The other day, when I hit publish on my admittedly critical book review of Ryan Logan’s The Princes of Panajin, I couldn’t help but feel that there was more to be said. Lessons to be learned, in fact.
My criticisms ranged from low-hanging editorial fruit, like grammatical errors, to deeper systemic issues, like the lack of a fleshed out story arc.
It dawned on me that, while this book was most certainly published when it still needed a lot more work, it actually makes for the perfect case study in the various creative writing pathologies that plague many authors.
With that in mind, I decided to write a series of creative writing posts, each exploring a different writing pitfall, with concrete examples and advice on correcting them. First, I must of course offer up a neon-lit disclaimer that I am by no means a professional editor. However, I have attended numerous creative writing workshops and panels held by top notch genre authors, which have taught me a great deal about having a critical eye for quality storytelling.
I hope you all enjoy this series, and please, as always, use the comments section for lively discussion! If you think any writing advice I give is ill-advised, I want to hear that just as much as I want to hear if you agree with it.
Without further ado, the first topic in the series is expository writing. Enjoy!
One of the first pieces advice that most budding writers receive is to “show; don’t tell.” Don’t tell me the protagonist is angry; show me his face turning red as he balls up his fists and huffs loudly.
Avoiding excessive exposition sounds simple enough, but in practice, it can be difficult to avoid, particularly in genres like science fiction and fantasy, where the author needs to explain a magic system or a new technology to the reader.
The following paragraph from Ryan Logan’s The Princes of Panajin serves as a fantastic example of what not to do. In the following scene, the protagonist (nicknamed Seven) is attending his royal coming-of-age ceremony:
Atop the king’s terrace, the seats were filled and conversation flooded the air, smiles abounding around the tables. Seven watched from the head table with a feeling of pride. He sat between his two oldest brothers, Cordero and Haydon. He could not remember a celebration such as this and silently reveled that it was for him. Haydon whispered something in Seven’s ear, which made him laugh. Cordero and Haydon were hundreds of years older than he was, yet still took time from their busy schedules to make Seven feel loved and important.
So, what’s wrong with this paragraph? Well, aside from some missing commas, this description of Seven’s situation and feelings does way too much telling. To be fair, we need exposition for the part that tells us that Cordero and Haydon are hundreds of years older than Seven; after all, not all expository writing is bad.
However, the author merely tells us that Seven is silently reveling, just as he merely tells us that Haydon whispers a joke in Seven’s ear. Re-writing the above paragraph with more showing and less telling might look like this:
Atop the king’s terrace, courtiers shuffled to their seats, flooding the banquet hall with excited chatter. Seven held his chin high with pride, smiling to himself as he watched from the head table.
I can’t believe this is all for me, he thought to himself.
“Better not spill dinner on your ceremony robes!” Haydon said, elbowing Seven and beaming down at his little brother, the youngest by hundreds of years.
“Now, now, Haydon,” Cordero interjected, his deep brown eyes twinkling. “We shouldn’t poke too much fun at our baby brother. It won’t be long before he’s strong enough to beat us in a duel!”
The three brothers chuckled, smiling at one another. “It means so much to me that you both are here for my ceremony,” Seven said to his role models.
See the difference?
The way I like to conceptualize expository writing is the difference between telling a friend about the novel you are writing, versus actually writing the novel. If you are having coffee with a friend and are telling them the basics of your novel, you will understandably use exposition, perhaps like this:
“In the chapter I’m currently writing, the main character turns 12 and attends his coming of age ceremony. I’m using this chapter to establish the strong family ties he has with his siblings, as well as to show how much faith the king has in him when, at the end of the ceremony, he decides to appoint the main character as an emissary of the court.”
It’s like a game of telephone: there’s the story itself, then the writer, then the reader. The writer’s job is to convey the story exactly as it is to the reader. And while some exposition is inevitable, ideally the writer will remove herself as much as possible from the chain. This is ultimately what is meant by “show and don’t tell.” Let the reader hear the dialogue for himself. Let the reader see the characters in action for himself. In short, don’t recap things at a high level.
As a rule of thumb to self-check for unnecessary exposition, I recommend reading back what you wrote and asking yourself if it is written in the same way that you would tell a friend about a situation. After all, when we are conversing with friends and family, we don’t speak in the same way that a novel is written.
Here is a simplistic example. If I am writing about my day in a novel, I might say,
I shielded my eyes from the mid-morning sun as I scurried into the office, glancing at my watch and frowning.
“Ms. Graham,” my boss said, glaring at me over her glasses. “You’re late.”
And if I am telling my husband about my day, I would simply say,
I was late to work today.
So, as you edit, I recommend doing this self-check to see if what you wrote is written in the same way you would tell a friend or family member about the same scene.
Tell me, what are your thoughts and techniques on avoid expository writing?
Until next time,