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Balancing Exposition and
Scenework in Fiction: Part One

2007 Lori L. Lake


Lori L. Lake

How much exposition versus scenework should an author put into a novel? The answer inevitably will be: "It depends."

Some readers like a lot of exposition, description, and summary. Other readers (and some genres) call for more scene-based action and conflict.

One thing that appears to separate "high" literature from "pop" literature is the degree of scene-making. High Lit always seems to me to contain a lot more exposition and description than the rollicking good genre books do. Compare Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and William Faulkner to, say, Ray Bradbury, Ellen Hart, Elizabeth Moon, or Karin Kallmaker. Often the really fun and entertaining books are packed full of high octane scenes. The latter authors write emotion-packed books that also, at times, appeal to us intellectually. The former list of "literary" authors write much more intellectual books that readers don't necessarily experience emotionally.

The amount of scenework you do will affect many aspects of your novel, including how "pop" and how "literary" your stories end up being. Balancing is the key issue. If you balance properly, the novel flows, and the pace is comfortable for your reader.

Timeout for Explanations
To keep us on the same page, let me define my terms:

Scenework - All of the techniques that a writer uses to bring a scene to life, including description, dialogue, details, exposition, summary, backstory, and flashbacks.

Scene - A dramatically-rendered event or set of character actions that occur during a particular time frame in order to further the plot and move the reader deeper into the narrative. Scenes can be as short as a paragraph or consist of scores of pages. They usually have their own beginnings, middles, and ends, and one scene may be hooked into the next by use of cause-and-effect. Scenes "show" and make readers feel like they are there, experiencing - or at least witnessing - everything that happens. Using a combination of description, dialogue, details, exposition, summary, backstory, and flashbacks, scenes make up the major building blocks in a novel.

Full scene - Any specific event or set of character actions given a full dramatic rendering. Full scenes immerse the reader into the action of the book and give the feel of "being there."

Half-scene - Any specific event or set of character actions given only some dramatic rendering and also including summary elements. The reader may be immersed in part of this scene but may not have the full feeling of "being there."

Exposition - Tells backstory and facts and information the reader needs in order to understand the present or ongoing action of the story. Exposition always "tells" more than it "shows." Details and description may be summarized, sometimes very concisely, or the exposition may fully render an account of actions. Either way, readers generally don't feel as though they're there, immersed in the scene.

Summary - An expository accounting of events which are given neither a full nor a half-scene treatment. In other words, summary "tells," and there is no dramatic rendering. While quickly spelling out events or actions that the reader should know but that aren't that important to the plot or pacing of the story, summary is often used as a bridge to connect plot threads or to segue from one scene to the next. The reader has the sensation of being told something, rather than witnessing it or being part of it.

Narrative - A presentation of scenes and exposition (both of which may include summary) that add up to the whole of the novel. The narrative generally includes characters, a plot, at least one setting, many conflicts/obstacles, a climax, and at least one resolution. Narrative may be chronological, or the author may present the information out of sequence using a discernible pattern of structure and time.

Engaging The Reader's Emotions
Finding a proper balance between engaging the intellect and engaging the emotions is something that all writers struggle with, whether they realize it or not. I find a lot of the current crop of "high" literary novels to be dry and often dull. WAY too much telling, not enough showing, not enough action.

If a story emotionally engages readers, then they'll be intellectually engaged; but conversely, if writing appeals only to intellect, it doesn't necessarily capture readers' emotions. We're still reading Dickens because he made readers both think and feel; nowadays people run screaming from James Fenimore Cooper and Thackeray because their writing style is so stilted, which is a shame because both wrote about essentially American experiences that were very interesting to the readers of their day. But Cooper's pages and pages of scene-chewing bore the modern reader while Thackeray's digressions and speaking directly to the reader disrupt the illusion of reality and seem unnatural by today's standards.

Most popular novels have scenes - half and full - inside which there is occasional summary, occasional exposition, but also a lot of dramatic rendering of the scene, which includes description, dialogue, action, and the use of various techniques to show character emotions, thoughts, actions, suspense, etc. All of that "shows" and makes us feel and think. Exposition, on the other hand, is used primarily to "tell." It changes the pace, gives the reader a rest, moves us more quickly through subsequent events or memories of past events, and serves as a segue to the next scene. It makes us think more than feel.

