN
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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