exposition

The Five Most Common Errors to Avoid in Your Writing #editingtips #amwriting #selfpublishing #writingcommunity

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I’ve been editing for a few years now, and the same issues come up again and again. Here are the five most common:

Unnecessary dialogue tags

It is best, on the whole,  to stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. There are a few reasons for this. Readers are so used to seeing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ that they skim over them, noting quickly who is ‘saying’ or ‘asking’ and getting on with the important things. The flow of the writing isn’t interrupted, the reader reads on smoothly and happily. If a dialogue tag suddenly crops up, like ‘chuckled’ or ‘screamed’, or, possibly worst of all, ‘interjected’, the reader is forced to pause, to think about the tag. The flow is interrupted, and for no purpose. A dialogue tag is only there to identify who has spoken. It shouldn’t need to tell the reader anything else. The character’s words, their actions and their situation should be sufficient.

Physical description

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It’s really only necessary to include physical description if it is relevant to the story. If you do want to have some physical description, then rather than have the details all together when you introduce a character, intersperse them gradually through the narrative, using actions/dialogue etc. For example:

She shook her head, her dark eyes flashing.

‘What do you want?’ he asked, pushing a strand of his unruly curly hair behind one ear.

This way, you continue moving the story along without holding the narrative up.

Bear in mind too that you don’t need every detail of every movement. Your readers can fill in the gaps. Your reader doesn’t need to be told every move a character makes. Give enough information to build a scene, show what’s important, and let your reader fill in the details.

Exposition issues

spongebob

Be very careful of using exposition. Exposition is important in a manuscript – it gives us vital background information about a character’s past, their likes and dislikes, their beliefs and motivations as well as context and prior events. But the crucial thing about exposition is that it needs to be handled very carefully – it’s the way that you do it that matters.

You need to ‘show’ your reader information, not simply ‘tell’ them. This way you ‘expose’ the back story without being boring. And some of the best ways to do this are through dialogue, conflict, revealing a character’s thoughts and using physical props such as newspapers, letters and emails.

For example, have your characters talk to each other  about events that have happened, what those events meant to them, how they felt and reacted to those events.  But you need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know – it’s obvious that this is for the benefit of the reader rather than a natural part of their conversation.

Too many adverbs

Adverbs modify verbs. If you’re using an adverb to modify a verb, then ask yourself why you need to. Is the verb not doing its job? If the verb alone can’t tell your reader how someone or something is doing something without an adverb, then is it the right one to use?

For example:

John walked quickly down the street.

You want your reader to know how John walked, so if he’s walking quickly, then say so – right? Well, no.

John hurried down the street.

One word instead of two – tells us exactly how John is moving.

How about:

She totally, completely accepted that her work needed editing.

Neither of those two adverbs is needed. Just say:

She accepted that her work needed editing.

(Actually get rid of ‘that’ too!)

There are also adverbs that are totally redundant.

The fire alarm rang loudly.

How else would it ring? It wouldn’t be much use as a fire alarm if it rang quietly.

And if it is ‘clanging’ then ‘loudly’ is also redundant – the word ‘clanging’ implies loudness.

Similes and metaphors

simile

A clever, well-thought out simile or metaphor can add a deeper meaning to your narrative. It can give your reader a new way of looking at things. But similes and metaphors need to be handled very carefully indeed. Only use them if they add something new or interesting to a description. Otherwise, they jar and only serve to remind the reader that they are reading a book. You are crafting a world that your reader needs to believe in in order to be invested in your story. As with dialogue tags, an awkward or clichéd simile brings them out of that world that you have carefully constructed. A clunky metaphor will do the same.

 

 

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EXPOSITION – THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE BORING #wwwblogs #amwriting #writingtips

spongebob

A client asked me a question about exposition the other day, and I rummaged through my old blog posts and found this post about the subject. Many books I read have issues with exposition, so I thought it was worth re-posting this.

