Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Reviews 36 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg Comparing Expository Techniques

Reviews 36
Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Comparing Expository Techniques

Reviews posts have not yet been collected into an Index post.  Some other blog series also discuss novels of Romance and/or Science Fiction and/or Fantasy/Paranormal all mixed or separately.

In general these Tuesday posts are about writing techniques, and though techniques are not (as course instructors will insist) the same in all genres, we float techniques across genre lines to blend genres seamlessly.

One of the techniques common to most kinds of fiction is taming the Expository Lump.

The lumping together sentences, paragraphs and whole pages of explanation of what the reader needs to know before they can understand the story, the plot, or the Characters' motivations and emotions, is a mistake beginning writers make because they have no other tools to convey the necessary information.

That information may be fascinating, and completely engrossing to the target readers, but unacceptable, unreadable, or just too much work for the readers at the edge of the target.

To broaden the swath of readers a story might reach, engage and stimulate, the writer has to find other ways to explain things -- entertaining ways.

This is necessary to establish a byline in the commercial marketplace.  The new byline has to earn the trust of readers who finish the book, and then finish the sequel, so the reader knows for a fact this writer will deliver on the promises of Page 1, and deliver big time.

The satisfaction readers experience at the end of a novel is what they pay for, it is the writer's product.  That emotional payoff is what the writer has to sell, but it first must be manufactured.

The final satisfaction has to be packaged to grab attention of readers browsing for something to read, and it has to stimulate the reader to mention it to friends (or Facebook Friends, people they don't know who don't know them, but share interests).

However, once a byline is established as one that delivers all it promises in the cover blurb, flap copy, and genre logo, and the writer is three long, complicated books into the Series, editors require Expository Lumps.

Of course, editors will declare unequivocally that there must be no expository lumps.

Then they ask the writer to make sure new readers who have not read the previous books can just pick up the series here, right in the middle.

Writers tend to go bald pulling their hair out over this one.  To keep the series in print you have to explain the previous books' adventures, but to engage a new reader you must SHOW DON'T TELL all that explanation.

WORSE!! Editors take the manuscript to committee, it gets accepted provided it is half the size that was turned in.

What goes?  The action?  The exposition? 

There comes a point in a long series where you just can not both explain what happened before, why it happened, and what this oddball universe uses for physical Laws, and still advance the plot a novel's worth of events.

So today let's look at the effect various solutions have on readers.

Here are two Series to compare. 

The 19th book in C. J. Cherryh's FOREIGNER series -- 6 trilogies and book 1 of another trilogy. 

And Book 3 of Bradley P. Beaulieu's THE SONG OF THE SHATTERED SANDS series.

FOREIGNER is set on a planet where a lost-colony ship from Earth left humans stranded to cope with the native Alien civilization.  It is all very tight point of view, though bits come from the point of view of an alien child being groomed to rule the world.  The story is about the human linguist interpreter, Bren Cameron , and most is from his point of view while he works through Human/Alien politics.

The "romance" angle is that he sleeps with one of his Alien Security Guards, though there aren't many sex or bedroom scenes and very little "relationship" -- still the warmth and firm bonding is vivid.

Book 19 in this series is shorter than some previous ones, and filled with Bren Cameron's long, intricate thinking about the Situation that has emerged from the previous trilogy's interactions with a third Alien species -- and doesn't mention the secret Bren carries (except obliquely) that he met a human who is a captive of these (formidable and menacing) Aliens.

The political situation is coming clear to "The Young Gentleman" (the Alien kid who will rule when his father dies).  He's only 9, but obviously more broadly mature than a human 9 year old.

Between Bren's adventures on one continent and "The Young Gentleman's" adventures on another, we understand why these new Aliens are a disaster waiting to happen -- they have left orbit, but their influence reshapes this world.

Bren "sold" the world as peaceful, but in truth it is a powder keg that will explode.

The specific threads of plot from the previous 18 novels that are going to mature in this trilogy (or the next) are all described in long expository lumps, couched in terms of Bren Cameron's new and changing understanding of the broader Situation.

Here's the challenge: If you have not yet read any FOREIGNER novels, or read only a couple and have forgotten, pick up EMERGENCE and see how hard it might be to slog through the exposition of Events past that you have not read.

Ask yourself as you struggle with names, places, and event sequences Bren is thinking about as he makes decisions, is this stuff interesting?  Do I write like this -- all about what has happened, not what is happening? 

Mark points where your eyes glaze over with a, "Who cares?" 

My secret is that I gobbled down every word of that exposition, loving the ride in Bren Cameron's head, whooping with joy at the Young Gentleman's maturation (when he takes over the House command position and orders servants to prepare a welcome for his mother and baby sister - he is perfect, so you know what is going to happen!)

I just love this series, and I have every confidence that C. J. Cherryh did not put a word in there which will prove unnecessary. 

Now, if you have not read THE SONG OF THE SHATTERED SANDS, try diving in with Book 3.

