Fiction writers at writing workshops often hear, "Get rid of the exposition." "There's too much exposition in here." "Exposition" --it can be good, but in fiction class it was always bad, and I understood the concept from examples, but never had it explained to me in a convenient nutshell.
As often happens, the word provides its own understanding. Think of the word as "Ex-position." "Ex" means "out." So the word means "out of position." Exposition is a capsule of description or dialogue that doesn't really fit in its time and place, or fit the character. Example:
"Amanda thinks she's Jane Austen, the famous English writer born in 1775 who wrote Sense and Sensibility and then Pride and Prejudice, and then Northanger Abbey which spoofs the Gothic novels popular at that time. Look, there's Amanda now."
That's fine information in that first sentence, and all true, but it doesn't belong there. It's out of place.
Exposition doesn't have to be factual. It can be fictional. It's an authorial intrusion: background information that has been foregrounded in a place in the narrative where it doesn't fit. The author is unsure about a choice he made -- maybe, he thinks, he'd better explain who Jane Austen was so we will all get it! -- so he patches up the narrative with further information, hoping for the best.
A good short story, personal essay, poem, or memoir captures the texture of life. The most celebrated memoirs are those which tell more than one story. For example, in Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life we read about the boy's education and conscience, but also about the bad second marriage his mother is trapped in, and how she is changing, doing things formerly out of character, like campaigning for JFK. These experiences happened during the same period. They were parallel.
Wolff could easily have written the entire memoir about his youthful self and how he learned to lie and fight. He could have written a fine memoir just about his mother's life. Either one would probably have been swell. But these in reality were intertwined, and Wolff wrote them that way.
What this appears to accomplish:
1) More accurately depicts the boy's exterior reality (events, conversations, his stepfather's behavior, friends and schooling and lessons learned)
2) More accurately depicts his interior reality. We all live more than one life at a time. In fact, at least two: the life that people can see and the one they don't. I've read (dull) stories and essays delving deep into an individual's emotional life that never indicate that this character or person has a job, or siblings, or a loan to pay off, or a best friend who isn't a dog, or a political opinion, or a goal.
Fiction and nonfiction have this in common: To capture the texture of real life, the work needs a subplot or more than one narrative thread.
You can see this on television, say, on The Simpsons, when the main story is about, for example, Homer, but a secondary story is woven in about two other characters. If you look for this, it is absolutely everywhere. That's because having two or more threads captures the texture of life.
When your creative prose seems dull or flat or thin or like "weak tea," it's usually because it has only one facet or thread. A secondary or parallel story, or "subplot," is a lot of work for the writer and requires skill. It is a large part of what makes superior fiction and creative nonfiction. You can spend years in creative-writing courses and never once hear about subplotting, or why subplotting is as basic as the "main story." I have, however, heard a poet say, "A poem should always be about two things." Poets get it.
Prose writing is a little different. After you have learned how to develop and play on one thread, attempt to add another to the piece you are working on. Don't worry about how well or poorly you do it at first. I said it's a skill and that it's not easy.
Here is what I was taught about writing descriptions in both poetry and fiction:
In other words: Put your poetry and fiction on a strict diet and treat words like calories.
All this was very 20th-century when the style was for stripped, bony, "masculine" prose like Hemingway's, not sparkling and vivid like Fitzgerald's, although nobody pointed out that Hemingway's style was right for his subjects, hunting and war and fishing, while Fitzgerald's was right for describing romance, youth and parties.
When I came to write essays, I realized almost all of the above advice was ruinous for personal essays. I now think essays about life should have the shape and texture of life. They should be long and rich and fill pages and explore tangents and use the five senses. I revise creative nonfiction NOT by stripping the piece to the bone but adding facts and details to enrich and clarify and layer it. Not fat, but flesh. James Baldwin, whose style is sumptuous, first inspired me to write personal essays, and I noticed he makes his most careful choices when selecting adjectives rather than verbs, although if I must choose between them, I will work harder on finding a good verb.
Of course I have somebody read my drafts and tell me where I went overboard and where there isn't enough, or where I'm unclear, and then I revise until the essay makes sense to everyone who reads it. It can't be merely expressive, as some poetry is; it must make sense, and not just to me.
I still believe in not using "very."
Peter Leach in 2011 won the Gival Press Award, its prize the publication of his first novel, Gone by Sundown, which is also the winner of a bronze medal from the IPPY independent publishers association. Set in St. Genevieve, MO in the 1930s, this vivid, class-conscious story is based on a real murder trial and resulting eviction of all the townâ€™s black residents, ordered to be â€œgone by sundown.â€
Leach stayed productive while his novel inched toward publication; he has 16 more books in manuscript. Peter Leach was born and grew up in St. Louis. He studied playwriting at Yale Drama School, had an NEA Grant for creative writing, and his fiction has appeared in many literary magazines. His short-story collection Tales of Resistance won the George Garrett Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 1999. Gone by Sundown is available through Amazon.com and on the shelves at Left Bank Books. Leach says, â€œI donâ€™t have a lot to show for my efforts. There were long patches between very modest publications and awards. I keep at it because it gives me satisfaction. It is what I do. I would become demented by strong drink, behave badly far more often than I do, and who knows what, if I were not writing fiction.â€
Q: Your fiction is rooted in real events and you research your books like a historian. Why not present these stories as nonfiction? Theyâ€™d be easier to publish.
