I watched Things We Lost in the Fire the other night. Very good. But what hooked me from the start was a piece of subtle characterisation and storytelling.
The scene is a funeral wake. A suited Benicio Del Toro is smoking a cigarette on the patio. Another suited guy goes to him and asks for a cigarette. Benicio obliges. The guy takes one drag and spots his wife looking at him, ‘Oops. Busted,' he says, drops the cigarette and heads back inside. Benicio surreptitiously bends down, outs the cigarette and puts it back in his suit pocket.
Benicio’s shabby suit isn’t apparent until later, so you’re seeing these two guys as equals. The only thing separating them is characterisation. The top layer shows Benicio as desperately broke (later you find out he’s an addict too), but the layer beneath is even more subtle. As broke and desperate as he is, he still gives the man his last cigarette. He could have lied and said he had none left, but he lights the guy up anyway – didn’t even think about it. He understands social etiquette, he doesn’t want to stand out, he’s embarrassed of his decline into the gutter, he’s a good guy. What more can you ask of a scene? The ultimate ‘Show’ not ‘Tell’. Did you spot those two ugly motherfuckers 'surreptitiously' and 'desperately'? Both absolutely fine here. Fuck off.
As writers, how deep do you go before the reader just doesn’t get it? Do you think an agent looks for that stuff, especially if you’re writing genre fiction? Why do we bother when every book I pick up in Tesco says: Benicio was down on his luck. He couldn’t afford to give this guy a ciggy but he didn’t want to look like a dick… There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this, the information the reader needs is delivered, but where’s the art in it? Published writers are supposed to be good, aren’t they?
I know the old argument over SHOW not TELL is a big yawn these days, and some high profile authors I won’t mention have promoted TELLING over SHOWING, but for me it’s a simple choice: Would you rather hear about it or be there?
There’s no doubt that TELLING (or shall we call it by its real name: EXPOSITION) is an essential part of writing – it speeds up the boring bits that the reader needs to know but doesn’t have to be there for. But you’ll mostly find it propping up dialogue: a character speaks and then you get a short paragraph on what they’re feeling when they spoke, how the person they’re speaking to might take what they’ve said, their fears, their joys. This is exposition at its most irritating, and the best way to take all the pace out of your writing.
My wife likes to people watch; we’ll be having coffee somewhere and she’ll be listening to the couple on the next table, then she’ll report back with a summation of their relationship – call it nosy if you want, but she gets a real kick out of it. But I wonder how much fun she’d have if after every line between the surveilled couple they stopped and explained everything. She’d probably start listening to me again.
The downside in fiction dialogue is that when exposition is heavily relied upon to explain everything that’s said, what IS said is usually dull and perfunctory. It doesn’t have to be anything else, does it?
Same goes for actions. A character shifts position because he’s nervous but the writer is afraid the reader won’t get it and so more exposition. It all becomes a bad habit and is most likely overlooked by the writer.
I’ll be honest here, there’s too much exposition in Dark Heart for my liking. I wrote it a while ago and now my style is changing, evolving. Exposition stands out like canary at a cock fight, and if I could write a whole story without it I would, but genre calls for it a little bit, and so all I can do is cut out all the unnecessary exposition and let the story stand or fall on its own. It’s a lot harder to do, but I believe in it.
Try characterising a nervous person without them biting their nails or having to follow up their shit dialogue and vague movements with the word ‘nervously’. It makes you focus. And while we’re at it, why not try and nail your descriptions and dialogue the first time, rather than having to limp up behind it with that dirty little crutch ‘as if’.
Just try and be better.