Three Dirty Birds Talk Exposition


The Dirty Birds are chirping about James Scott Bell and Exposition.

Kate: I thought it was ironic that the chapter on exposition was one of the shortest in the book. 🙂

It really was very short. Does he not know we need to fill up a discussion here?

Ana: It’s like he doesn’t even care.

Kate:I think he just applied his own rules about exposition to it.

The chapter really needed to be just four bullet points long—they’re perfect. It’s info the reader needs, but it will slow your story down if it’s not handled well. Cut anything that isn’t necessary. Drop exposition in a little at a time. And hide it within dialogue.

Kate: His first example of using it in dialogue made me laugh. Mostly because it was a lovely example of the “As you know, Bob…” trick.

I liked how his third example shows you how to add some conflict into the exposition dialogue to make it more interesting/energetic.

Ana: I think the conflict into the exposition dialogue thing is something the Story Trumps Structure book mentioned too. I’ve since successfully used it in one of my WIPs. Well… we’ll see how successfully if I ever get around to actually publishing that one.

Kate: I think that’s something that newer writers often miss. You can tell who’s at certain levels of professionalism in their writing by how they handle stuff like that. But it’s nice to be reading along through a writer’s work and suddenly see them pushing the conflict through the dialogue and getting the info we need in there as well. Everything in a well-thought out book should be doing something, and the important bits need to do two or three things.

I like the “Act first, explain later” rule, though, as with any rule, I’ve seen it sorely misused—book openings that drop you into the middle of action that makes no sense and has no emotional pull…followed by chapter two of tell, tell, tell.

Ana: I always have to watch not to fall into that trap, because when writing I’m very much an ‘act first, explain later’ kind of person. (I’ve actually just had a discussion with my editor about the first chapters of my latest story because I was being paranoid about whether my character’s actions made sense before the ‘reveal’ )

Kate: I like that, though. As long as there’s enough in there to keep you reading. I’m reading “The Girl in the Road” right now, and it starts off with a bang, and she’s running away, but I still don’t know what the conflict is. The author explains a little bit more on every page, though, so I haven’t gotten frustrated and thrown it aside.

Yes, when it’s done well, it works really well (though, not so much the nothing-but-tell follow-on chapter, but when the opening is done well, the author usually isn’t the type to do that). More often, it seems like it’s not done all that well. (Though I can rattle off books that do do it well, I’ve forgotten the names of every book that didn’t—I didn’t bother buying past the Look Inside on those.)

Kate: I wonder if we’ll ever find a book that provides some guidelines for deciding that something isn’t necessary information. All the books seem to say that you have to pick and choose, but don’t give any idea how. And I think a lot of the people that overdo the exposition aren’t doing it from ‘whatever’, but just can’t figure out which information is useful, which is necessary, which is color, and which is too much. All the first three of those are necessary, but if you don’t know where to stop…

I’ve seen some guidelines that have said to leave out what the reader would already know—readers know what bathrooms contain, so if there’s nothing specifically unique and/or important to the story in a bathroom your character walks into, don’t describe the bathroom. But there can be a confidence issue when trying to figure out what readers might or might not know, especially in spec fic, historicals, and exotic locales.

Ana: Damnit, I totally missed my chance to describe high tech Japanese toilets in my last story.

Kate: There’s always edits, Ana.

I love high tech Japanese toilets. And I’m still amused by my time in Okinawa, where in a single day I could wind up using a toilet with a heater and remote control and more buttons than I could ever know what to do with…and a hole in the ground.

Kate: I liked his idea in the exercise, using the Wikipedia article. Especially, I liked that he said to put it away for a couple of days and then come back and edit it.

Yes, that looked like a very useful exercise you could use any time you have info to weave in. Write down the facts, then use the facts to write a scene that’s not all fact-y sounding.

Kate: For some strange reason, I’m more likely to try the exercises he gives than any of the ones in the other books. I’m not sure why they resonate with me more. But they do.

Zoe: I haven’t done anyone’s exercises, but I read them and think, “That’s a nice exercise.”

Ana: I’ve actually done one of the exercises in this book, which is a first for me. It’s one mentioned in the ‘themes’ chapter, which I think comes up next.

About the author: Kate Lowell

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