This is the third in an ongoing series of StoryCrafting/StoryTelling posts I’m publishing for my own benefit; explaining something helps me determine if I’ve truly learned it or am simply parroting what others have offered. I learn my weak spots, what I need to study, et cetera.
Previous offerings include:
- Atmosphere is…
- Character is… (Part 1)
And note that I’ll update/upgrade/edit these posts as I learn more.
I ended Character is… (Part 1) with “The next in this series starts the exploration of the third character aspect, the techniques used to make the character real/alive to the reader.”
So far as I know, these techniques are:
- Exposition – the author explains (tells) the character to the reader. Most economical and least effective storytelling form. Improve it by sharing some sharp details, by having a character do the explaining (thereby revealing character as well as providing exposition).
- Description – Second most economical, second least effective. If you must provide a list of details, make the last one explosive, eye-catching, something highly contrasting with the previous, preferably bland, descriptive details.
- Action – most effective way to both show and demonstrate character.
- Shading – building a character by revealing contradictions about them.
- Gestures and Mannerisms – establish character by the little things they do, the non-conscious things they do, their habits.
- Settings, Tastes, Interests – what someone has in their environment, how someone interacts with their environment
- Opinions of Others – reveals both speaker and character.
- Dialogue – Character reveals themselves through their own words or through dialogue with another character.
- Thoughts – the author reveals character by sharing the character’s inner thinking about something.
- Narrative Voice – 1st person POV, the narrator talks to us and is revealed via their words and thoughts.
…a disaster waiting to happen. As stated above, exposition is the least effective storytelling form. It does have its uses. Quick transitions in time, space, or character are an example: “Jenny drove home from her office.” “Karl glanced out the window and waited for his stop.” “The Carsons walked out as the Davidsons entered.”
In all three cases, the events aren’t as important as the fact that something’s changing; Jenny’s environment is changing from office to home, Karl’s waiting for the next thing to happen. The players are changing from one group to another (Carsons to Davidsons). All are single lines that provide little information other than letting the reader catch their breath before the next big thing occurs.
Single line exposition gains power when the reader has some prior information regarding the exposition. Example: If the reader knows tension exists in Jenny’s office or home or both, the line “Jenny drove home from her office.” signals the reader a change in emotional energy is taking place. The reader anticipates something about to happen and keeps reading to have their anticipation rewarded or thwarted. Example: If the reader knows something’s troubling Karl, the line “Karl glanced out the window and waited for his stop.” signals the reader something’s going on inside Karl and anticipates the result of Karl’s ruminations. If the reader knows the Carsons and Davidsons despise each other, the line “The Carsons walked out as the Davidsons entered.” has meaning in the story beyond simple exposition.
A Detailed Example
The following is a story opening: Xenopologist Cate Macklin was giving Colonel Harper a status report when her planet duster started shaking and spinning like a rickety amusement park ride. She’d held on to her seat and gritted her teeth against motion sickness until the duster smacked into the ice with a bone-shattering jolt.
A Detailed Example – My Opinions
There’s no life in the above. Worse, it makes use of cliche – held onto her seat, gritted her teeth, bone-shattering jolt. Worst, it’s a lifeless opening to a story.
You want the reader to kick back, relax, and get lulled into your story’s mythology as quickly as possible in your story’s opening. Have you ever fallen asleep during a long car ride? A bus trip? A train ride? While at sea? During a long flight?
If yes, it’s because you trusted the driver, engineer, captain, pilot, et cetera, to get you safely to your destination. You want your readers to do much the same thing. You want them to go into the dreamworld of your story and trust you to get them safely to its end.
But the above opening as written? It’s in passive voice (Rita Mae Brown hammers this in Starting from Scratch.”Passive voice destroys responsibility. It removes the agent from the action.” Dead on, Rita, dead on!), it’s pure exposition, we learn next to nothing about the characters, there’s no energy, there’s little for the reader to invest in, why is Macklin piloting some kind of ship if her response to what seems to be an emergency situation is to hold onto her seat and grit her teeth?
But it is quick, as in “economical.” As mentioned earlier, economical is good when it serves a purpose (like quickly indicating a change in time/place/character/…). The above opening paragraph doesn’t serve such purpose. The reader is coming into the story cold. A weak, passive-voiced, energy-less opening isn’t going to draw them in and keep them reading. More correctly, it isn’t going to make them rise up and make the story more important that whatever else is going on in their life. (feel free to disagree. be prepared to give your reasons for disagreeing. i’m here to learn, remember?)