I have not read the previous books, do not know Beaulieu either personally or by previous writing.  I have no particular affinity for the oddball Fantasy world with a crazy-quilt of complicated "powers" that this story is set within.

I did not finish reading this thick novel. 

Why?  Expository Lumps - couched as narrative, and a wild and pointless floating point of view.  Bits and pieces in different locations involving different people whose actions are not clearly the result of, or connected to, what happened in the previous chapter from another point of view.

In other words, by page 118 of 582, I had no idea what this novel is ABOUT - who it is about, or why it might be interesting. 

Yes, the unique "powers" and the complex political revolution against entrenched and powerful "Kings" is fascinating.  The deep and odd bonding between two of the main characters is intriguing.  The basic material of this series is meat and potatoes to me.

But I bounced out 20% through.  Why?

Does it matter why? 

Yes, actually, it should matter to the author and maybe the editor. 

If the writer's skills were a "hit" with me, I would have gone searching for Book 1 and read from the beginning.  That would sell 2 books the publisher wants to move off the warehouse shelves -- maybe more if I tout the book on Facebook.

I would have been caught up in the series if there were any indication why these events are happening to these people -- or if there were fewer people so there is enough time to get to know them before the next group is introduced. 

I would have been caught up in the series if there was something about the main Character to show she deserves what is happening - that her efforts, and the backlash of responses from forces around her, will lead her to revising her innermost Character, make her grow stronger, understand where she's been wrong about "right and wrong and the difference between them."

In other words, the third book has to have a "hook" into the heart and soul of the character indicating why this is her Karma.  

In my real life, life and the world make sense -- if only you can get the right camera angle on yourself (see yourself as others see you).

In C. J. Cherryh's novels (all of them) the Characters fit their lives, learn and grow stronger for the hammering they take.  There's a comprehensible logic underlying events, however odd.

You can find that underlying logic right at the beginning of each of her books, and even if you disagree personally, you can comprehend the Characters innermost Souls because it is clear why they live the life they do.

In A VEIL OF SPEARS (lovely title), as the Characters come on stage, there is no hint that their souls belong in the lives they are living, and no awareness that belonging in your life is possible or desirable or that the Characters are working to get to a life where they do belong. 

So as I read, I never was compelled to ask myself, "What would I do in that Situation?"  I barely understood the Situation and had no idea why this Character was in that pickle (pretty marvelous pickle, could have made a great book.)

Eventually, I did ask myself, "Why am I reading this?" 

You never want your readers to ask themselves that! 

I love the material Beaulieu has created, but after about a hundred pages I still have no confidence in the writer's ability to deliver on the material's promise because the skills we have discussed on this blog over the years are not evident.

For example, there is no plot-or-story reason why the point of view changes except a lazy writer who can't be bothered to tell the story.  There is nothing to follow from one chapter to the next, no story at all, so why turn the page? 

Of course, if in the previous book, you were engrossed in these other characters, you might be pleased to go visit them.  But the writer's job is to engross you in the Character whose story this is -- and there's no hint whose story is being told. 

Contrast with the flipping from Bren Cameron to The Young Gentleman -- Bren is striving mightily to keep the human friends of The Young Gentleman happy, healthy and safe, while The Young Gentleman is getting a grasp of the threats that are coming -- and will need those human friends all grown up and well educated.  The Young Gentleman on one continent and the human friends on the other form the lynch pin of the world to come.  These people belong in their lives but have to grow into them. 

I love the FOREIGNER series, and don't want to read THE SONG OF THE SHATTERED SANDS. 

This is odd because both the Cherryh and  Beaulieu series are from one of my favorite publishers, DAW BOOKS (OK, prejudiced -- I've had some titles from DAW, too).

I like and admire these editors. 

Note that both writers here are creating intricate plots involving complex relationships between human and Alien (or not-quite human) and both involve a vast canvas of history, war, regime change -- all focusing the abstract topics we have discussed in this blog as ripped from the headlines.

DAW has created a collection of works that will appeal to similar readers, and they've done a great job of it.

I don't doubt that Bradley P. Beaulieu has an avid following that will devour this third novel in this series with rapt attention.  Knowing the payoff coming at the end, it won't seem like a difficult read.

But in general, widening your readership, grabbing new readers into a series as you go along, is the more commercial strategy.

So, if you are faced with a writing situation requiring exposition explaining what happened in previous books, make that exposition a precursor to what will be not a rehash of what was. 

Use exposition to explain how a Character now sees the same events from a new perspective.  What those Events portend for the Character's future differs from what readers of the previous books expected. 

Without spelling it out, show-don't-tell how many things might go wrong, how many different paths might lead out of the current pickle, and more why that how these Characters got themselves into this pickle.  What aspect of soul is begging to grow and learn this new karmic lesson?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. I love a good expository lump. Heinlein was an expert at weaving exposition plausibly and entertainingly into the words and thoughts of the characters. S. M. Stirling also does a wonderful job of that, as illustrated in his new alternate-history novel BLACK CHAMBER.