Friday, November 21, 2008

Speaking of....

I'm reading a novel by a bestselling author I usually like, but a quarter of the way in, I'm getting the distinct feeling that he's just, in that inimitable phrase, phoning it in. Why? Okay, it's a sequel, and nothing has happened yet, but I sure have been reminded of everything that happened in the original book... the plot of which is summarized entirely. Repetitively. I'd say so far 2/3rds of the text is the narrator being reminded of (and reporting) something that happened in the previous book. This seems to me a message that I should be reading that first book rather than this, which I hope is not the message the author meant to convey.

But more significant to our purposes is the clumsy transitions between points. The narrator is always inserting (made-up example), "Apropos of (previous paragraph's subject), Pete once told me (some other subject)." And there's also "Speaking of Judy, the high school we went to was torn down last year, and now there's a spanking new art museum in its place." Not to mention "The mention of bowties reminded me that I probably needed to dress for the museum opening tonight."

I suspect the very word "apropos" is a signal that something's gone wrong with the narrative flow here.

Anyhoo, I started wondering what the problem was, and what might help (the whole summary of the previous book, I think, can only be fixed by having something happen in THIS plot, so that when the summary is removed, this is still a novel and not a short story :). Some thoughts:

1) Apropos of, etc., are signs that there is probably too much exposition and it's being shoved into the wrong place. What does the reader actually need to know? And when does the reader need to know it? The reader doesn't need to know about the art museum, probably, in a passage about Judy, but rather when something happens that involves the art museum.

2) That of course supposes that something ought to be happening in real-time. I wonder if the difficulty of inserting the "speaking of" material is related to the lack of real scenes and real character movement through the scenes. So... um. Have scenes.

3) Scenes are, to quote Kate Moore, where someone is somewhere doing something. One of the great dangers of first-person narration is retrospective retelling of events rather than "right-there" scenes which show the narrator moving in real-time through the environment of the scene. It's going to be a whole lot smoother if the narrator gets dressed in his white tie and drives to the art museum and THEN realizes that it's on the site of his high school. I think it will also be more interesting to show him learning this, rather than have it appear suddenly in his knowledge base.

4) "Speaking of" indicates a passage set mostly in the narrator's head. That kind of free association does actually happen inside our heads-- that's where the term "stream of consciousness" comes from, after all. But I can't be the only one who finds SOC rather annoying, especially when it's really streaming and isn't Joycean, that is, meant to sound like a consciousness stream but in truth carefully assembled and edited a few hundred times. Most of us expect some structure in fiction, not the rambling recordings of a typically disorderly mind. So send the narrator to the art museum opening, and if the sight of the site brings back memories of homecoming games and making out with Judy in his GTO in the high school parking lot, that's going to be more credible, as that is how human memory works (linked to place, sound, smell, and so on). Let the character live the story.

5) Exposition is ammunition, as someone or other said. (Robert McKee uses it, but he's quoting an oft-heard epigram, so I don't know where it started.) That is, if it's important that the museum's on the site of the old high school (I'm envisioning Buffy's high school here-- you know, the site has got to be haunted by the unquiet souls of dozens of now-bloodless students), then don't toss away the opportunity to reveal it in an intriguing and plot-moving way.

6) Sometimes, when material is inserted so obviously, the "previous subject," the one that leads to the relevant subject, comes off as artificial, as shoved in there just to lead to whatever the author wants to happen next. So someone is overheard laughing about, I don't know, George Will's bowties, and the entire purpose of that entirely irrelevant passage (why are these so often overheard, anyway? Why not just put some neon font in there with an arrow pointing to "clumsy segue here?") is to get the narrator thinking about dressing for the museum opening. Well, why do you need to get him thinking at all? You need to get him DRESSING. So all he has to do is glance at his watch and realize he has only a half hour to get dressed. No George Will needed, and if you really want to spotlight that white tie, show the narrator unable to tie it, and his wife has to do it for him. That could, you know, show something about their relationship, maybe even slide in a bit of sexual tension, along with letting us know that this is a formal event.

7) These sorts of transitions are just author intrusion, and will interfere with the all-important suspension of disbelief that allows the reader to enter fully into the world of the story. Challenge yourself to select what the reader needs to know and reveal it in a way that develops the story and the character. I can see using these tacked-on transitions in a first draft, but they ought to be a big "TK" (to kum) marker and later replaced with a smoother connector.

8) And don't ever, ever phone it in, even if -- especially if-- you are fortunate enough to be a big enough bestseller that no one ever calls you on it. Let previous accomplishments challenge you to greater accomplishments. Not that every book is going to succeed on every level. But I think good readers can distinguish between an honorable book that just doesn't work and a book where the author doesn't notice or care that it doesn't work.

So. Any transition tips? Do you use particular prose tricks to do this? (For example, in non-fiction, there are all sorts of transitional phrases, like, uh, "for example".) Let's say you need to slide in some important bit of exposition without calling too much attention to it or jarring the reader. How do you do that? Mystery writers have to do this with clues.


Stipey Sullivan said...

I always hear the phrase, 'make the causal, casual'. Playwrights do it quite well - talking about one thing and inferring another: tension, danger

Quentin Tarantino's cheeseburger scene is a good example of irrelevant exposition (although it leads to a change in that character's life) - used to heighten the tension.

This is what the reader/viewer - thinks they want: action - movement,but no, now you've got them where you want them, waiting, you can be almost sadistic and take them back, make them wait and they'll enjoy it all the more.

Aside from that option, we all struggle with exposition, so if you can't wedge it in, throw it out. It ends up like the maltese falcon - no one quite knows why things are happening but it's exciting enough that no one really cares - and it does create a mystery as well.

That all said - this is a genius article and the clarity of YOUR exposition is perfect. Props indeed to the Ed. Torrent team....

Riley Murphy said...

This was an interesting topic - which got me to thinking...
I like to be surprised and I believe that a well executed transition or the subtle placement of exposition, can be the catalysis to a great and suspenseful read. That’s my ultimate goal. If I have succeeded in dishing up all the necessary information, pertinent facts and relevant history required by the reader to be able to trust what’s going on - and to actually care about what will happen next - I figure I have done my job as a storyteller.
Taming the beast that is exposition? Dialogue is where it is at for me. I love to use what I call (the getting to know each other dialogue) as a way to furnish info to the reader without making it obvious. The reader, if you have constructed the scene correctly, will be interested in the characters interaction - highlighted by say, telling physical reactions to each other, sweaty palms, heated cheeks, or rapidly darkening eyes...and with the reader distracted by the actions/reactions of the characters - this is the perfect time to weave in some crucial history. What about an argument? Nothing unearths dirty little secrets better than petty anger, in the heat of a roaring fight. The possibilities are endless.
To me, I guess it comes down to a matter of prioritizing. Yes, your reader needs to know certain things that came before - to believe what is happening now – but, is what came before, more important that what is currently going on? If it is, you are writing the wrong story – right?
I do have to say, that I laughed outright at the comment you made about that narrator and the bow tie segue -‘Well, why do you need to get him thinking at all? You need to get him DRESSING.’
Now that was funny!

Anonymous said...

How about "Meanwhile, back at the ranch"? Sorry, I couldn't resist the impulse to use the ol' faithful transition from the old serial movies.