Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Source of the Expository Lump

I was recently asked to evaluate the first 2 chapters of a novel which I have watched this author develop. It's main target is to become a TV Series -- and I believe the premise has the potential to draw in Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica (2) fans.

The premise is rich, deep and broad, the worldbuilding meticulous, the scope nearly infinite. It could be a huge story writ on a galactic canvas (like The Lensman Series) or more like Dallas, mostly set in one place (this solar system) but about the people and inter-related families.

The concept is dazzling, the flexibility of the material designed to allow many authors to contribute. I've seen some of the outline and "bible" material, and I'm entranced.

So I was delighted to get electronic copy of the first 2 chapters in novel style that I could read on my Palm.

Right off, I fell into Writing Teacher mode, being more "critical" than I would be if I were reading this for review. And you all know how picky I am about books I review! Can you imagine being the target of my "find something wrong" mode of reading? Ouch.

Still, because I love the premise as much as this author does, I avidly devoured the first 2 chapters. It helped that I was sitting in a) a dentist waiting room, and then b) a car repair shop waiting room. When I finished, I stared at the wall a while before I decided what exactly I was noticing in this first draft manuscript.

A final draft should read in such a way that the Writing Teacher mode never notices anything.

The story should unfold beat by beat, each beat where it belongs but the content leaping with flames of delight. The author should be invisible; the story vivid.

One doesn't expect that in first draft. First drafts are for debugging. So I read looking for bugs.

The sentence, paragraph and word-choice work in this first draft is top drawer professional. The visual descriptions will make any producer salivate. As I said before, the worldbuilding is superb. The characters are likewise, vivid and well rounded, deep and fundamentally interesting. What is presented in the first 2 chapters is intriguing.

So what's WRONG? Why is this text dragging? Why don't the characters leap off the page? Why won't it translate in my mind into a script? What rules is it violating?

OK, as I was reading, I mentally marked out paragraphs for deletion because they were EXPOSITORY LUMPS. But this is first draft material. Any writer, however experienced, passes some Lumps when drafting an opening. You just delete them, or shred them and sprinkle throughout the rest of the story, and what's left is usually a fantastic opening.

Rewriting is no big deal. You expect to do that, and it's largely a mechanical exercise when it comes to curing the lumpiness of a piece of goods. In fact, the classic cure is to move the opening scene to a later point in the story, skipping over the throat-clearing and pencil sharpening.

But this particular 2 chapter opening is "right" for the story this author is telling. Two conflicting elements smash together explosively kicking off a huge Interplanetary War Story.

But the whole thing just does not WORK. Why?

Well, when you delete ALL the Expository Lumps in this 2 chapter opening, you haven't got anything left that's 2 chapters long. Nothing happens. It's all "about to happen" -- not happened and creating consequences. There's no because-line; no plot line.

The author has told me how much FUN it is to be writing this story at last. It's exciting and fulfilling and very real. The characters are jumping up and down to get their story told.

Well. That is the problem, you see. The author has held back on writing the story while the background develops, fleshes out, becomes dimensional. The characters have lives and histories, and backstory-gallore. The politics, history, technological advances (this is set in a near future century when humans have colonized the solar system) and elaborate backstory on the colonization and its politics.

The source of the expository lump is the author's own familiarity with the material.
The author knows too much. The author started to write the story too late in the creation process. Screenwriting books warn over and over about starting to write too early in the creation process. These 2 chapters are an example of what happens when you start too late.

Both too soon and too early result in just about the same kind of unusable text, delineated with TELL rather than SHOW. Both result in a text sequence that weights every detail with the same importance, instead of prioritizing.

If the writer doesn't yet know the world, the writing process turns into worldbuilding block by block of impenetrable prose about the background instead of storytelling. If the writer knows the world too well, the writer is afraid the reader won't understand the story without all that the writer knows, so writing turns into an info-dump instead of storytelling.

And that, in essence, is what an Expository Lump is -- some rich-delicious detail that the writer wants the reader to know all about IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND the emotional, strategic, and political import of the events in the character's life.

The reason these events are important is TOLD rather than SHOWN (or dramatized).

Exposition is "about" the facts, an explanation of the facts. It is what the writer thinks the reader needs to know before starting the story or getting on with the events that form the because-line of the plot.

Exposition is the data that goes into the equation, not the equation itself (the plot and story are two variables in the equation that is a work of fiction). The equation is the problem the reader is working in his mind while the writer feeds in the data. Exposition doesn't register with a reader as data and isn't put into the equation.

