Good Exposition is Hard to Find

People often sound off about the value of showing over telling in fiction. I think this is a pretty stupid contest to set up: what’s important is finding the right technique to get the work done. As I emphasize in my class on close reading, you can do some things by telling that you can’t do otherwise–establishing historical context, for instance, or philosophizing or otherwise commenting on the action of the story. Huge swathes of brilliant writing from the nineteenth century is basically telling: I could never embrace any putative standard of excellence in fiction that doesn’t put Chapter XV of Middlemarch pretty high up the list. It’s not as if telling is the easy way out, either. It’s hard to manage information in a compelling and elegant way, as I was reminded by some joltingly awkward moments in a book I just finished, Julie James’s About That Night. Here’s an example:

She had a week off before her summer job started, during which she planned to do nothing more strenuous than roll herself out of bed every day by noon and mosey over to the university’s outdoor pool, which was open to students.

‘I hate to burst the bubble on your daydream, but I’m pretty sure they don’t allow alcoholic drinks at IMPE,’ Rae said, referring to the university’s Intramural Physical Education building, which housed said pool.

James’s challenge here is that Rae, who’s familiar with the campus, would naturally use the acronym, but the reader, who isn’t, needs it glossed. She is right, then, to gloss it, but it feels like an awkward afterthought when the explanation is tacked on like that. Why didn’t James’s editor work with her on this bit? What is the solution, anyway? My first thought is that it would help to put the details in sooner, maybe here: “mosey over to the university’s Intramural Physical Education building, where the pool was open to students.” Then we’d recognize the source of the acronym when Rae uses it, wouldn’t we? And then the awful phrase “housed said pool” could go too.

Here’s another bit of awkward explaining:

Dex smiled at Rae, then turned to Rylann with a curious expression. ‘Oh, Ry-linn,’ he said, pronouncing her name. ‘I’d been saying it wrong after I saw the picture of you and Kyle in the paper.’ He cocked his head. ‘Not a very common name, is it?’

I’d been saying her name wrong since page 1, and this is page 149. Obviously this is something James knows is a likely problem. To me, it makes more sense to address it sooner, though admittedly I may just be sensitive on this point because my own name is not very common and often mispronounced and I’ve had to explain or correct it for 40-something years. Why not include the pronunciation and provenance of the name in an early bit of characterization? We hear all about her hair colour and amber eyes right away, after all. But it’s the ‘pronouncing her name’ bit that’s really an editorial wobble. What else could he possibly be doing?

Another one, still later:

With a smile curling at the edges of his lips, Kyle held up a Starbucks cup. ‘Drink this. My mother used to get migraines. I remember her saying something about caffeine helping.’

‘Sweet Jesus, you are a god,’ Rylann said, taking the cup gratefully. She’d had luck with caffeine before but hadn’t had the energy to stop at a Starbucks on her way home from work.

This is the first we’ve heard about her even contemplating a stop at Starbucks. It makes sense that a regular migraine sufferer would know about and have tried various fixes (though this is also the first time in the novel that she’s had a headache at all), so I can see why it felt necessary to say something to fill that in–but again, I think it makes more sense to integrate her previous experience as well as her idea to stop for coffee into the actual description of her coming home from work–‘By the time she left work at six thirty, her head was throbbing, she felt nauseous, and even the hazy pre-sunset light outside made her eyes hurt so much that even stopping at Starbucks for the caffeine that had helped her headaches before was intolerable’–or something like that. Then Kyle arrives bearing his Starbucks cup and the scene can just go on.

These are not fatal flaws, though there are other similarly graceless moments in the book–more of the same after-the-fact fillers as in these examples (after a comment about ‘Keith, Kellie, Dan, and Claire’ in conversation, we get ‘Keith, Kellie, Dan, and Claire had been their “couple friends”‘), or the occasional info-dump (as when Kyle arrives at his old campus and we get a whole paragraph describing the computer science building), or problems with modifiers (‘Now in his late fifties, there was gray in Sharma’s black hair’). Not fatal–but at the same time, they send the signal that this book has relatively low standards when it comes to its prose and its craft: not just the writer but the editor either didn’t see or didn’t care that it could be better written. It’s not that my ideas for tweaks would move the novel any closer to the depth and richness of the exposition in Middlemarch, but there’s no need to give telling a worse reputation than it already has by doing it so clumsily.

In fairness, I should add that the book overall is not so bad.

10 thoughts on “Good Exposition is Hard to Find

  1. Diane Magras April 28, 2012 / 5:18 pm

    Over-explaining is an issue for many writers, and some of us are so sensitive about this issue that we probably go the other way (subtle explanations being too subtle). Your examples–and solutions–satisfy the little editor within me who begins rewriting each time I come across such passages in other people’s books.


  2. Samantha April 28, 2012 / 6:31 pm

    I’ve found this to be a problem with nearly all of the contemporary fiction I’ve tried, and have as a result turned instead to read mostly books written in the late 19th and early 20th-centuries. Is this a modern epidemic? Are contemporary authors over-reacting to the admonition to “show, not tell”? I’m continually struck by the elegance of these older novels, even when they go on for pages and pages without a single conversation taking place!


