How to Dissolve Your Expository Lump
Here are links to previous scattered discussions of Expository Lumps.
Expository Lumps are the product of a writer's imagination building the story-world for them prior to informing the writer about it all (i.e. the "I have an Idea!" moment.)
In one fell swoop, you know everything about these characters, this world, and its arcane, mundane, and esoteric Relationships. You know the karmic forces, the rebirths, the life-history -- you know everything all at once and don't know where to start.
So you sit down to write the story.
You want to take your reader on a wild rafting ride down a swift mountain stream, the plot carrying them along with whoops and screams. Instead, your reader gets smashed dizzy hitting the rocks in your plot-stream:
The rocks are expository lumps.
You create those rocks because you want the reader to understand your new world so you say, "But wait! Before you can understand what's going on, you must know this -- oh, and that -- oh! I left out...!!!)
There is all this connected foundation material the reader MUST KNOW FIRST.
Informing the reader so enjoyment and understanding will happen later (but not now) is called an expository lump. It's a rock that splits the stream of the plot and story apart.
A lump is more than 1 sentence, more than a pebble.
Very often, the lumps come in the first or second chapter (or possibly a forward or preface), and the longer you wait to inform your reader, the more paragraphs (even pages) of history, considerations relevant to the characters but not (yet) to the reader, life-story of other characters we haven't met yet, and so on and on get lumped together in a block of text.
Here is how to spot a lump you have created:
Finish the manuscript's first draft.
Scan the pages and find long, unbroken paragraphs -- they look like lumps, visually, but can be description, dialogue, or even narration.
These are blocks of paragraphs that do not advance the plot&story in lockstep, do not change the Situation in the direction of the Ending and usually are not about what is going on at that point in the text. They can be about the past, or about the possibly future (disasters or triumphs, anything that is not-happening-now.)
Expository Lumps are usually not actual scenes -- but a misplaced scene can act like a Lump and kill reader interest. The cure is to study scene structure:
Any such not-now material should be half-a-sentence, maybe one or two short sentences -- not full page paragraphs unbroken by things happening, things being done, things being discovered, lessons learned. Yes, you can do long flash-forwards and flashbacks, but those require the same non-lump techniques and a different set of skills.
Take those lumpy paragraphs apart point by point -- bulleted lists work, but use whatever format you like. Detail what information the reader gains.
The sign you've got a Lump may be that you can extract more than one bullet point per sentence.
Another sign you've got a lump is the use of complex-compound sentence structure, or the run-on paragraph -- a paragraph that wanders all around a point (more than 8 lines without dialogue).
Here's a blog titled The Almighty Paragraph in the acquiring new techniques series.
Another way to spot a hidden lump is to scrutinize your dialogue.
If a character speaks more than two sentences at once while the other character just stands there, you've likely got an expository lump disguised as a lecture. The best way to fix those is to delete the middle sentence of the dialogue paragraph and re-evaluate whether any of what is left is needed.
Ask yourself, how does this utterance advance the plot, change the situation, and change the way the listening character is thinking? Good dialogue advances the conflict toward the resolution which is the Ending. If the dialogue is static, doesn't advance the conflict, then it is likely to be a Lump.
Dialogue where one character tells another something the other character knows is expository lump. Dialogue where one character tells another what the reader already knows is expository lump best cured by deletion. In those spots where you have deleted dialogue that was repetition for the reader, you can insert bits of expository lumps that you've broken up using the method below.
Once you've spotted your expository lumps, dissolve them and anoint the moving parts of your story with the resulting solution.
1) Ask yourself if the reader absolutely must understand this point in order to comprehend the Ending.
A) if so, clip that sentence or paragraph and save it in a txt file or notation, but get it out of the narrative.
B) if not, delete that material. Don't worry, if you need it later, you will recreate it at a more appropriate point, or perhaps change it markedly to lead to the ending. Endings morph as you write and rewrite, so likewise info in lumps must morph.
2) Ask yourself if this point made in the expository lump must be understood by the reader at this exact point in the story.
A) if so, ask yourself if there is another way to SHOW DON'T TELL this point. Maybe there's a scene missing, maybe a character, or an offhand line of dialogue. Sometimes a bit of worldbuilding can be restated as a piece of artwork, a vase, a brightly dyed carpet - a bit of visual stimulation that implies underlying technology or trade without explicitly detailing it all. A Persian Carpet in Fiji implies trade without exposition.
B) if not, put this detail into a file of "Move it to Later" -- sometimes you can copy the bit and paste it at the top of the chapter where it absolutely MUST be known. When you go through on rewrite, you'll think of a way to show-don't-tell without slowing the pace of the plot.
3) Ask yourself why this point is interesting to yourself. Maybe this Expository Lump is the real story you are trying to write, and all the rest is just noise? Yes, every character has a life-story and a history that you, the writer, must know -- but that does not imply that the reader must know it, or must know it now. Leave some bits over for future novels in the series if it is intrinsically interesting but irrelevant to the Ending of this novel.
A) if this point is more interesting than the story you've written, write the story that goes with that point separately. It may be a prequel, and you started in the middle of a series (like Star Wars).
B) if this point is inherently boring to you, it will bore the reader, so cut it. On rewrite, you will fabricate some other back-story point from the theme and plot:
The solution that dissolves all expository lumps is "Show Don't Tell" -- which means to illustrate, dramatize, symbolize,
or embody the material in a character who speaks for that philosophy or point of view and throws monkey wrenches into the lives of your main character (i.e. to integrate the lumped material into the plot.)
Every writing course will tell you to show-don't-tell, but I've never found one that shows you how to show rather than tell.
This Tuesday blog series on writing craft is designed to impart the necessary clues for developing the ability to illustrate, dramatize, symbolize, and transform your creativity into Art that conveys a fresh point of view to your readers.
The most common reasons for coding material into expository lumps are:
a) it's boring to you, so you just want to get on to your exciting story -- so you TELL instead of SHOWING.
b) it's more interesting to you than the story you think you can sell.
c) you do not have mastery of character-creation via theme which is what makes stories interesting.
4) Ask yourself which makes you more excited -- the story you condensed into a Lump, or the story you are writing?
A) if the lump is exciting, cut it, paste it into a new file, and write an outline of that story with a beginning, middle, end just as if you were going to write that instead.
B) if the lump is not exciting, copy/paste it into another file, separate it into bulleted list of points it makes, and copy/paste that bulleted list into the "Move it to Later" file.
Once you have your second draft, with all the bits of broken up Lumps sprinkled where they best lubricate the moving parts of your story, go over the "Move it to Later" file and check to see if you left out anything important. (the editor and copyeditor will still find stuff you have to fix). Leaving items out is much better than putting in too much. Make your editor and readers ask questions.
5) Don't despair!! Once you have done this Lump-Dissolution process a few times, your subconscious will begin to feed you the information the reader needs in the order which the reader will most appreciate it. And you will be writing the most exciting story of the bunch that come wrapped in boring expository lumps.
In other words, professional writers who can make a living at it do not spend months rewriting. They write, clean up the second draft, and send it in -- getting on to the next contract they've already signed.
But most people don't begin their careers able to do that. First comes that proverbial million words for the garbage can. This Expository Lump method allows you to retrieve those early works from the garbage can, and produce the story you most want to write.
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