A Brief Time of History

Exposition lays out all the groundwork in a novel that the reader cannot experience directly. Description provides those images and sensations that can be sense or felt, completing a mental picture of the setting and the characters. Dialog helps shape character through verbal interaction, and informs the reader at the same time that it moves action forward. Exposition fills in the gaps left by relying on purely observable description and involves the reader more intimately with the source material. Properly employed exposition addresses history, functionality, or purpose with information the reader needs but cannot witness or easily deduce. It may be presented in dialog, descriptively, or in narrative passages.

 

Many of the same dangers and rules that surround descriptive passages also apply to expository passages, including information overload from a data dump, the need to anchor the passage with a character, and the Rules of 4. To recap: expository passages should provide only the minimum amount of information necessary for the reader to frame the present and immediate future action, every paragraph should relate the information to a character, and (Rule of 4) a writer may include up to four expositional sentences in a paragraph, one of which must relate the information directly to a character.

 

Exposition addresses a different type of information that does description, and runs a danger particular to this type of discourse. Where descriptive passages run the risk of turning into hyper-detailed travelouges or catalogs, expositional passages may easily turn into a lecture about the subject matter, and stray from the immediate action. The Rules of 4 help to mediate this risk, but a writer may sometimes decide in the middle of a scene that the reader needs more detail or a more complex concept than can easily be presented using (Rule of 4) only four points of information. At this point, the writer should backtrack in the manuscript and present all the necessary information before the scene begins; this will avoid causing the reader to wander down rabbit trails in the middle of a scene, and potentially lose the flow of action. Exposition presented within a scene should relate closely to the scene; exposition presented outside of a scene’s framework or preparatory to its commencement has more freedom to develop its purpose.

 

The purpose of exposition once again is to present the reader with necessary information that he cannot witness or easily deduce. This information may be historical, functional, or purposeful. Because the reader does not possess perfect knowledge of the story’s setting, historical information will need to be provided in order to frame the context of a setting or scene. The writer often has far more information about the history of a setting than the reader needs, and should only present those portions that relate to the immediate scene. Because a reader does not possess perfect technical knowledge about how everything in the story functions, it will occassionally become necessary to detail technological workings or the process involved in a procedure. The reader will not wish to have his story interrupted with a technical manual, and will be looking for just enough information to understand what is happening. Purposeful exposition is extremely common, and often takes the form of internal character dialog and thought processes; rather than addressing the what or how of a scene, it speaks to the why. Purposeful exposition enables the reader to understand the instigating circumstances and consequences of an action, but the reader seeks this information only as it relates to the current scene instead of a character’s entire existence.

 

Presenting exposition often proves problematic; the largest difficulty by far may be avoiding a data dump for the reader’s benefit and working exposition naturally into a scene. Strict exercise of the Rules of 4 will assist with this effort, as will the conscious separation of expository passages from character scenes. Readers need information, but they need it in bite-sized portions, with room to fill in for themselves those portions the writer leaves to their imagination.

Scene It

Action in a novel happens through dialog, description, and exposition. Dialog is the beating emotional heart of your characters, but it cannot stand alone; dialog needs setting and motion in order to give it meaning. Setting the scene needs to be high on a writer’s priority list in order to give his characters a place to act and emote. Description treats the current setting of the story, detailing those persons, places, and things around which the action is currently taking place and often are performing those actions themselve. Exposition provides the reader with information that cannot be observed, or explicitly lays out information that must be deduced. Description and exposition provide the foundation for dialog, and we will treat all three this week.

 

Description lays the groundwork for most of a novel, impersonally detailing the surroundings containing the characters and their world. Description is a powerful tool that substitutes for the reader’s eyes and ears in the novel. The reader is wholly dependent on the writer to provide the information through which the world of the novel will be interpreted. The writer has an obligation to make that description complete. In this sense, complete doesn’t mean that the descriptive passage details everything in the area, but that the descriptive passage contains all of the information immediately or presently relevant to the reader. As the reader needs to observe new things about the setting, more description can be layered in order to provide the details of the setting.

 

There is a particular danger in using descriptive passages when providing the initial setting for a scene; the writer often faces the temptation of providing all the information possible all at once. This tendency is sometimes referred to as a data dump. The reader is overwhelmed with information, experiencing a virtual sensory overload as he does not yet know which part of the description is going to be relevant to the immediate action of the story. As additional portions of the setting become important or additional details become relevant, they may be revealed in future paragraphs. This is a good place to introduce one of the Rules of 4: a paragraph may only contain four descriptive sentences, and one of those must describe the characters.