  3. Rohan Maitzen April 28, 2012 / 8:04 pm

    Diana, I’m glad (though I guess not surprised) that other people do mental editing when they read too. I really don’t mean to underestimate the difficulty, either. You don’t see me trying to write a novel!

    Samantha, the antidote to inadequate exposition in contemporary fiction is A. S. Byatt! Have you read The Children’s Book? (In my review I admired her “fearless pedantry.”)


  4. Amateur Reader (Tom) April 28, 2012 / 10:13 pm

    The example I have been spending time with lately is Henry James. It is not just that he tells more than he shows. It is that he is generally better at telling than showing, maybe one of the best at pure telling. Often when he is showing I wish he were telling.

    None of the showing drops quite to the level you have on display in this post, but the principle is not so different.

    Byatt is a good answer to Samantha’s question, but there are so many more. Not an epidemic among good writers, not at all.


  5. Liz Mc2 April 28, 2012 / 11:30 pm

    I think that a lot of genre romance written today suffers from this problem because there’s a real emphasis on deep point of view. I appreciate a romance writer who isn’t afraid of a little exposition and handles it well, but there aren’t many, and readers often criticize them for not being emotional enough / distancing readers too much from the characters. I also see a lot of readers, writers, and publishing types who don’t have a very good grasp on what “showing” and “telling” ARE and criticize any kind of exposition as “info-dumping.”

    I tend to feel the genre is too inbred, with far too many rules. I hate the “it’s written to a formula” line, and think it’s untrue, but it does have a narrow self-conception that extends to style. I wonder if this is partly a reaction to the derision it gets. The wagons are circled, and very few literary writers will acknowledge when they are incorporating romance (vs speculative fiction or mystery) elements. It’s just a book with a love story, so they don’t have to. (I went far afield from exposition–but I agree with you).


  6. Rohan Maitzen April 29, 2012 / 9:07 am

    Tom, what you say about Henry James gets at the heart of the matter. With a good writer, we won’t care if they are telling or showing, though we may notice–and we will want more of whatever they do best.

    Liz, I can see how an idea about exposition creating distance would be a problem for writers interested in telling us more, though you and I both know that the right kind of telling can enhance, not decrease, the emotion and bring us much closer to the characters. There is surely a formula in romance same as there is in mystery fiction–though handled well, it won’t feel formulaic in practice. In both genres I often feel as if the focus is so much on getting through the elements that the prose need only be workmanlike and that will count as good enough–good enough even for the book to be a bestseller, because that will satisfy those who are reading for what the book is doing.


  7. Samantha April 29, 2012 / 10:21 pm

    I’m afraid to say that I haven’t read The Children’s Book – a bad review by another book blogger I usually agree with scared me off. Perhaps I should add it to my list. Another contemporary novelist about whom I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews is Marilynne Robinson. Have you read her work? She’s been so highly reviewed that I haven’t actually tried her yet, for fear that my literary skills aren’t yet up to the challenge!


  8. Rohan Maitzen April 30, 2012 / 12:02 pm

    Samantha, I’ve read Gilead and found it very beautifully written but so far I’m not in Robinson’s fan club, for reasons that have less to do with her skill as a novelist and more to do with my resistance to what has struck me as her fuzzy theology. It has been a while since I read the interviews and essays that gave me this impression, but I was put off and haven’t come back so far. She does get high praise from many, certainly.


  9. Ruthie Leonard May 1, 2012 / 8:24 pm

    It is important to say this about exposition. Some reviews of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (as someone to add to Byatt as a modern expositor) complained about the ‘dragging’ passages on the history of Florida’s relationship with the wetlands and my head exploded. Those were some of my favorite parts! The quiet absorption in nature and mix of past and present is part of what makes that book so singular and epic.
    On one other thing:
    Robinson’s theology is definitely not something I would categorize as ‘fuzzy’, but her biblical scholarship certainly shapes her defiant and thoughtful writing. Her essay on John Calvin, or Jean/Jehan Cauvin is worth the price of her awesome collection The Death of Adam, and clarified (for me anyway) some of her positions. I don’t agree with some of her views, but her rigorous mind and research is fascinating. If you want to have your non-denominational socks knocked off though, I would try Housekeeping. I loved Gilead, but Housekeeping stands as a perfect novel in my opinion. I cannot praise it too highly, and I also think any personal theology, so integral to Home, Gilead, essays, etc. is much less central to Housekeeping than a kind of beautiful cosmology that shapes a crystal clear imagined space. To Samantha- I think MR is the best, and part of her gift is how inviting and compelling her prose is. Although I don’t know you, I vote that you are definitely smart enough :). Housekeeping FTW! Dag yo, I love that book. I swear this post was not paid for or written by MR.


  10. Rohan Maitzen May 3, 2012 / 10:32 am

    OK, you win! Housekeeping goes on my TBR list.


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