This is a matter of story structure. Authors who write in a scene-based manner have an easier time seeing this. Those who look at the narrative as a whole and intuitively structure their story without differentiating between scene and exposition often do not see this until it's pointed out. In pop fiction, it's the scenes that count, but the exposition in between makes the story palatable. Or not. Too much dithery exposition between scenes bores the reader and makes the story sag; not enough meaningful exposition in between scenes makes it seem like the story was written by Robin Williams on crack, and the story ends up reading like this:

The character did this!
And this!
And then this bunch did this!
And now the villain did this!
And this!
And the character countered with this!
And then this...

No rest for the weary.

Because, you see, a scene is important. When a writer lays out a fully-rendered dramatic scene, the reader instinctively knows this matters. Whether it's a calm, subtle scene or one with high action, it's a series of events and interactions in present time with dialogue, description, action, etc., so it matters. The reader will focus and feel and experience it.

Exposition between scenes doesn't work that way. The emotional part of the reader can throttle back to idle while the intellect takes in details and information, recharging the emotional battery for the next foray.

Balancing fully-rendered dramatic scenes with exposition is critical for any fiction to succeed. Storytelling is what engages a reader's emotions. Your ability to render effective, interesting scenes - in short, to tell the story - should entertain, enthrall, and delight your readers. Exposition rarely jazzes up the reader, but it has its place.

Some kinds of fiction add an extra burden to their writers. Science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels, for example, usually have loads of information to convey (setting, customs, alien societies, world-building, etc.), so more exposition is needed.

Avoiding The Textbook History Lesson
Most novels, particularly popular novels, are a series of approximately 30 to 120 scenes that illustrate the plot, reveal character, and address themes in an engaging way that allow for readers to get lost in the book. Scenes are critical to this. Without scenes, a novel wouldn't be a novel - it'd be an expository essay.

As I see it, the main purposes of exposition are:

♦ to convey information quickly;
♦ to set up scenes;
♦ to move the plot along; and
♦ to give the reader periods of rest so that the pacing of a book makes sense and feels appropriately satisfying.

I like what Elmore Leonard once said: "My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip." You can take that a step farther and say that exposition is a tool you can use to minimize the dull sections by replacing scenes that are dry, slow, or unnecessary.

Do your beta-readers tell you that some section of your manuscript is saggy? Are they saying they're bored or disengaged? If so, avoid providing your reader with excess scenery or textbook history lessons by converting exposition to a dramatically-rendered scene. If you have a long section with description and detail, see if you can bring it to life by having people DO something in that milieu. Have them talking, moving, acting. Or sometimes, it works to have the viewpoint character conscious of surroundings or descriptions. He or she can comment internally, comparing or contrasting the details as the action of the scene goes on. Avoid dull and repetitive scenes and exposition. Instead, aim for that which engages your reader.

When is It Too Much or Too Little?
As Hitchcock once said, "Drama is life with the dull bits left out."

Exposition and scenework are both dramatic devices the writer uses to maintain the reader's interest. Seeking the proper balance - one that's pleasing to the reader - is critical.

The first instinct of the young writer is to explain, explain, explain.

♦ Character A was happy.
♦ Character B was sad.
♦ Characters C and D were scared to death.

Any statements like those above appeal to the intellect - they "tell" and don't "show." The reader doesn't want to be told; she wants to experience the scene and figure it out for herself.

Readers want to be given clues and description that lead them to understand what's happening in a scene, then puzzle on their own how they themselves would think and feel and act in the same circumstances; and then they want to see what the characters actually do. If, at times, it's different from what the reader would do, but still plausible, then it's rather exciting because the events feel unrehearsed and unexpected. If, at times, the characters take actions similar to what the reader might do, then it's an affirmation of sorts, and the reader feels a real kinship to that character.

Either way, the reader wants to go on the journey with the character - not listen to the author jabber on and translate for the reader. So if you want to show Character A is happy, then have her laughing, have another character teasing her, show her pleased. You don't have to elaborate if you show it.

If you show Character B's sadness, and there are tear tracks down his face, the reader will try to figure out why. Perhaps you've already shown effectively that B is traumatized by something he's done, so the reader puts together the various clues and pieces of information you've provided and makes sense of B's grief.

If you've got two characters, C and D, who are scared to death, show them shaking. Describe their bodily reactions. What language do they use to talk about their fear? Do they cry? Run? Pee their pants? Vomit? Let the reader see, through the characters' actions, how incredibly terrifying their experiences feel. Set a scene, and let the intelligent reader put 2 and 2 together and come up with even more than 4.

