Friday, January 7, 2011

Action Vs. Exposition

ACTION VS. EXPOSITION


One of the most common problems I see with fiction submissions is the dependence on a disembodied narrator. This narrator tells the story, giving back-story, telling the reader what’s happened before, what the characters think, feel, hope for, and plan to do to achieve this end. It talks about struggles and tensions and obstacles. It talks about brilliant success and humiliating failure. But it never makes the reader LIVE through any of it.

To create fiction that engages a reader and makes them care what happens, makes them turn the page and keep reading, you need to write solid action scenes that make the reader LIVE the same life as your characters.

An excess of exposition quickly turns a story or novel into a synopsis. It doesn’t bring the reader into the story. It tells the story from an objective distance and fails to make the reader really care about the character. It holds the reader at arm’s length. It’s not an adventure, it’s a documentary!

You want your readers to identify and care about your characters. The most effective way to do that is to put the reader in that character’s shoes and that means writing scenes from within the character’s viewpoint. Whether you use first person POV, third person limited or even omniscient, you want your readers to know exactly what it’s like to live inside that character’s head, step by step, throughout the events that mold them. You must make your reader LIVE through the same trials and tribulations as your characters.

When I say ‘action’, I don’t mean explosions or car chases. I mean scenes where something actually happens to your characters.

Let’s say your main character is a shy young woman with a terrible crush on a seemingly unattainable man. She decides, uncharacteristically, to share her feelings with the object of her affections. You want your reader to experience the fear and trepidation, hope of requiting, thrill of contact with the beloved, relief at the release of the terrible secret and either the humiliation or jubilation from the results. This means bringing your reader in the scene. Good scenes require your character to have obstacles that the reader can feel, smell, taste and react to as though they themselves had to overcome them. Good scenes require solid dialogue and fluid narration from setup through conflict and onto resolution and transition.

Your mission is to make the reader agonize, hope, shake, tingle and be crushed through every single step of this important event in your main character’s life.

And if the even is NOT important enough to drag your reader through this horrible, hopeful experience, then it isn’t important enough to be in your story.

Exposition can be used to cover back-story, well after you’ve given your readers some good action scenes to get them engaged.

Exposition can be used to summarize events happening ‘off stage’ that need to be covered for the sake of the plot.

Exposition can be used to quickly summarize your character’s reaction to a previous action scene, and give them a chance to gather their thoughts, make new goals, or rededicate themselves to new approaches to meet those goals.

Exposition can be used to move events quickly through time without describing the tedium of washing, eating, banking, etc.

If you have a great deal of high-tension action scenes, you can even use exposition to give your readers a bit of a break.

What exposition cannot do is spin an engaging story all by itself.