A: Itâ€™s certainly true that nonfiction sells more readily. Many agents wonâ€™t touch fiction. Let them pry the poetic license from my cold dead hands. Fiction is what I do.
Q: You have 16 completed books in manuscript. What are you working on now?
A: I am now working on White Folks Bearing Gifts, about Cookie Thorntonâ€™s murderous rampage at Kirkwood City Hall, February 7, 2008.
Q: Tell us how you wrote Gone By Sundown.
Someone in St. Genevieve, I forget who, mentioned the driving out of the black people from St. Genevieve in the 1930s. I used as sources two weekly local newspapers, the St. Genevieve Herald and the Fair Play, reading on microfilm all the issues from 1929 through 1941. The two black men and the black woman accused of murdering two white limestone workers and inciting the eviction are real, as are the novelâ€™s â€œold French Coloredâ€ characters, the Ribeau brothers. Attorney Sidney Redmond is based on a man who later headed the St. Louis NAACP. The excursion train that people took to see Holt Hardyâ€™s hanging is based on actual events in Sedalia, Missouri.
I prowled Ste. Genevieve and the surrounding rural landscape with topographic maps, talked to people who had some memory of the events, took pictures, and toured the Mississippi Lime works on the edge of town, immense caverns eighty feet high, and their kilns.
The novelâ€™s working title had been Negro Clean, to suggest analogies to the ethnic cleansings in Bosnia and Rwanda. My then-agent sent out ten copies of the manuscript, re-titled St. Genevieve 1937. The first replies objected to the dialect. A favorable letter came from a man at Ecco Press, who suggested making the character Redmond more central. I went through three extensive rewrites. After parting with that agent I finally changed my first-person narration to close-in third person. That was when I put it through yet another revision, to just about what it is now.
But where would I send it, when the ten most likely publishers had already seen it? Finally I went through the last two issues of Poets and Writers and submitted it to six or seven contests. I almost did not send it to the contest it won, because the entry fee was $50.
Q: What started you writing fiction?A: I won fourth prize in a city-wide contest sponsored by Scholastic Magazine when I was 14, and at 15 won second prize. My father dreamt of writing like Sherwood Anderson but ended up in advertising. He cherished an encouraging handwritten rejection from the fiction editor of Esquire. He subscribed to Story Magazine, a monthly. It had stories by Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Starting at age 14 I read through every issue he had. My catching the bug to write fiction pleased my father no end.
The second-person "You", usually conjoined with present tense, as in (example)
"You take your mother's wedding dress from your closet,"
appears way too often in poetry drafts, including my own. Contemporary poets seem worried that using "I" is too "confessional" or too assertive. Some years ago poets wanted to be assertive, but currently it's important to seem humble and modest while practicing this most egoistic and self-indulgent of professions.
A "you" implies that there is an "I" but doesn't say so. I say, if it's an "I" poem, please come out of the closet and use "I."
The second-person "you" is technically an address either to the readers or to a specific person the poet knows. The "you" poem very often addresses an impaired, unlovable, absent or somehow guilty person. Therefrom comes the pleasure of using the "you," because you can expose him without naming names. "You" could also be the poet addressing himself or herself, especially regarding a past self such as the one who made a bad marriage. ("You put on the dress and veil/dreading your walk down the aisle to your father" usw.) Why should the rest of us read a poem addressed to your ex or your former self? Please be conscious of addressing poems to "You." It is bad if it is a habit. I catch and correct myself in later drafts.
The other alternative to "you" is the third-person pronoun "he" or "she." Here is where it's clear why the "you" is such an attractive option. Both "I" and the "he/she" demand greater nerve and attention to detail. The "I" should bare it all and articulate the unpleasant truth such as "I didn't want to marry him, but I was pregnant and married him for the sake of the child having a father and so my parents wouldn't harass me." The third-person "She" and "He" indicate people -- characters that must be detailed so as to resemble real people with mixed thoughts, feelings, and experiences. "You" is an outline, a faceless shadow figure -- to the audience. The poet uses "you" to hint at an entity rather than taking the trouble to describe it. It's just easier! The reader must figure out from the poet's dropped hints whom "you" might be -- an ex, a dying grandmother, a former self. I wonder what cultural rule poets are upholding when we could be direct and forthright but choose not to.
And, Friedman said, the "biggest bad advice" about opening a novel is "Start with action." She said she thinks, "But I haven't been made to care about these characters yet." Ideally, the first page introduces a character the reader feels he or she knows and understands.