Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Exposition, Not Dialogue

Yesterday, among other things, we looked at a sample passage of description and discussed why it was description and not exposition. Today, I want to show you a paragraph in which dialogue is replaced with exposition in the form of narrative summary. This is from a story called "Gryphon" by Charles Baxter that has to do in part with a substitute teacher talking to students.

She talked for forty minutes straight. There seemed to be less connection between her ideas, but the ideas themselves were, as the dictionary would say, fabulous. She said she had heard of a huge jewel, in what she called the Antipodes, that was so brilliant that when the light shone into it at a certain angle, it would blind whoever was looking at its center. She said that the biggest diamond in the world was cursed and had killed everyone who owned it, and that by a trick of fate it was called the Hope diamond. Diamonds are magic, she said, and this is why women wear them on their fingers, as a sign of the magic of womanhood. Men have strength, Miss Ferenczi said, but no true magic. That is why men fall in love with women but women do not fall in love with men: they just love being loved. George Washington had died because of a mistake he made about a diamond. Washington was not the first true President, but she did say who was. In some places in the world, she said, men and women still live in the trees and eat monkeys for breakfast. Their doctors are magicians. At the bottom of the sea are creatures thin as pancakes which have never been studied by scientists because when you take them up to the air, the fish explode.

You might think this is dialogue, but it's not. It's a condensed, representative version of a 40-minute ramble from a substitute teacher. It might or might not contain exact quotes from her speech -- we can't be sure which sentences might have fallen as-is from her lips and which are the schoolboy's representation of the teacher's words. Because really, even if some of these words are verbatim, they're all part of the schoolboy's rendering of the speech.

This works as a technique for the purposes of this story because nobody wants to read a verbatim record of the entire 40-minute speech. So instead, Baxter chose to use narrative summary, which takes events on the story's true timeline and compresses them in to a smaller space. This way, we don't have tons of page space being consumed by a rambling monologue, but we still get the full flavor in this "highlight reel" type of compressed version. This is a rather long patch of narrative summary, so Baxter leads us into it carefully with some explanatory notes at the beginning (also exposition). And he peppers the passage with "she said" and other reminders that this is not the actual speech, but the boy's recollection of it.

If it had been written as actual dialogue, not only would it be substantially longer, but it would be in quotation marks to indicate that these are the true words spoken aloud by the character. It might look, in part, like this:

"I've heard of a huge jewel in the Antipodes," the teacher said, "that is so brilliant that when the light shines into it at a certain angle, it will blind whoever is looking at its center. The biggest diamond in the world is cursed and has killed everyone who owned it. By a trick of fate it is called the Hope diamond. Diamonds are magic, and this is why women wear them on their fingers, as a sign of the magic of womanhood. Men have strength, but no true magic. That is why men fall in love with women but women do not fall in love with men: they just love being loved."

This still feels like a bit of a ramble, but we lose the sense of time unfolding slowly as these stories about diamonds are told to the children. But doing it as Baxter did serves two goals: it enhances the sense of time passing, and it avoids weighting down the pace with a long but accurate representation of the actual dialogue.

So, here's the thing. The same basic story elements are being conveyed in the original and in my partial modification. A teacher is talking about diamonds, sharing legends and fables about diamonds in either case. The difference is not in the story content but in the narrative element being used to present the story. This is the cool thing about narrative. It's very flexible in how it can convey story.

The trick is learning how to manipulate those elements in a way that has the best impact on the reader. Ordinarily, we would urge you to avoid long runs of exposition. But here, in this case, compressing the dialogue into exposition was a good choice. So I wanted to share this for two reasons, first to give you practice in seeing the difference between exposition and dialogue, and second, to show you one place where the general guideline was rightly ignored.



Michelle Roberts said...

Great post! I have a question, though. It doesn't really relate to your topic, but the topic reminded me of this.

What do you do when you have long passages of time you're skipping over? Do you summarize it? Make a note that so much time has passed? Or do you just jump right into the action and slip clues into the text that tell the reader time has passed?

Emma said...

Yes - this is such an issue. I am at the supermarket end of the romance spectrum. Harlequin always wanted the whole story conveyed in dialogue and dear oh dear - it was so tedious. I have had separate critics of the same book ask for both more and less of both formats. Greatly enjoy your blog.

Wes said...

Excellent. I can see using this technique when events are swirling around the protag and he/she is overwhelmed by the number and speed of them.