 

For the purpose of description, a “character” need not be a person. A “character” need only be the subject of an action. In describing a storm, the writer is allowed to spend three sentences detailing the wind, the rain, and the ocean swells. His last sentence must describe the plight and condition of the boat navigating the fearsome waters. As far as the reader is concerned, the boat is their point of identification within the setting, that makes it a “character”. Applying this rule in this way breaks up long descriptive passages, and gives the reader a context in which to frame the action and setting.

 

Description is applied to people and objects as well as settings. Detail-oriented writers can provide every crease and fold of their character’s garments, but few readers are going to appreciate this level of detail. Another Rule of 4 applies when detailing people or objects within a setting: when detailing a person or thing, only four points of identification may be used for each paragraph. Trimming the details in this way allows the reader to participate in describing characters and important objects by filling in the nuances from his own imagination. This also forces the writer to focus on things that are truly important to advancing the action within his story.

 

Descriptive passages only apply to those things that can be observed with the five senses, anything else is exposition. The truth is that the reader will always fill in the details of any given scene, setting, or person from bits and pieces of his own experience. The writer’s job is to provide the reader with just enough particulars so that the readers’ perception materially resembles the images the writer is attempting to convey. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a reader’s attention only lasts for a paragraph.

Reading Verbs

Know your verbs and your story will flow smoothly and read naturally. Verbs find two expressions relevant to the storyteller, tense and voice. Voice defines the perception of the action, controls transitions, and enables the dynamic presentation of both action and description. Verb tense controls the pacing of the action, aligns the reader’s perception of time passage with the events of the story, and affects the readability of the material. The correct technical use of verbs will do more for your story than any other technical element of writing.

 

Verb voice is either active or passive. Passive verbs describe a state of static being, and are often called the “be” verbs: is, was, were, will be, and similar verbs that are used with non-specific subjects. A good rule of thumb (and popular internet meme) is that if you can end your sentence with the phrase “by zombies” you are using a passive voice. Passive voice has its place, most notably in descriptive passages and instructional writing. Passive verbs draw little attention to the subject or action in a sentence, and focus the reader’s attention on those phrases that end the sentence. Continual use of the passive voice results in predictable, repetitive sentence structures that quickly blur together in the reader’s perception. The reader loses focus on the subject of the sentence and what that subject is doing in favor of descriptive phrases that typically end the sentence. For instruction manuals, this enables a technical writer to impart a large amount of information quickly. For the novelist, it means the reader pays little attention to your characters and their world, forming no strong impression or connection to your story. For all the reader knows, your story is just another novel … by zombies.

 

Active verbs describe a state of transitive change, and place the reader’s focus squarely on the front part of a sentence. The strict subject/predicate relationship means that reader perception processes both subject and verb twice, once for the beginning of the sentence and again once the rest of the sentence is read. This places an intense focus on the action, keeping characters foremost in the reader’s mind and forcing the reader to notice what the character is doing. Active verbs may be used continually without straining reader perception or becoming repetitive due to the wide variety of active verbs. Active verbs may be used in place of passive verbs in almost any situation, and are always preferable. Identify active verbs by using the “zombies” trick already mentioned or by removing forms of “do”, “be”, and “is”.

 

Verb tense is a complex and extremely technical subject. Most writers really only need to be concerned with one verb expression: the simple past tense. Most stories are told in the past tense; sometimes a first-person account will use the present tense. In both cases, best practices always use exclusively the simple forms of the verb. Simple verbs allow the reader to focus on the action of the story and nuances of the character. It preserves pacing and leaves the reader’s timeline of events. Simple verb forms don’t require the reader to devote attention to thinking about what he’s just read. Simple verbs communicate clearly because they can only be interpreted in a limited number of ways. Simple verbs can be identified by their use of a single word, and should not be modified by a following phrase. Zombies unfortunately are of little use in isolating simple verbs from complex ones.

 

Verbs and their proper use are one of the most varied and complex structures in the English language. Proper use of verbs can be treated at textbook length. Best practices can be summed up with only two rules: always use the active voice, and always use the simple form of your chosen tense. Strict observation of this practice dramatically improves any manuscripts readability.

Map and Compass

The Cub Scouts of America earn a belt loop for master the Map and Compass requirements. Its more than just learning how to use these tools; this belt loop signifies that the scout has the skills to know where he’s going and how to get there. The writer undertaking a novel needs the same skills when embarking on his story. Novels follow several very general lines of construction, mixing and matching them more often than not. Strictly outlined stories have all the action and character points laid out before the story even begins. Some stories set goals that the characters need to accomplish in order to progress the plot. Character-driven stories rely on their characters to provide the bulk of the plot development.

 

Many writers learn how to outline plots and term papers as a basic skill in composition class. That same skill can be applied to your story to make sure that your plot progresses naturally from beginning to end. Using an outline to construct a story ensures that each plot point advances the story so that it forms a logical progression from beginning to end. Outlines ensure that every character develops properly, that every plot point is hit, and that the climax of the story uses all the pieces you’ve carefully laid out beforehand. Outlining your story provides a useful global view of the whole thing, and let’s the writer clearly define both characters and events. A proper outline exemplifies both “where you are going” and “how to get there”.

