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Balancing Exposition and
Scenework in Fiction, Part Two

© 2007 Lori L. Lake


Lori L. Lake

Last month, I wrote at length about the importance of balancing scenes and exposition. I talked about how critical it is to engage the reader's emotions, to avoid giving dry history lessons, to know when you have too much or too little exposition or scenework, and why you may need to cut or expand.

Part II here flows from Part I, so if you haven't read Part I, you may wish to GO HERE to read it now, particularly to make sure you're on the same page with me regarding definitions.

Balancing your exposition and scenes requires a certain amount of trial and error. Almost no writer gets it all right the first time. Practice, experimentation, and feedback from others is necessary in order to achieve a balance where the novel flows, the tone is consistent, and the pace is comfortable for your reader.

Kill Your Darlings
You may have overdone it in the scene department. Not every single event needs to be detailed in the life of your character. If a scene doesn't enhance the plot, reveal character, heighten suspense, or in some way contribute to the theme, it has to go.

This is what William Faulkner was referring to when he said, "Kill your darlings." He didn't mean that you should kill off characters or purge scenes indiscriminately, but that you have to ditch any elements that weaken your book or don't add to the strength of the whole. In addition to unnecessary but clever repartee, turns of phrase, and jokes and anecdotes that add little or nothing, you may find you can cut whole scenes or consolidate similar scenes into one.

For instance, the finished first draft of my World War II historical novel, Snow Moon Rising, was somewhere around 170,000 words. That would be a 450-page book, which is simply too long. And I went into far, far too much detail in some sections, both in exposition and in scenework. In places, the story dragged. When the Gypsy troupe is fleeing for the mountains, they stash their wagons, and in the first version I had well over a thousand extra words with a little subplot about one boy nearly being left behind because the horse he was riding stepped in a hole. I scaled that back to a brief summary because the first version slowed down the scene, dampened the suspense, and didn't move the plot.

Sometimes it's hard to "kill those darlings," especially when you've worked long and hard to write lush description or character detail or action. But if your story drags or the reader is jarred out of the narrative, you'll find you have no choice.

Another example in the first draft of Snow Moon Rising occurs when three characters go on a long and difficult trip to get my heroine. I initially went into some 1,500 words of detail about their journey, and it wasn't until the second draft that I realized that the story isn't theirs - it belongs to the main characters. I trimmed all the travel scenes for the three, wrote a couple of sentences of summary, and cut to the chase. Once my heroine joins them on the road, and they turn toward home, the narrative presents a perfect opportunity to give the reader expository information to reveal my heroine's state of mind.

That ride home also slows down the pace and gives the reader a needed rest after all that's happened in the previous scenes. It sets up the next events to come, but it's not a long recitation of boring stuff like the ride to get the heroine originally was. Trimming gave the story punch where it needed it, tightened up and moved the story along, and made for a pace that I hoped would better engage the reader. I also cut some 2,000 words.

Conversely, there were a few places where I had originally written brief summaries that eventually had to be expanded slightly into Half-Scenes. Sometimes less is more . . . but occasionally it's not.

Two Problems to Avoid
Excessive exposition in a scene or in a summary sometimes becomes the dreaded "Info Dump" - sections of detail or description that go on and on, or that deliver so much technical information that the poor reader's eyes glaze over.

Readers need information about the past, the surroundings that characters end up in, and events prior to the story, as well as other vital information. Rather than dumping it all into the street for a reader to have to drive carefully around, the clever writer manages to insert the material here and there in small doses - often in dialogue or in limited summary sections. Remember, fiction readers may not mind learning new things, but they also want to be entertained - or dazzled. Exposition is workman-like, so of course it's necessary, but it's not usually very dazzling. If you must dump a quantity of information in one place, do your best to make the language rich and evocative.

The second major problem area falls squarely within scenework. Flashbacks - fully rendered scenes that take place prior to the current story but are inserted into the narrative later - may be vital to your story, but be aware that they usually stop the narrative flow dead in its tracks.

If you can avoid flashbacks, please do. If you can't devise any other way to convey the information, then do your best to provide an effective segue into and out of the flashback so the reader isn't confused.

Accuracy and Balance are Especially Important In Historical Fiction
In the lesbian realm, we've been left out of history so often that it's refreshing to see authors taking the events of history and weaving in plots where lesbians are no longer relegated to the closet. Or oblivion. Writers like Sarah Waters, who has set her plots in Victorian London and the World War II era, have lately elevated this form of writing even in the mainstream, and we've seen a number of historical lesbian novels coming out recently.

A book (whether romance or not) based upon real historical events and/or real-life historical persons requires more work than the typical contemporary novel. You'll have to research enough to be thoroughly familiar with the time, the setting, the customs, and the mood of the period. If you fail to study the era about which you're writing, you're likely to include anachronisms and errors, both of which will throw intelligent readers out of your story. I remember reading a story set early in the Dark Ages (around 500 A.D.) where the characters found their way around using a compass. Oops. The Chinese used magnetic compasses by 1100 A.D., western Europeans and Arabs by 1200 A.D., and Scandinavians by 1300 A.D. The Europeans in the story couldn't have had a compass, and from that point on I mistrusted everything the author wrote. It turned out that he'd made many other errors of fact, too. I'll never read another of his books.