Exposition is rhetoric laced with opinion, slant, and possibly the omniscient point of view. It is everything the character already knows before the reader arrives.

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/exposition gives a more dictionary sort of definition. Exposition is the writer's effort to make the reader understand "things" the exact same way the writer does.

The writer wants very much to share this vision, this story, this imagined world with the reader.

The writer wants to draw the reader in to the dreamscape using photographic reality. And the writer desperately wants the reader to enter into the exact dreamscape the writer is in. It has to be THE SAME DREAMSCAPE, so therefore everything (absolutely everything) has to be described in detail and explained back to twenty years before the story starts (or twenty centuries).

But in order to gain entree into the dreamscape, the reader needs a Japanese Brush Painting of the "reality" the writer has created -- not a digital photograph with sharp detail.

New writers (and experienced, published writers just starting a new project) can't do this -- simply CAN not do brush-painting style evocation.


Because without all the relevant details, the reader MIGHT NOT GET IT.

The reader might make other assumptions, mistake the hero for the villain, or think the main character is behaving without sufficient motivation.

Motivations have to be explained -- in exposition. Because otherwise, the reader might guess wrong!

Exposition says, "This is MY story and you have to understand it MY WAY - or otherwise don't read my story."

Marion Zimmer Bradley taught me to understand that expository lumps come from the writer standing in the "wrong place" to tell the story. She called this kind of overly detailed storytelling "self-indulgent." The writer is standing in a self-indulgent psychological space -- demanding the reader enter into the writer's own story, and no other.

Being jarred out of that "place" is what makes a talented amateur into a seasoned professional writer.

There is a knack, and a talent, and also a learned skill to handling expository lumps.

You can never avoid depositing them on your page. You must learn to handle them.

The skill part is learning to dissect a lump into its component parts, preferably even before you've finished inputting the entire lump in words.

Recognizing you are passing a lump is just a matter of practice. The more diligently you rewrite, the more your subconscious will learn to recognize something "wrong" before you finish entering it. But sometimes you have to finish writing the lump before you know what to do with it.

Lumps consist of "important" and even "vital" information the reader actually wants all twined around stuff the reader isn't (yet) ready for.

There can be elements of the characters' backstory -- who the father was, when the mother died and of what University they all went to -- things about the character's backstory that are characterization, motivation, color, and even worldbuilding (such as this alien species marries and raises children before going to grammar school).

There can be elements of politics, office or national level, perhaps what political party the character is registered in, or how the career was blunted because of supporting the wrong person for promotion.

There can be elements of description -- how the room is furnished, floor plan of the apartment, what's visible out the window, what people are wearing (which can also be worldbuilding), what type of computer or handheld device, how clean or dirty things are, what kind of music is playing.

There can be the reasons why things are the way they are in this scene -- and those reasons can involve other characters, other places, decisions made and executed long ago or recently. Lumps usually refer to things, issues, and situations that are "offstage" -- thus theoretical and abstract to the reader who hasn't yet been "backstage" of this story.

Those categories of expository lump material are not the only categories. And a clever writer can disguise all that in a nicely flowing narrative that is interesting and engaging. So how do you test your own words to see if you've committed a Lump?

A) identify WHY you wrote that particular information in exactly this particular place. If it is because YOU want the reader to know it; delete it.

B) identify WHY you think the reader is dying to know this information. Find where you've created suspense on this issue prior to this point.

C) consider if there is any other way to convey this information to the reader. What would it take to convert that ONE PARAGRAPH into "show" rather than "tell?" A whole chapter maybe? Another whole character with speaking part?

D) delete the Lump and reread the whole story again a few days later. If you can't retype the Lump into the story without looking at what you deleted, then it shouldn't be added back.

The first mistake new writers make is to misplace information. The expository lump in Chapter One may in fact contain vital information to make Chapter 10 work, but that doesn't mean it belongs in Chapter One. There is a "rule" for conveying information to a reader without causing the reader boredom, impatience, or pain.

The rule in information feed is FIRST MAKE THE READER CURIOUS. Then make the reader even more curious. Ratchet up the suspense.

If there's something you, the writer, desperately need the reader to know, DON'T TELL IT.

Withhold that information until you feel the suspense in your own gut. Use characters and events, deeds and decoration, red herrings, but mostly foreshadowing to create suspense. Set up a question the answer to which lies in the information, but don't answer the question until the right moment.

