Filling the Silence, by Donald Maass
February 3, 2016
Is there anything worse than an awkward silence? Actually, there is. Its silence filled by the tedious ramblings of a bore. The first situation makes you want to kill yourself. The second makes you want to kill someone else.
What is it that makes the drivel spoken by a bore so boring? It lacks all interest, for you anyway and maybe even for the bore. After all, the bore is talking not to say anything but to hear the sound of his or her own voice. But never mind that. What does it mean to lack interest? What makes anything we hear “interesting” anyway?
Let’s be boring. “It’s an unusually fine day.” Okay, that’s tedious but not full on boring. “Yes, the grass is green today.” “Later we may get rain.” “Shall we play golf while we can?” Golf! Now that’s boring. (Oh, you like golf? Sorry, it’s boring.) But seriously, the humdrum exchange we’re developing has nothing unexpected in it.
Now let’s turn that into a conversation on the surface of Mars:
“It’s an unusually fine day.”
“Yes, the grass is green today.”
“Later we may get rain.”
“Shall we play golf while we can?”
The humdrum gets a tad more interesting because on the surface of Mars we do not expect anyone to be discussing fine weather, green grass, rain and golf. There are even implications and undertones to ponder. The grass is green “today”? What does it mean to “get” rain on Mars? Is it manufactured? If so, why isn’t the schedule known? There’s intrigue here. It’s mildly sinister. (Take it from here, Phillip K. Dick.)
Now imagine this conversation in a prison yard, or in Hell. What is humdrum in one context in another context is new, unexpected and raises questions we have not previously considered.
Let’s shift focus from dialogue to the fiction element we sometimes call exposition. Exposition, as the term is used nowadays, is the thoughts and feelings of a point of view character, the stuff that takes us inside a character’s head. Exposition can be some of the most boring stuff on the page. I know that. You know that. We know it because all too often we skim it.
Skimming is sometimes a result of reader impatience, or perhaps a writer being inconsiderate. So anxious are we to know what happens next that we race ahead; conversely, so in love is the writer with unimportant stuff that he or she fails to cut it. (Let’s not forget the carelessness of the editor, either.) If we skim for reasons like that it’s a pacing issue.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what makes exposition actually boring. Inside a character’s head is not always an interesting place to be. It’s tedious when the cognitive/emotional transcript we’re reading offers nothing unexpected, holds no intrigue, states the obvious, raises questions we’ve already asked on our own, or presents feelings we’ve already felt. It’s like reheating leftovers for the fourth time. (Except for lasagna which I, anyway, am always excited to take out of the microwave.)
No one wants to be boring so let’s take a look at why exposition feels fascinating to authors when they write it down but later proves uninteresting to readers.
Exposition often is a mini aftermath. It’s a reaction to something that has just been witnessed or said. That would seem important to record but remember that your readers are ahead of you. Readers think. They feel. They react to everything and do so instantaneously. And, unfortunately, their instant reaction may well be what you’re writing down.
When that happens you’re duplicating. Stating the obvious. You’re being boring.
The antidote is to use exposition to challenge the reader. That requires thinking of stuff the reader hasn’t thought of. It means elaborating feelings that are not immediately obvious. It means exploring implications of a given situation that aren’t easy to see. The idea is to give your reader new cognitive and emotional work to do.
Try these approaches:
- Find anything that is seen or heard in your manuscript, maybe on the page you’re drafting right now. Who is your POV character? Now consider…
- The event just experienced has a personal impact on your POV character that is non-obvious or the opposite of what most of us would think or feel.
- What did your POV character notice just now that no one else did? Why did this in particular strike your POV character?
- Who at this moment is trying to conceal or suppress a feeling? Why? Let your POV character be the one to perceive this.
- Whatever has just happened raises a potential threat, however minor, down the road. To whom and how? Let your POV character grasp this.
- If the event just witnessed seems like a setback, how does your POV character realize that it is actually helpful? (Or reverse that.)
- There’s a big meaning in the little thing that just happened. How does your POV character explain that? (Or explain the small significance buried in a giant event.)
Exposition isn’t always reactive. Sometimes it’s an interior essay, a meditation of sorts. Find a spot where we might stop for a time in your protagonist’s head. Now consider…
- What’s something your protagonist hasn’t told us about himself or herself? Make it something your protagonist hasn’t previously acknowledged. How has your protagonist avoided this until now? Why is that no longer possible? What can be said or done now that couldn’t before? Why is this self-realization fearful—yet also a relief?
- What’s something your protagonist has avoided seeing about someone or something in the story? Why has your protagonist avoided this truth? What will change now that this truth is recognized?
- Pick a random page in your manuscript: What’s the last thing we would expect your protagonist to focus on right now? Focus on it.
- Pick anything your protagonist feels anywhere in the manuscript. Reverse it. Then justify that new feeling.
- Pick any event in the story. Give your protagonist a way to look at this event that is ironic, sacrilegious, cutting, crazy, brutally honest, unnecessarily generous, paranoid or perverse. Add.
- Stop somewhere in your story. What’s the mountaintop view of what’s happening? How will it look ten years from now? How would a being divine look at what’s happening in a way that we mortals cannot? Allow your protagonist to see that perspective—then reject it.
The point of approaching exposition in such ways is to challenge your readers, to force them to react to something that is not exactly what they expect to read. Provoke them to disagree. Require them to make up their own minds. Cause them to evaluate their own feelings. Readers don’t automatically fall in sync with your characters’ inner processing. The better approach is cause readers to do their own.
An empty page is a form of silence. You can fill that silence with boring stuff, or you can fill it with song. Make that song surprising and we won’t be bored. We’ll dance.
Are you writing a passage of exposition today? How are you using it to challenge your readers?
Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist