Log in

No account? Create an account
29 August 2007 @ 10:03 pm
Great fairies of fiction, Part 1  
No, that is not an H/D title, it's one of my crazed ways of explaining How Things Work.

The wacky world of fandom is a richly imaginative one, with a lot of talent leaping about, but not a whole lot of input on the craft of writing. As I mentioned in a friend's journal, this is crazed, because for any other craft, we're all about teaching the technique, yet for some reason we just expect people to make their own way with writing.

Writing fiction is something that comes very naturally to some people and is hard-wrung from others, but it's a natural imperative. We're a narrative-based species. When we talk about ourselves we do it in terms of our personal stories, when we meet people, we judge them on theirs.

But although narrative is one of our most basic human impulses, written narrative is not something that comes without a raft of issues. It's analogous to running: some people head off like a gazelle in bare feet, others need corrective shoes, others look like ducks, and others sprain their ankles after three paces. Yet with an awareness of why problems come about, most people can run happily. Some just need to spend more money at the shoe shop, others need a trainer to show them style, others need glasses to spot the pot holes.

The issues that plague narrative writing are more complex, but they can similarly be fixed with a bit of awareness and effort. I like to think of them all as a series of fairies, good and evil, that flutter around our sweetly bowed creative heads as we scratch nib to paper [which may have started off as an original idea for me, goodness knows, but certainly wasnt a unique one; it's like the lightbulb ...]. You should probably be warned at this point that I'm also the woman who began a description of how hair dye sticks to hair with: "Imagine a lettuce dipped in melted chocolate ..."

The first fairy is one I know as the Exposition Fairy. In her happy phase I see her as a sweetly helpful fairy, wearing delicate slippers and muttering gently in the writer's ear "You know that our heroes have that suitcase, but the reader doesn't. A few lines of dialogue will be more economical than writing the whole scene ..."

But she has a less happy phase, too. In this one she is dressed much as the women's libbers of my childhood [if you are too young to understand this reference, look up the Women's Movement, c.1970-75], with boiler suits and kicker boots playing prominent roles. The Evil Exposition Fairy stomps vigorously over the page leaving her muddy footprints tracked across the story, obscuring character, tripping pace over as it attempts to get past her and giving naturalistic dialogue a right bollocking.

So while an H/D fic visited by the Good Exposition Fairy would say:

With a wave, Pansy and Goyle Disapparated.

Draco swore under his breath, "Damn, everything is back at Hogwarts!"

"Relax, Draco, Pansy isn't an idiot. There's a suitcase with your name on it by the door."

Draco sighed. "I didn't even thank her …"

The Evil Exposition Fairy would say:

"Goodbye, Draco," Pansy's voice was gentle. She took Goyle's arm and prepared to Disapparate.

"Wait," Malfoy raised a hand. "All my clothes, my books, they're back at Hogwarts."

Pansy smiled indulgently. "Do you think I'm stupid, Draco? I packed a suitcase; you can't go manhandling a trunk all over the countryside. I charmed the interior, it contains all your clothes, your books, your personal items, a small stash of sweets that I slipped in based on my affection and residual sexual desire for you and some potions ingredients, because I know that they will come in handy for you and Harry on your many adventures."

"Did you remember my broom and the personal diaries that I thought were hidden under my mattress?"

"Yes, and I also found that stash of Dark Magic items your father sent you, which I thought you'd like as keepsakes."

"Good sleuthing," Draco admitted.

Pansy grinned, and with a gentle rustle she and Goyle were gone.

"I didn't even thank her ..."

Harry was looking at him intently: "Do you really need all that?"

"Oh I'm sure it will be crucial to the plot at some point," Draco assured him.

As you've probably guessed by now, the Evil Exposition Fairy is not unknown to our beloved JKR. It's not possible to read any of the Dumbledore (Albus or Aberforth) passages in Deathly Hallows without a sudden urge to point the finger and intone "J'accuse!"

Flashback and monologue are particularly prone to her visits, and a flashback told in monologue may as well hold up a sign saying "Stomp here!"

While it can be hard to keep the exposition fairy in her genteel form, it's a worthy goal. If you can't have characters sum up an important plot point in a few short sentences, then show the scene in its entirety. Better to take an opportunity to have an extra scene with attendant character development and possibility of illuminating action than bog everyone down while they wait for a long explanation to cease.

The most common signs of the Evil Exposition Fairy's work come about in character descriptions. Nowhere is the old adage "Show, don't tell" more necessary to a writer.

Compare the following:

Draco Malfoy was not a beautiful man, his features were too pointy, his mouth too prone to a sneer. But his bloodlines showed in the fine bones of his wrists, as well as his silky hair and straight nose. There was nothing peasant-like about the curve of his mouth, nor the orbits of his eyes, and his body was all tall slimness, with a languorous ease that could only be perfected over generations of lounging. As a Malfoy, he had never had to lift a finger for himself, and looked on those who did as lesser. They were not a part of his world, and they were to be excluded; kept to a non-Malfoy region where they would not trouble him.


Harry glanced at Malfoy and tried to see the beauty that had been so troubling in his dream. Was it there in reality?

The blond boy noticed him, and eased himself up from his seat and into the carriage hallway, ducking to avoid the low lintel. He leant towards Harry's ear. "Piss off, Potter," he whispered. "We don't want your type around here."

No, Harry decided as he strode away. It wasn't there.