 

Sometimes writers know exactly how they want their story to end, and have a clear idea of the events that are supposed to happen on the road to that climax. This kind of goal-setting puts specific plot points and character moments as certain points in the story and work toward achieving them one at a time. Goal-setting serves both the action of the plot by ensuring that key moments happen at regular points in the story, or that characters experience particular changes as they develop. Goal setting provides the writer with a useful tool in keeping the action flowing between plot points and that dramatic moments provide the highlights. Goal-setting exemplifies the “know where you are going” approach to storytelling.

 

One of the most popular forms of storytelling focuses on the characters and their development throughout the story in order to provide dramatic moments and complete the action of the plot. Characters are important; they provide the emotional attachment for the reader and let him invest in the action so that the payoff is important. Powerfully written characters provide an empathetic anchor for a story and give the plot points meaning. The action must flow between plot points, but characters must also grow and change in order to make the payoff of the climactic action last beyond the final page. Character moments in the plot are a good example of “knowing how to get there” in the story.

 

Best practices blend all three techniques in story construction; scouts should use all of the tools at their disposal. Character moments may be your compass. Goal-setting may provide you with a map. Outlining may be thought of as putting the compass rose on the map so that you know how the two fit together. Using all three tools correctly ensures that your character moments get you from plot point to plot point, and that the payoff at the end is everything you want it be. Any one of these techniques will get your story from beginning to end, finding the right mix to match your style carries the reader along with you, and leaves him wanting more after the last page has been turned.

Best Foot Forward

The importance of a novel’s opening chapter cannot be overstated. When a reader starts on the opening words of the opening paragraph of the opening chapter of a novel, one of two things is happening: 1) the reader has already committed to reading your book, or 2) the reader is trying to decide if he wants to read your book by examining how it starts. In both cases, this is the right time to put your best foot forward and show the reader what you’ve got.

 

If the reader has already purchased your book, he’s made a commitment to you as a writer. You have his money. He is looking for an immediate return on that investment. The reader wants to know that he has made a wise choice by purchasing your book, and he wants to know right away. The opening of the book is just the right place to reward that purchase by plunging the reader directly into the web of intrigue and drama that lies under your carefully woven plot. There will be time for subtlelty later, engage your reader in the good stuff right away. Open with a car chase. Stumble upon a dead body. Realize to your heroine’s dismay that her ideal lover loves someone else. Whatever your tactic, by the end of the first chapter your reader should be glad he’s found the rare treasure that is your novel.

 

If the reader is still undecided about whether to commit to your work, the opening material is even more crucial, and just because writing a novel isn’t enough of a challenge, you have even fewer words in which to capture the reader’s attention irrevocably. Most readers will read two or three chapters of a book they have purchased, even if it doesn’t sieze them from the beginning. The undecided reader barely gives the author time to complete a scene before deciding to purchase the book or laying it aside. This makes the opening scene even more crucial. Open with a car chase … that explodes! Stumble upon a dead body … that could be your identical twin! Realize that your heroine’s true love is in love with … her best friend! No matter the situation, the undecided reader should hit the of that first scene and be absolutely compelled to turn the next page before buying your novel.

 

Hooking the reader into your novel involves more than shocking revelation, gripping action scenes, or mysterious circumstances. Upon starting your novel, the reader wants to be assured that you know what you’re doing technically, that you can write clearly and construct a linear plot. He wants you to speak to him on his level, not talk down to him or assume he already knows the complete history of your characters. He wants to know that you as a writer have done your setting research and are familiar with the conventions of your chosen genre. The reader expects a level of professionalism and that will justify his investment of time and money in purchasing and reading your novel.

 

A novel contains a great deal of room in which to develop characters, elucidate upon the plot, and slowly unravel a tangled web of intrigue. You want to make sure that your reader sticks around for the long-term pay-off, and that means giving him a little taste of what’s to come right up front. Forcing a reader to wait for the good stuff while you lay down careful groundwork often leads to abandoned novels and seldom to a second purchase. This is no time to be shy; show off your best work right up front and your reader will stick around for the long haul!

Know Thyself

Over the years, the aphorism “Know Thyself” has carried many meanings. The Ancient Egyptians said, “Know thyself and thou shalt know the gods.” The Ancient Greeks inscribed it over the temple of Apollo at Delphi, as a maxim to remember one’s place in comparison to the gods and in public perception. Modern philosophers from Hobbes to Emerson proclaimed knowledge of one’s self to be the highest form of introspection and the foundation of personal empathy. Coleridge essayed a poem on this maxim that ended with, “Ignore thyself and strive to know thy God!”