Read up on writing craft techniques for creating suspense. Draw the suspense TIGHT, and then tighter, until when you break the suspense by presenting the tidbit of information, the reader is so relieved to find out that it's pleasure not pain to learn it.

Remember, people come to read fiction for pleasure. Don't make them work at it. Make it fun!

Play the game with the reader. You've read a good book or two; you know what that game is.

It's FUN!

So the process of breaking up a lump requires you to tease it apart until all the facts you've included stand separately. (some people would write down a list) Identify why you think the reader is dying to know each item on the list -- and most importantly, why you want the reader to know, and know it right now -- or maybe later will do.

Consider what the reader might imagine if you don't give the information.

Try leaving the information out. That will leave space for the reader to fill in the color, the backstory, the characterization, the details and make the world their own. If you don't know what I'm talking about, go watch some TV shows that have reams of fan fiction posted about them -- then go read the fan fiction that fills in the gaps from the televised show.

That's what readers pay writers for -- to unleash their own imagination, not to demonstrate the writers'imagination.

Marion Zimmer Bradley often repeated the quote, "The story the reader reads is not the story the writer wrote." I don't have the original attribution handy, but it was an important point she made often.

The grim reality is that readers don't want to read YOUR story.

Readers want to experience their own story their own way. You, as writer, are there only to provide the template for the entertainment -- you are the band playing the dance music, not the dance instructor leading everyone's moves on the dance floor. So don't provide too much detail and discipline -- open up the vision with a few brief, artistically chosen details so that the reader fills in the rest and makes your story their own.

In my Tuesday Aug. 19, 2008 post


I talked at length about how writing is a performing art. When you commit an Expository Lump, you are not performing, you're listening to the prompter (your own imagination) whisper your lines then repeating them in a dull monotone.

When it comes to backstory, you have many tools beyond exposition.

You have dialogue, sparse brush painting style description, actions (actors call it business) that speak louder than words, and narrative. Don't forget flashback, but that's a real tricky technique. Even though you move back in time, you must keep the story moving forward.

Marion Zimmer Bradley often described exposition as the writer popping up out of the paper to stand on the page, blow a whistle, and call TIME OUT while the writer explains the story to the reader, thus blowing the reader's suspension of disbelief, destroying the dreamy mood, peeling the readers' feet out of the characters' moccasins, and basically ruining the whole thing. The writer's "style" pre-empts the reader's imagination. So now the story is no longer fun to read.

So after deleting everything you possibly can from your Lump (keep the trimmings aside in a note file because you probably will need to put it in later; just because you're deleting it doesn't mean you're scrapping it), convert the rest of the Lump that really has to go here to Show rather than Tell.

Yes, this will take many more words and make the story longer, may require another character, or even a sub-plot and additional chapters. So you must choose with your artistic senses what to discard and what to show. Show only those things that really ADVANCE THE PLOT forward.

The key to choosing which details to expound upon and which to delete (even though in your mind's eye, you see the deleted ones -- the reader gets to choose their own details) is your THEME.

Any detail from your Lump which illustrates the theme can stay if you really need it to advance the plot. Any detail which does not illustrate or explicate the theme has to go no matter what else you have to change. Everything in the composition must explicate the theme(s) of this particular piece. Otherwise, what you've produced isn't art, nevermind performing art.

So now we see that Expository Lumps destroy the reader's enjoyment because they force the reader to see it your way while what the reader is paying you for is to stoke up their own imagination so they can see it their own way.

But the reader is also paying for a rip-roaring good story, and that means a story that moves, a plot that rocks!

How do you achieve that with all this background to stuff into the reader's head?

Keep in mind one of my simple definitions I've repeated many times here.

Action = Rate Of Change of Situation. Or PACING = Rate of Change of Situation.

Hollywood has set the standard for pacing in all genres. Novels now are hitting this standard, too. I review, remember. I read lots of books. Change has happened.

The Situation must change materially every 3 pages of script (according to several courses I've taken recently) -- or in a book every 3 pages of manuscript (or about every 750 words which is a rule I learned from A. E. Van Vogt in the 1950's and it has become the rule today.)

With a discipline like that, you won't produce any expository lumps because during a Lump the Situation can't change.

In fact, that's a good definition of Lump. It's a lump because it stops the flow of the story, the changes that generate the plot. Events don't "happen" inside a Lump. A Lump tells you about events that aren't happening right now or to these people.

