Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 8th, 2015

“We want you to go work for him…”

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"We want you to go work for him..."

Note: This post is the fourth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 3. You can read the previous installments here.

Most of the practical tools of the writer’s trade are really just ways of avoiding exposition. This is true even of those writing rules that might seem like fundamental axioms of the craft. “Show, don’t tell,” for instance, is about nothing else than dramatizing the action as much as possible within the fabric of the narrative itself, which often involves trimming or recasting exposition wherever you find it. The advice to try cutting the beginning and end of each chapter, or even of the overall story, is designed to target those sections where exposition is most likely to collect, as the author laboriously explains who the characters are and where they are instead of plunging into the middle of events. And even the rule that each draft should be ten percent shorter than the previous one has exposition squarely in its sights. When you’re looking for ways to tighten a manuscript, it’s nearly always in the places where something is being explained or stated twice. The point isn’t just to reduce length; it’s to carve out the heart of the story by cutting away the parts where characters discuss the plot with one another—which is often just an excuse for the author to explain it to himself.

Sometimes, of course, a degree of exposition is necessary for the sake of concision: if you can get something across in a paragraph that would take three pages to dramatize, the reader is generally better off. Even here, though, writers develop specific strategies for making such sections more palatable. Jack Woodford’s advice, which I love, is to read through the story until you find the first concrete action, begin it there, and then simply copy and paste all the prefatory material that came earlier as soon as the exposition starts up again. What Woodford knew is that exposition is easier to tolerate when the reader knows why it’s there—when, in short, you’ve already established a character, a conflict, or an existing line of action that requires a paragraph or two later on for clarity. You could even argue that something as basic as structuring the scene as a series of objectives is partially a way of supporting the burden of whatever expository material you need to convey. Once you’ve established what a character wants, you can circle back to explain why he or she wants it, which instantly renders that information more meaningful. As a rule, readers can get through almost anything if they know it has a legitimate reason for being there.

"Tarkovsky is familiar with your case..."

I’ve had to think a lot about the problem of exposition because my stories are necessarily full of it. In hard science fiction, there’s usually a bunch of background and technical detail, and the difficulty of integrating it smoothly into the narrative is why so many stories in the genre are close to unreadable. My novels, in turn, have plots that emerge from historical and political material that often occurs offstage, either because they’re real events that have taken place long before the start of the book or because they unfold at a higher level than the one the main characters inhabit. It’s inherent to the kinds of stories I’ve ended up telling, which means I’ve had to scramble at times to keep the action in the present tense. I haven’t always succeeded; there are sections in The Icon Thief and City of Exiles that are basically two characters talking in a room, and if those chapters survived until publication, it’s only because I couldn’t think of any better way of doing it. When that happens, I often resort to more superficial tricks, which work to the extent that they get the reader from one page to the next. Staging an important conversation against a backdrop of impending action is one approach; grounding it in a relatively interesting setting, like an autopsy, is another; and sometimes I just throw up my hands and do a walk and talk.

Chapter 3 of Eternal Empire is a good case in point. There’s a huge amount of information I need to convey to set the real story in motion: Maddy is being recruited to go undercover to investigate the finances of a Russian oligarch, and for any of this to make sense, I have to explain who the oligarch is, the rationale behind the assignment, and the reasons why Maddy might be reasonably expected to agree to it. The scene itself was designed to get all this across in a readable way; it’s no accident, for instance, that Maddy and Powell are talking in Green Park, rather than in an office somewhere, if only for the teeny bit of additional interest the setting afforded. But the key to making the scene work—and I think it does—lies in a single line that Powell says to Maddy: “We want you to go work for him.” Once his agenda is on the table, the whole thing becomes more engaging, since it’s no longer about information for its own sake, but about setting the context for a crucial decision. Most of my work in rewriting the chapter lay in cutting and rearranging the text so that this line came as close to the beginning as possible. I couldn’t jump into it right away, and there’s still a page or two of dialogue that I needed to set up the offer. But once it’s out there, the rest locks into place, and the reader’s attention is focused less on the past than on what everyone will do next….

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2015 at 9:19 am

Quote of the Day

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George Cukor

There’s one big thing to keep in mind…Garson Kanin once said apropos of one of his plays which he was just opening, “The audience will not stand for any bullshit.” That is true.

George Cukor, quoted by Andrew Sarris in Interviews With Film Directors

Written by nevalalee

January 8, 2015 at 7:30 am

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