Novels that take place in another historical era require extra work to balance between the exposition and scenework. The use of accurate and thorough setting, period/era, customs, Real-Life characters, historical references, and the like are critical to ensure that your readers experience the historical world as if they were there. But you can't overdo or the story gets lost in all the detail.

Early writers of successful fictionalized historical books were very careful to structure their works in action-oriented, scene-based ways. Take, for instance, The Bastard (1976), the initial book in John Jakes's wildly successful series. As the summary of the books says:

The beginnings of the American Revolution provide the backdrop and action for this first part of Jakes's "Kent Family Chronicles." Readers follow the saga of Phillipe Charboneau, illegitimate son of an English nobleman. Phillipe travels from France to claim his inheritance and is denied. To escape being murdered by his half-brother, he travels to London and then Boston, where he changes his name to Philip Kent. Along the way he meets Ben Franklin, Lord North, and Sam Adams (among other historical figures) and participates in the Boston Tea Party.
Jakes provides information about the times, but he includes fully-rendered dramatic scenes with high stakes and lots of drama. What better way to make dry, dusty, boring old news fresh and exciting! The Bastard was a publishing phenomenon and became a bestselling series because of it.

In contrast, Roots, by Alex Haley (also published in 1976) reads like memoir and biography and less like a novel. Because so much of the book is exposition, it's more like nonfiction and less like fiction. He can get away with long sections of exposition because that's what the reader of creative nonfiction expects. But those authors writing novels don't have the same leeway.

Making Effective Decisions is Part of the Revisions Process
Striking a balance between bringing a scene to life, backing off and providing expository summary, or combining the two is a critical part of revising a manuscript. That balance is what gives a book its pace.

In her book, Beginnings, Middles, & Ends, Nancy Kress talks at length about story middles and why they so often sag. Frequently the author has trouble making effective choices. There are many ways to keep the writing fresh and lively, but an excess of description and exposition usually drags everything down. Meaningless scenes or flat scenes that aren't punchy do the same.

You have to be as effective with your decisions as Martin Scorsese's film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who always seems to know when to cut and when not to.

Studying the Work of Writers You Love
Scorsese's film career may not be the best example for novelists, but one of the most effective ways to improve your writing is to study work by an author you greatly admire. Or hate. Examining and analyzing books that work for you - and books that don't - might give you just as much information as the practice of writing.

Some people can plan ahead - outline - how they think they're going to develop a story. Jane Fletcher does this. So do Jennifer Fulton and Catherine Friend to a certain degree. Writers like these either outline it in their head or on the page. They understand the architecture of what they're trying to convey, and they make their early drafts look easy. (Nobody mentions how much time they spend thinking and thinking and thinking to figure it all out though.)

Other writers never outline, and they still produce compelling work. Ellen Hart comes up with a title, gets a good idea of the first five or six chapters, and she's off and running. She often has no idea who the murderer is until the sleuth figures it out!

I've never been able to outline a book until after I've written it, and I've known plenty of writers who may have no idea where exactly a novel is going, but they can still work through their game plan and structure in a logical and orderly way. Here is one of many, many 3-Act traditional structures:
♦ 11 scenes begin and set up novel
♦ 2 plot point/plot-turning scenes
♦ 16 middle scenes
♦ 4 scenes that turn the plot unexpectedly
♦ 6 scenes heading toward the end
♦ 2 plot reversal scenes
♦ 5 final scenes leading to resolution/denouement
Basically, this is 11 beginning scenes, 28 middles scenes, and 7 ending scenes, for a total of 46 scenes. Depending upon scene length, the book might fall between 75,000 and 90,000 words. Take a look at a book such as a Karin Kallmaker romance. You might have 35 scenes and 70,000 words. At the other end of the spectrum, Snow Moon Rising had about 110 scenes and ended up with a little over 135,000 words. Two different kinds of books, two different lengths, and a different number of scenes.

Most of us can't logically sit down and say "I think I'll write 50 scenes, and they shall be…" (But if you can do that, more power to you!) Usually writers end up experimenting with what seems to make sense at the time. You lay out the story in some sort of effective fashion, and then you have to go back and analyze to see what you ended up with, what you need, what's superfluous, what's overdone, what's underdone, etc. Then you rewrite, add new scenes, turn some scenes into summary, and try to balance out the timeline, tone, and pace of the manuscript.

Balancing scenework and exposition is a tricky task for any novel, but it's an important aspect of the revision process. Without attention to that sort of balance, your novel could race along so fast that the reader feels she's in the clutches of a speed demon on crack - or your novel could drag so badly that the reader uses it to cure insomnia.

Develop a strong awareness of scenework and exposition, and you'll turn your prose into a truly dazzling journey for your reader.
© 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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