All of these actions, which take place in scenes and with characters in relation to one another, bring the story - and the characters - to life in such a way that the reader can see and feel and hear and experience their feelings. You, the author, don't have to SAY how they're feeling. Smart readers will figure it out on their own.

Cutting and Expanding Require Balance
Narrative in any novel has an ebb and flow, which is what pace is all about. If you present scene after scene after scene, the reader grows weary, especially if those scenes are all high action or if they're repetitive.

On the other hand, if your scenes are sketchy and you spend a lot of time summarizing and telling the story via exposition, the reader eventually starts yawning.

Balance, Grasshopper. You must seek balance.

After a high octane scene - one with lots of histrionics, suspense, action, or emotional catharsis - you may want to use summary and a little exposition to move the story forward while giving the reader a break. This is a good place to include pertinent description of the scene or the setting, or to set up a subsequent scene with backstory or relevant details.

If you've shown multiple scenes of high action, give the reader a break by inserting some low-key summary detail or spend some time with exposition. Give a little backstory, let the character breathe a bit while reminiscing. Your story can be compared to a road trip. Nobody wants to ride three inches from the cliff on hairpin curves for page after page. You've got to give the reader some flats and steady uphill driving occasionally. That's where summary comes in.

When you go back through your manuscript and look at all your scenes, you may find it useful to label them High Octane, Middle of the Road, and Low Octane. If you find a lot of High tempo scenes clustered one after another, consider adding some exposition to give the reader a breather. If you find a lot of Middle of the Road scenes that aren't up-tempo or low-tempo, consider varying the pace. Same goes if the novel careens wildly for far too long. Balance your tempo.

Your goal is to pace the book so that you have some low octane, some middle, some high. It's an ebb and flow. Every part of the book can't be a constant parade of excitement or it feels like every sentence is followed by an exclamation point.

Effective scenework results when the reader feels a combination of higher emotion and some intellectual activity. By "showing" the reader fully-realized drama, scenes make us feel and experience the events of the book. Exposition, on the other hand, results in a much lower level of emotional attachment (sometimes no attachment), though it does require some intellectual stamina from the reader. This is why science fiction readers are generally the most intelligent of all readers. They have the stamina to read through all that world-building and technical hard science, knowing that eventually when their intellect has assembled enough data, the author will take them on a tour of a new world complete with scenework that will blow their minds. And emotions.

Just think about the romance genre. It appeals primarily to the emotions - lots of scenes, only enough exposition to keep the story flowing. That's because the main point of a romance is to make us feel. But still, there must be a balance of dramatic scenes with exposition or else the scenes come off as overly-melodramatic and not real.

Again, it's all about balance.

A Snail's Pace and Scenework
The usual problem, however, is that the narrative is delivered at a snail's pace: too much exposition, too much flatness, too little scenework. To avoid this, look for scenes where precious little seems to be happening. Good examples:

♦ Time spent in the car without any appreciable dialogue or introspection;
♦ Time spent eating, waking up, or traveling from room to room;
♦ Time spent going over and over evidence or details or situations the reader has already seen in the course of previous narrative;
♦ Time spent telling the reader what the character is about to do instead of letting the action of the book unfold naturally;
♦ Time spent mooning around in front of mirrors.

There are so many different types of scenes. Some are subtle; others are intense. Some are long and involved; some are short and shocking.

To be honest, I have no clue how long or short, how subtle or involved a scene will be. Many authors can and do plan ahead, but when I write, I'm just trying to move the story along. Later I'll have a look to see if the scene needs to be augmented or trimmed to make it work. Often someone has to tell me: "Geez, Lori, this drags!" Or, "Haven't you forgotten a few details here?"

Thank God for astute beta-readers!

This is what Revision is all about, and for many writers, it's the most difficult aspect. Creating a harmonious reading experience doesn't occur on the first draft of a novel. That first version - or Zero draft - is merely getting the story out. Some writers write a skeleton that needs major detail added. Others overwrite an Egyptian mummy swathed in 36 layers of cloth and need to cut substantially. Some people actually do both in different sections of their manuscript!

Either way, after that initial draft is done, the writer needs to take some time to figure out if that Zero Draft tells the story in the most effective manner. 98% of the time the answer is "of course not." Major work still needs to be done.

Stay tuned for Part II on this topic in the next edition of Just About Write.
2007 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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