Despite the fact that I quite often highlight great tracts of text and write ‘EXPOSITION’ over them in bold, (actually I’m much more polite than that about it) exposition is, in fact, extremely important. Indeed, exposition is part of every narrative; without it your reader would have no idea what was going on, where anything was, or who the characters were. Used wisely, used well and given the appropriate mode in which to inform, then it does have a valid part to play in a narrative. You can probably have no better example than the bard himself. The opening scene of Shakespeare’s Othello tells us a lot about Iago and Roderigo, their relationship and their status. And all in a few lines of dialogue.

ACT I
SCENE I. Venice. A street.
Enter RODERIGO and IAGO

RODERIGO: 

Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly

That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse

As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.

IAGO:

‘Sblood, but you will not hear me:

If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me.

Without wanting to make this a lesson in literature and language, the opening lines tell us that Roderigo is socially superior to Iago; he says, ‘Tush!’ in other words, ‘Shut up.’ He must be Iago’s superior to speak to him like this. So, with one word, the audience is put in the picture.

Shakespeare knew that ‘showing’ the audience information about his characters and the setting, through actions and speech was far more entertaining and engaging than simply ‘telling’ them that information. And ‘telling’ is the form of exposition that we have all been guilty of using (yes, all of us, without exception, and if you think you haven’t done it then you don’t know what it is). But we do need to let our reader in on things, so how do we go about it without ‘telling’?

Let’s take a simple example. Your protagonist, Bill, is tetchy because he didn’t get much sleep. First of all ask yourself the question ‘Does it matter? Does my reader need to know this?’ If the answer is yes, then you could say this:

Bill was tetchy this morning as he hadn’t had enough sleep.

Now, that’s really boring. And if you do this all the time then it’s really, really, really boring. So how can you give your reader this information without ‘telling’ them?

Use dialogue, and use action. These two things can help enormously and will bring interest, movement and life to your writing:

‘For god’s sake, woman, why is this coffee cold?’
The mug followed its contents into the sink, the clatter drowning out the cheery tones of the radio DJ.
Emily lowered the newspaper.
‘You could always make it yourself. That would be a refreshing change. Anyway, why are you so grumpy?’
Bill sat down opposite his wife and placed his head in his hands.
‘Did you not hear it?’
‘Hear what?’
‘That bloody noise from next door. All night that same scraping and bumping. Then they started screaming at each other. I didn’t get a wink of sleep.’

I know this isn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, but I hope it’s a bit more interesting than the first example. After all, here we have a scene, not just a sentence. And we have also learned quite a lot – Bill likes coffee, but he expects his wife to make it (is he a sexist pig perhaps? Is there conflict in the marriage? Resentment? An impending divorce?). We also know that there are some pretty strange people living next door, who are up to all sorts of things in the night. And, of course, we also know that Bill is grumpy because he didn’t get much sleep.

Exposition through dialogue can be very effective then, but do be careful. You need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know. For example,

Bill adjusted his tie in the mirror. Emily smiled and straightened it, patting him on the shoulder.
‘Don’t look so nervous. You’ll be fine.’
‘I know, but I have to make this work. I really need this job. If I don’t get it I don’t know what I’ll do. The mortgage is due next week and we’re already three months behind. They’ll be looking to repossess if we don’t pay up.’
Emily nodded.
‘I know. Then there’s the money we owe your mum. It was nice of her to pay Tarquin’s school fees for the last two months, after all, they were about to kick him out. But we can’t keep relying on her. Not now she’s got all those medical bills to pay. How awful that she should break her hip falling down the stairs on her birthday.’

Now I know this is an extreme example, but lots of writers do this. Bill doesn’t need to tell Emily how far behind their mortgage payments are – she knows. And Bill knows his mother paid Tarquin’s school fees, and everything else Emily tells him. If your reader needs to know this information, find different ways to show it – have a letter arrive from the bank just as Bill leaves for his interview, or have Emily visit her mother-in-law in hospital and be told that there is no more financial help.

And remember, as with most things in writing, and indeed in life unfortunately, less is more. Don’t bog down your narrative and bore your reader with unnecessary detail. Show them what they need to know and let them put the pieces together.

Do you have any examples of exposition – good or bad – that will help other writers? Do share them here.