 

As it applies to the novelist, this aphorism might be reinterpreted as “Know thy work.” Know what it is and know what it is not. Know its place in the grand scheme of other literature, and know from whence come its influences. Know what rules of convention and expression govern your chosen genre and know the expectations of your audience. Know your own work so that you might improve the artistic quality, clarify the expression, and deepen the well of empathy. Finally, understand there is a greater wealth of knowledge and experience than you can ever hope to master, but that the reward is worth the attempt.

 

Know what your work is and is not. Are you writing formula genre fiction? Is it fan fiction? Are you writing a serious work of psychological exploration? Is your work meant for children or adults? Should people laugh out loud at every page, or blush and look around to see who’s watching them? These are important questions that inform the kind of language you will use, the level of technical detail you should employ, and the conventions that govern your slice of literary pie.

 

Know your work’s literary category and the influences expected. So much literature has gone before us that nearly every category of fiction has a body of work that has shaped and influenced its formation. Get familiar with other books in your category, and notice the source material from whence they draw. This is material your readers will find familiar and comforting; you will also find tropes that drive readers away. In both cases, the reader expects you to know which is which, use the one, and avoid the other.

 

Audience expectation and conventions of genre go a long way toward getting readers to commit to a book. Sci-fi stories need a strong technological influence. Crime stories revolve around catching a bad guy. Romance ends with a happily-ever-after. Magic wands, laser guns, aliens, gumshoes, and irresistible rakes fill the pages of genre fiction. Do not shy away from these things just because they are familiar. Use them in interesting ways and your reader will be captivated.

 

The three pillar of enjoyable fiction are: artistic quality, clarity of expression, and empathetic connection. Briefly put, good fiction displays technical skill with language and a knowledge of arrangement for best effect. Good fiction is easy to read and easy to understand without resorting to research or relying on specialized knowledge. Good fiction makes an empathetic connection with the reader, usually with the characters, causing readers to cheer for the hero and despise the villain.

 

Finally, you should never stop learning about your craft. From William Shakespeare to Steven King, from Jane Austen to Debbie Macomber, talented and skilled writers have worked hard at their craft. Study other authors who write the kind of books you want to create. Don’t just read their work, notice their story construction, examine their characters, consider their language. Read between the lines and draw out the artistic quality, social commentary, or philosophical underpinnings that drive their work. One day, other writers may do the same to your work.

Spring Benefit Book: The Least of These

Critical Press Media is committed to publishing two books annually for the purpose of raising money and awareness for selected charities. This presents an ideal opportunity for amateur writers, writing enthusiasts, and students to get professional critical feedback on their writing and possibly even publish a story! No submission will be turned away unread!

Matthew 25:34-40 (NIV)

34″Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37″Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Critical Press Media’s first Benefit project for 2010 will be part of Compassion 365, the year-long campaign by the Christian New Media Group to raise awareness and funds for Compassion International. We are looking for original fiction by new and upcoming authors with a passion for emotional storytelling, thought-provoking and well-reasoned essays where critical reasoning is brought to bear on the topic, and riveting news articles documenting the impact of suffering on humanity and the efforts of individuals and relief organizations.

Manuscripts suitable for the project will be:

  • 200-10,000 words in length
  • belong to any genre or style
  • use an act of compassion as a key element of the manuscript

What is an act of compassion?

“Compassion International exists as a Christian child advocacy ministry that releases children from spiritual, economic, social and physical poverty and enables them to become responsible, fulfilled Christian adults.”

The passage in Matthew defines six states of being wherein an act of compassion performed as ministry to another is actually service rendered to the Lord: hunger, thirst, alienation, vulnerability, sickness, and imprisonment.  A manuscript ideally suited to this project will treat one of these conditions as a central element or theme, and demonstrates the effects of these conditions both on the afflicted and their deliverer.

Don’t second-guess your story, send it in and let us read it!

Deadline for manuscript submission is June 1, 2010. No new manuscript submissions will be accepted after June 1.  Manuscripts should be submitted in the body of an email, or as an email attachment in HTML, DOC, RTF, or ODT format to winstonc@criticalpressmedia.com with the words “manuscript submission” in the subject line. Please include a brief synopsis of your submission and a few lines about you personally in the body of the email.  Remember, we’re looking for information, not ad copy.

All submissions will be read by the editorial staff at Critical Press Media, and authors will receive a detailed response about the manuscript’s strengths, weaknesses, and general marketability. If the manuscript is suitable for the project, editors will continue to work with the author until the project is complete. All authors published in the final project will receive a copy of the final book in print and e-book formats.

Critical Press Media is not associated with Compassion International, but we desire the Benefit Book to reflect the core values of that organization.

Now quit reading and start writing!