Thursday, July 25, 2019

Common Mistake #10: Expository Lump

Another mistake I see a lot is the "expository lump". This is where the author stops the story to explain something to the audience. Sometimes it's character backstory, sometimes it's a history lesson, sometimes it a rant against some government policy, sometimes a quaint discussion of poisons so that the audience is up to speed for when the victim drops dead over her teacup two chapters later. Expository lumps are, by definition, an intrusion on the narrative, rather than the necessary information emerging organically from the action.

Expository lump is a fatal flaw for three reasons:

First, the forward action of the story stops dead while the author speaks to the audience. The explanation interrupts the action and defuses whatever tension has been carefully built up to now. By and large, your audience paid for a story, not an essay, so when the story stops, they stop reading. Even if you break these asides into smaller bite-sized bits, rather than a three-page essay, you're still serving lumpy gravy.

Second, expository violates the character's point of view. It's often the author talking, not the character, because the character already knows the information s/he is "thinking" and it doesn't make sense for the character to be thinking about that now. If the ninja jumps out at our hero, he doesn't stop and remind himself, "ninjas originally appeared in the 15th century during the Sengoku period of Japan but were considered dishonorable because of their use of covert methods" he's too busy thinking, "Look out!" As soon as the author starts explaining background history, we're no longer seeing through the character's eyes, and we've fallen out of the story.

Third, most of the information presented in expository lump is unnecessary. If the story is about the heroine hanging off a cliff, do we really need to know her fear of heights came from that time she fell off the roof when she was six? Why spend time telling us about another scene from another book when all one has to do is show us she's afraid? The answer is usually that the author has spent hours developing their setting, character, plot and so on and having put in all that work, feels compelled to tell the audience all about it. But it's redundant, off message, a distraction . . . bloating.

Cut the expository lumps out of your writing, and you automatically move it up to the next level.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Common Mistake #9: Backstory: Alternating Scenes/Chapters

I have read stories and books where the author explores two different timelines, one backstory to the other, and brings these together at the end in the "aha!" moment when the author realizes why what happened in the backstory chapters determined how the protagonist responded in the current timeline the way they did. But, um, don't try this at home.

I had occasion once to judge 33 CanLit short stories, of which I think 28 used this motif. Reading twenty-seven of these stories left me scratching my head, because they were terrible. Then I read the one author who pulled this off, and it was stunning! I voted for it to win, and it won a half dozen other awards as well. Reading that story finally showed me what the other 27 had been trying for, but . . .so not.

I'm not saying you shouldn't accept a challenge, as long as you are aware that's what you're doing, and there is a good reason for you doing this particular story that way. Just don't adopt that motif because it's "in" or because you spent all that energy on developing backstory and are hellbent on working it all in somehow. If there is a simpler way to present your story, chances are, that will make a better story. (Two better stories, actually, if you can write and sell both backstory and current story, separately.)

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Common Mistake #8 Backstory: Timing

In developing the character, the author may have decided to add a limp, and knows whether the limp was from their previous military service or falling out a tree when they were six. Great, that will help the writer know how the character will respond in any particular scene. But there is no earthly reason to interrupt the current action—say, limping away from the scene of the crime while sirens scream in the distance—to have a flashback to when they were up a tree and about to fall. Leaving the current scene in which you have carefully built up the tension, to start over with a different scene in a flashback to when they were six, is obviously self-defeating. If not handled correctly, backstory can disrupt continuity, dissipate tension, and throw the reader out of the character's point of view (because it doesn't make sense to be thinking of backstory when dealing with the current emergency). For this scene, the reader needs to know whether our hero gets to his car before the cops get there, not why he is limping. They probably never need to know why the limp, but certainly not now.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Common Mistake #7 Backstory: Compulsive Bloat

When an author is developing their character, or the setting, or the plot, it's important for them to know the history that led up to the point where the story starts. An author creates realistic characters or settings by knowing them inside and out. But there is generally no need to tell the reader any of that backstory.

Having put a lot of effort into backstory or worldbuilding or character development, there is a natural desire to get some return on that investment beyond just knowing how your setting works today and how your characters interact now. Working in the backstory therefore becomes almost compulsive with some authors, inevitably leading to bloating the manuscript way beyond what the current story can carry.

If the backstory is actually that good, write it as a separate story and sell it to a magazine, so that when the novel comes out, there is already a market for that character and/or setting. Readers love when they know backstory from having encountered these characters before, and will often seek out other stories with the same world or characters. Or write it as series with prequels and sequels galore. But today's book has to stay focused on the current story, unless there is a compelling reason to risk going off message. Trying to fit all of that into one book inevitably distracts from the current action and leads to a bloated manuscript.