An editor considers exposition

show-dont-tellIt is too often the case in many of the manuscripts I see, the author is in such a rush to tell his story the entire narrative devolves to exposition. In other words, the author is telling rather than showing.

Why avoid exposition? The answer to that is quite simple. When you’re telling your reader instead of showing, you remove the reader from the story. You’re intruding. That suspension of disbelief shatters because all action has ceased in order to give stage directions, or the all-too-common: they went here, did this, went there, did that, time passed.

Who wants to read that?

For example, in a manuscript I edited, the author had written this particular scene:

Yoi turned to him and stretched the small fabric at him proudly, her chin up, her mouth turned downwards, her nose scrunched slightly.

Yoshi laughed. “You look like a Hannya.”

A Hannya is a Noh mask depicting female jealousy, and Yui was jealous. Yoshi got to join the war, defend their country, see the world.

I pointed out the last paragraph in particular was expository and needed to be revised, which the author did thus:

Yoi turned to him, proudly flashing the small hoop of stretched fabric, her chin up, her mouth turned downwards, her nose scrunched slightly.

Yoshi laughed. “You look like a Hannya.”

In a way he thinks she is indeed a Hannya, for she is jealous he leaves tomorrow for adventure, for honour, to defend their country and see the world. She would go if she were allowed. He knows she would. Her jealousy is palpable, as obvious as if she wore the Noh mask.

Now the information about the Noh mask is part of the action, rather than the action coming to an abrupt halt because the author stepped outside the story to deliver an explanation.

In a different story written by a different author, there was this scene:

Kathy got off the train and the three of them went and sat on the cement platform near the grey wall. Robert tried to draw Kathy into a conversation. She had been dead for a long time. He didn’t know how to talk to a dead person.

Pretty dry and cursory stuff. No depth of character. No sense of action. Just exposition.

That scene was rewritten with this result:

He sees Kathy. She looks as grey as Malek’s suit, the pallor she wore lying there in that hospital bed with her bone marrow neuked and the stem-cell transplant failing to reboot her system. Twenty-eight and no way to die. His face is wet with tears and he hears himself gasping for air.

“Kathy,” he whispers. He’s about to say, How are you? and realizes how ridiculous that is. What do you say to your dead daughter?

“Dad,” she says and although there are no tears on her face he hears the catch in her throat. She looks scared, he thinks, and wants to pull her to his side, drape his arm around her shoulders and squeeze. Maybe he’d been wrong? Maybe you didn’t screw with the forces of nature?

“C’mon,” he says, and gestures toward the archway where there are fewer people and the light is dimmer. “We can talk over there.”

Malek precedes them, places himself like a barrier in front of the corridor. Robert tries to ignore him, walking to the wall, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Kathy follows. She does, but it’s clear she’s uncomfortable. When at last they’re cross-legged on the ground – where else would you find a man in a navy business suit sitting on the floor? – he asks her if she needs anything.

She looks at him, perplexed. “What would I need?”

“I don’t know.”

Her attention slides away again, flicking from person to person, the walls, the floor, the rails where the trains run every twenty minutes.

“I’ve missed you,” he says. “Every day.”

“I know,” she says. And is silent once more.

Now you have a better understanding of the characters, of the tension, of what’s going on in the story. And this is what makes a story not only vibrant and a narcotic to the reader, but potentially makes it into a sale.