While neither is a great piece of writing, the former closes down options. It tells you what is there, removing openness from the text. The latter opens up options. Because it's told as an observation, the voice of the observer intrudes, and this requires a relationship between the observer and the observed. What are the stories within that relationship? How do they affect the characters? How do they propel the plot?

The first is a series of "is" definitions, the second is less defined, though it can still convey information: he's blond, he's probably tall, he drawls, so he's either a posh git or from Texas. But it leaves the reader with questions. What dreams? Is the lack of beauty actual or a byproduct of Harry's rage?

As a general rule, steer away from "Is", "was" etc attached to an adjective or adverb when you're describing character. It'll free you up. That's not to say you should avoid it like the plague. For an example of how a little exposition can be a good thing, look at the opening of Gone With the Wind, which I read 25 years ago. I don't own a copy these days, so this won't be verbatim, but it's something very much along the lines of "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but she was so charming that nobody noticed." The scene pans back to reveal her surrounded by ardent admirers who are ready to do her bidding. Mitchell doesn't deeply care that Scarlett's not beautiful, although it's an interesting fact to her character, she wants you to see the charm as those around Scarlett do, because only through that knowledge do the events of the book make sense.

In fairness, I was overly harsh above. The scene in Deathly Hallows with Dumbledore at King's Cross Station isn't that bad in itself, it shows us the clear differences between Harry and Voldemort, and provides a sense of resolution to Dumbledore's role in Harry's life. But coming so close to the Snape passage and taking so long in the middle of an action scene made it seem far worse.

If you really must exposit at length, do it occasionally and do it where it will not dissipate more tension than can afford to be lost at that point.

In an ideal world, the Evil Exposition Fairy would not be called on by writers, and would instead be free to spend her days frequenting sheds, power tool sales and exclusive clubs. Because there are places for boilersuits and kickerboots, but narrative isn't one of them.
Current Location: home
Current Mood: workingworking
Current Music: trains
down the hills and round the bendsnorton_gale on September 10th, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC)
*shhhh, sneaking off to read this before I have to take my husband to his exam this morning - medical boards!*

This is an interesting piece, and all too true, though strangely enough I like the first Draco piece better than the second. Perhaps the first is better taken out of context and the second would work better within a narrative.

Exposition, I think, is every writer's bete noire. It's something I struggle with every time I write. I envy those writers who can simply let the draft flow from their pen (er, keyboard). I usually write an expository draft first (this happened, then that happened, blah blah blah) and then I strip it down. The main problem with my early fics was way too much exposition and insufficient flow (as well as a lack of plot). But being conscious of this stuff is the first step to conquering it. :)

PS- What is your novel about, if I may ask?
blamebramptonblamebrampton on September 10th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
Good luck anthimaeria's husband! Since I still have my fingers crossed for you, he may have my toes. It's getting bloody hard to type, let me tell you.

Yes, that's the whole problem with exposition, it's so satisfying to write it and to look at your paper or screen and think: now I know that about you, h character. And to be honest, I'm exaggerating its sins in this piece, I have read stories that were covered in the Exposition Fairy's bovver boot marks, and yet were still delightful. But too often she sticks her feet in the way of narrative or of dialogue and never lets us get to the important stuff of development, or shagging for that matter.

Your write and edit approach is the one that I agree is best in every direction; you end up knowing all that stuff, and you can make choices about what you tell the reader. All the imaginative worlds we enjoy as readers are ones in which we sense the author is holding back a tide of detail that exists just below the text. We do not need to be told what colour the slipcovers are, but we do need to believe the author knows.

And yes, awareness is the key.

I don't think that anyone does write perfectly first go. I like to think of myself as a minimal reviser, yet I have two large folders of early drafts of novel chapters which I have forced myself to keep so that I can stop pretending they don't exist.

I read a wonderful review of a new book on Shelley recently that talked about the scratched-out lines of his poems in manuscript form, where he edged his way closer and closer to those stanzas of breathtaking flight.

Coleridge may have managed it, but he was drugged out of his brain at the time, and came to a sorry end.

I will send you the draft of my novel in a year or so when it is at that stage. And you will despair for my sanity and say, "B, old chum, do you really think the kids are interested in 14th century religious disputes in the Baltics?" and I shall reply "A, matey, there's several big fight scenes! Plus -- ponies!"
Amazing Little Ecosystemwinterthunder on July 22nd, 2008 01:27 am (UTC)
Since I wasn't on your f-list 10 months ago, I'm reading and asking questions now. :)

I'm working through the first draft of my novel, and I've seen several posts on beginners mistakes in the past week or so. I'm sure I'm making some of these mistakes, but I'm not sure that it makes sense to stop making them in the middle of a manuscript. Would it make more sense to go back and edit what I have, or to get a first draft down on paper, expositions and all, and then edit as a whole in a month or so? I'm leaning toward the latter, mainly because I finally have some momentum on this thing and I don't want to break that, but I'd be curious to get your opinion.
(Anonymous) on July 22nd, 2008 01:33 am (UTC)
This is me chacking my email but not logging into lj at work.

KEEP WRITING. Everything can be fixed up in the second draft, or by your editor if it survives to later versions. The truly hard and essential parts of a novel are not technical, they are the idea and the accomplishment. You've had the idea, so you're a step ahead, but getting it all down defeats many, if not most, writers.

Get it all down and then worry about the technical side. It is very unlikely that any of these details will have major impacts on where your story goes as a story (though some, such as POV, can significantly change how it is told). And good luck!