We all do, on occasion, through our own inexperience (not realising that something better may be required), through laziness (whizzing along, and taking the first option that comes to mind), or because we don’t understand that, with a bit of thought, we can do better (and that one explains itself).
Here’s an exercise to try: imagine stepping out of your house and into a cold winter’s day. Go ahead, write a paragraph – see what you come up with. Try and write this paragraph as you normally would, (understanding that the existence of the exercise in this blog is going to automatically change the way you think about it).
Well? How’d you go?
Potentially, some of you may have written something like this:
- It was freezing when I stepped out of the house …
This is the easiest solution. The existence of the word ‘freezing’ (or any synonym you might’ve used) does all the work for us. We all know what ‘freezing’ is, right? But what does it tell us? – And it does just that: it tells us (the reader) exactly what we’re meant to know.
Try this same exercise again, but avoid using the word ‘freezing’ or any of its synonyms (cold, icy, bitter, etc.). Think about it. How do you write this same premise and convey that it’s freezing to the reader?
Give it a try.
How did you go?
Some ways you might’ve communicated the cold:
- misting breath
- rubbing hands together/putting hands in pockets
- wrapping arms around oneself
- zip up/button up jacket
- you shiver/gasp
- teeth chatter
- have goose bumps
This is just a small sampling of things we might feel when walking out into the cold. It’s also descriptive writing that both paints the scene and also puts the reader directly in the head and body of the character, which is much more evocative than simply saying, ‘It’s cold.’
There are always different ways to say things – ways that aren’t our fallbacks or tried and true methods. Something else this applies to is to the delivery of information as it relates to characterisation or the plot.
Try this example: a character comes home. Their partner left them a fortnight ago after ten years of a relationship. In fact, the partner ran off with their best friend. Now your character is hurt and embittered. How would you write this scene?
Give it a go.
How did you go?
A lot of people fall into the trap of writing something like this:
- Pat came home. The house seemed so empty after Mary had run off with George. Pat and Mary had been together ten years and, like that, it was over. Pat didn’t know what he’d done wrong. Sure, there’d been some fights, but which couples didn’t fight?
We get all the information in exposition, and we get it all at once. Some writers can wield exposition both engagingly and fluently, but often it feels as if the narrative is put on hold whilst the author arms the reader with all the information they require to go on. Some authors offer exposition and then, within the exposition, digress and offer more exposition about some facet of the original exposition. Some writers do this repeatedly, like a reflection inside a reflection inside a reflection. Most times, it’s an off-switch – at least for myself as a reader.
Think about how else you could write the previous exercise without straight out telling the reader what they need to know. As with the cold, there are symptoms for this premise. They might not be as obvious as they are with the cold, but they do exist.
Give this exercise one more try.
Now. Go ahead.
Here’s some ways we could’ve conveyed the circumstances of this situation:
- empty house/oppressive silence
- calls out to partner out of habit
- a closet may be half empty
- answering machine message that hasn’t been changed
And the emotional resonance:
- character drinks
- character cries/fights back tears
- character struggles entering quiet of house
- character lies on bed facing empty side
These are just basic examples but, again, they’re descriptive. They paint the scene for us and put us in the head and body of the character and we get to experience what they’re experiencing.
As far as exposition goes, you won’t always be able to escape using it, but if you’re going to, think about whether that’s the only way to convey the information you need to convey. Also, think about how much information the reader actually needs at any one time. Often, it’s much more engaging to seed the information gradually, building a premise around the reader, rather than just dumping everything on them at once.
Think about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.