As Piker Press Managing Editor Sand Pilarski wrote me re The Goatmen of Aguirra, “Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Every interruption seemed like a catastrophe.” Amusingly, when I asked Sand if I could quote her she offered, “Absolutely, Joseph. It was disconcerting that day, being yanked back and forth from Aguirra to California, going from encountering an alien species to being asked to order toilet paper from Target or something equally mundane.”
You want readers engaged and the sooner the better. Some people will say, “Jeez, Joseph. It’s just the opening paragraph. Give the author a chance.”
Sorry, no, I can’t, and people making that statement are missing the point. I have no problem with someone writing the above so long as they don’t expect me to read it. I have major problems with my writing something like the above and expecting otehrs to read it. I’d be insulting my readers and myself if I did.
Consider the following rewrite (and remember how to fix Exposition as mentioned at the start of this post; Improve it by sharing some sharp details, by having a character do the explaining (thereby revealing character as well as providing exposition):
A Detailed Example – Fix
Xenopologist Cate Macklin opened her planet duster’s comm to Titan Base Alpha’s Colonel Mitch Harper. “On approach. Ready for transmit.”
Harper’s calm baritone reverberated her headset. “Confirmed on both. Trans — ”
Macklin interrupted as her tablet accelerated past her. “Dampers offline. Continuing approach. Switching stabilizers to manual.”
She heard people hustling in the Con tower. Harper barked through the link, “Prepare EFO. Now.”
They must be picking up something she hadn’t. An Emergency Field Override? For malfunctioning dampers? Clear the field, she’ll bump it in.
A proximity alarm sounded. “What the — ”
Her ship rocked as if hit by a Sidewinder. It spun completely off axis, falling moonward. She didn’t know a ship could spin in three directions at once. No training sim prepared her for this. She spoke into the comm through gritted teeth. “Ship’s AI flushed the dampers. Coming in hot.” Whatever hit her, the duster’s AI decided it would do significant damage and flushed the inertial dampers so whatever hit would bounce off rather than blast through.
Harper’s voice again. “Confirming EFO.”
She grunted, keeping her lips tight, her lunch down. Steering the duster on manual was like catching asteroids bare-handed. “Confirm, yes, EFO. EFO.”
Another voice, in the background, anxious. Conner’s? “Approach is heavy.”
Harper. “She’s burning in over the icefields. Activate the Grapplers.”
Alpha Base’s plasma arms reached out but not quick enough and too high. What should have been a soft caress hit her like a hard fist to the jaw and increased her fall rate moonward.
The duster rammed into the glaciers nose first. House sized icebergs erupted into the dark, night skies, some rising so high they reflected the distant sun before crashing down like burnt out meteors.
She checked herself for injuries. None. She hit the hatch emergency release. The bolts exploded but the hatch didn’t budge.
“Jammed in the crash. Shit.”
She looked out the port shield. The fuel tanks split and leaked onto the still smoldering stabilizers.
Something sparked. Her head banged against the release panel. Her world went dark.
Why is it better (and yes, everything is subjective)?
- It’s in active voice. Things are happening in the reader’s “real time.”
- The first sentence is right out of Journalism 101. It establishes
- Who the story’s about – Cate Macklin and Mitch Harper. Also, Colonel Harper is “Mitch.” They have a relationship that extends beyond the protocols of duty.
- What‘s happening – Cate begins communication to a superior officer. She’s in a ship of some kind, he’s on a base of some kind, therefore the two aren’t near each other.
- When the story’s taking place – if Cate and Mitch are on Titan, it’s the future.
- Where it’s happening – somewhere in the Saturn system, definitely on or around Titan. Also, the base is military; Mitch Harper is a Colonel.
- We’re missing Why and How, true, and I’m willing to learn if anybody wants to fill those in. But those first four are locked down solid.
The sole purpose of that first sentence is to get people to keep reading. It’s also worth noting that it’s expository on the surface, but the active voice, the sentence’s short length, and the establishment of who-what-when-where provide a lot of information in a relatively short time. In movie-making lingo, it is an establishing shot. It’s purpose is to give the reader maximum information in minimum time, to prepare the reader for what comes next, to get the reader into the story’s milieu as quickly as possible, to answer the immediately necessary questions so the reader doesn’t ask them.
- We quickly up the ante in the second and third paragraphs, each of which are single line long, by introducing a problem.