And that's a good test to see if a paragraph is an Expository Lump or not. If the Situation of the plot has changed during that paragraph (not the reader's understanding of the Situation, but the actual Situation as the main character sees it) then it's not a Lump.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg




  1. Didn't you tell him about 'the Pope in the Pool?'

  2. Anonymous4:29 PM EDT

    Thanks--lots of great material to think about!

    There is a "rule" for conveying information to a reader without causing the reader boredom, impatience, or pain.

    The rule in information feed is FIRST MAKE THE READER CURIOUS.

    This is what I've been missing in a lot of romance and sf/f romance lately. Too often I'm force-fed the rules of the world, the story, and its interpretation. I'd rather be a little confused but intrigued. Part of what keeps me reading is a sense of gradually working out more and more levels of what's going on. Even if the world's not complicated, I often enjoy some looseness in the interpretation--certainly at the start, and even at the end in many cases.

  3. >You can never avoid depositing them on your page. You must learn to handle them.

    Brilliant. Reminds me of what I learned about stress--you can't eliminate it, but you can manage it. Expository lumps become stressful for a reader if they're not handled properly.

    rfp, spot on. I, too, enjoy the intrigue of not knowing the full picture immediately. I love it when an author trusts in my ability to put together the pieces.

  4. Kimber an:

    I've been trying to get this writer to read Blake Snyder's books but I haven't succeeded yet. Money is always an issue with expensive books you don't really think you need.

    But I think I've made the point in principle. My comments here have ignited a victorious rewrite lap for the opening.

    "The Pope In The Pool" technique works in film better than in narrative, and is most powerful to prop up the sagging MIDDLE when the item that raises the stakes at the halfway point is a bit of information that's been held back.

    The technique requires a background image that's moving but the person who is being TOLD information is (apparently) not aware of.

    In comedy the background image has to be an incongruity that captures the viewer's eye. In drama or mystery, the background image is a threat (the bomb under the chair) that someone in the scene doesn't know about.

    "Who knows what, when" is a suspense technique. I just saw a perfect example of it when I watched the 1987 Richard Dreyfus film STAKEOUT -- which is ostensible a police procedural (where they chase an escapee) but is actually a ROMANCE that gave me a whole new insight into ROMANCE as a genre. STAKEOUT's ending pivots entirely on who knows what when. It's one of those "perfect" films.

    Note that it's the ENDING where it pays off.

    The problem with this first draft manuscript lay in the OPENING and the order in which information about the background is fed to the reader. Adding YET MORE information to the opening would just make it worse.

    My comments were meant for any writer who doesn't know they're laying lumps onto their opening pages.

    No matter how many times you explain this in words, beginning writers just don't get it. So I tried to get inside the creative mental mechanism to provide easy tests a writer can use to determine the nature of what they've just written.

    At any rate, one writer was sent to rewrite by my comments, so I count them a success. I'm also happy that a couple of people piped up to say they appreciate the results of this lump-smashing technique when the read the finished product.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. Jacqueline said,'"The Pope In The Pool" technique works in film better than in narrative, and is most powerful to prop up the sagging MIDDLE when the item that raises the stakes at the halfway point is a bit of information that's been held back.'

    Huh, seemed to work fine in Manic Knight. No complaints from my CPs. Put it in the first chapter too, and the fourth or fifth I think.

  6. Once again you've presented the core of a writing issue in terms that never occurred to me before! Thanks for this wonderful explanation. I enjoy reading a well-written expository lump, and therefore I like writing them and find the temptation very hard to resist. In my current WIP, I submitted the opening scene to my online critique group and received several expected comments on the information I front-loaded. The critters' reactions tell me which bits I need to break up and sprinkle in a little later. Yet one piece of information I thought was obvious was, instead, misunderstood by one of the readers. She confused two different (offstage) characters. My first reaction, as an inveterate explainer, was to think I needed to explain better. I suspect what I really need to do is present FEWER facts at that point, so there won't be such potential for confusion.

    I also enjoy being given clues and teasers so that I can figure out what's going on ahead of the characters (or ahead of the point when the information is revealed). However, I scream in outrage if the whole thing isn't explained EVENTUALLY. I want the denouement at the end. I love the scenes where characters explain things to each other. If there's no good way to incorporate all the background in the story, give me an appendix -- like S. M. Stirling's fascinating, highly readable appendices to his alternate histories. I detest his Draka universe (thoroughly depressing) but love the appendices explaining how Earth got into that grim state and all the social ramifications of the situation.

  7. Oh, what's the "Pope in the Pool"? I don't remember reading about that before.