- We show the reader that the problem is more serious than our main character thinks and we’re doing that via the main character’s reactions to what’s going on. We’ve introduced a disconnect between what she perceives and what her support structure perceives. To her, not serious. To them, serious.
- We demonstrate the nature of the problem: Her ship is out of control and in danger of crashing.
- The terse verbal exchange tells the reader everybody’s concerned. If the author’s done their job, the reader will share the characters’ concern.
- The reader is shown – not told – Alpha Base can’t help. IE, Cate’s on her own.
- The crash is described physically and visually.
- We continue upping the ante; she’s crashed, she can’t get out of her ship, her ship’s in danger of exploding, it does, she’s injured.
- Similes and metaphors are in keeping with the story’s setting. IE, we keep the reader in the scene rather than pushing them out with some description then bringing them back in.
- Action-oriented verbs are used to give the reader sensory information.
First, yes, it is longer. Second, it gets a lot more done but not simply because it’s longer, it get’s more done because it shows rather than tells, what it shows moves the story forward (rather than offering a lump of coal, we’ve started a fire), and (we hope) engages the reader enough to want to read more.
A Second Example
Sister Tina O’Hailey is working on a book blurb for the 28 May 2020 release of her YA novel When Darkness Begins (and many thanks for letting me share her work in progress here). Her original draft was:
At the dawn of mankind, the Vechey lurk as time-guardians protecting the world from their incessant foes who would destroy time and all in it—if only for a brief euphoric glimpse of the universe’s collapse. To earn their place as time-guardians Aithagg and Catha, along with the other teens, must survive an ancient ritual shrouded in mystery. Only the strong survive—or the clever.
Catha has not developed the time-slipping skills needed to survive the deadly ritual. Can Aithagg devise a way to help his first love survive or does Eterili, the clan leader who is self-proclaimed to be—literally—as old as dirt, have other plans for them? After all, the universe is hers and she wields it to her liking.
A unique, time-bending, coming-of-age story filled with blood, time-blindness, foes, and first loves.
As written, the piece has challenges. Remember, this is backcover copy. You want potential readers to purchase your book. You want them to keep your book in their hands long enough to get to the cash register or click the “Buy” button.
The first challenge is the use of passive voice in the first sentence. The second is that it’s largely exposition. Thirdly, it’s cliche heavy. Fourth, it asks a question without giving the reader a reason to care about the answer. Finally, the last paragraph is pure marketing-speak. Marketing-speak is fine when it’s directed at the audience. This marketing-speak is directed at the audience’s parents.
Here’s what we came up with in a quick session:
The Vechey gather. It is time for their young to earn their place as time-guardians through an ancient, bloody ritual – The ForeShadowing.
The ForeShadowing is shrouded in mystery and protected by the powerful clan leader Eterili the Eternal, who, after hundreds of regenerations, wields the universe and those in it to her bidding.
Aithagg knows Catha, his first love, is too weak to survive The ForeShadowing. Her time-slipping skills have not fully developed and she suffers from time-blindness – an inability to open the correct doors to Past, Present, and Future. He will do anything he can to help her.
But Eterili needs Aithagg elsewhere, knowing only he can stop the Manipulators in their quest to destroy time and all in it.
Can Catha’s one short life and love match the power and command of a near-immortal’s?
Will Aithagg chose love over ending a TimeWar that’s destroying the Universe?
And Eterili the EverLasting, has she seen her last regeneration? Or will she claim a young life to feed her own soul’s needs?
Or does she know she must go BeyondTomorrow, and that it is time to give all her skills and knowledge to someone else?
As before, it’s longer than the original but it still fits on a backcover. It’s in active voice (always a plus in marketing material). It states the external (to the protagonists) problem quickly. We keep upping the ante. We introduced the protagonists and state their (internal) challenges. We pit the young against authority (always a winner with the YA audience) and we end with ambiguity; not everything is as it seems. Remember this is genre fiction. Give a genre reader an ambiguous character and they have to read to know who’s the hero and who’s the villian. It also offers young readers challenges (based on the story line) that focus on their emotional development and worldview. Some terms terms were added to lock concepts in the readers’ minds.
Tina commented “Mine felt soulless. Now I see why.”
Exposition’s best use is to quickly cue the reader that something’s changed.
Exposition is a good tool. Like any tool, it needs to be used correctly to be effective. You can drive nails with a crescent wrench and be prepared for several nails to go in crooked or not at all.
Also note that the rewrites are genre rewrites. Literary fiction seems to require exposition. Or more of it, anyway.
Care for a critique of your writing? Let me know.