Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Dead-Hand of Exposition

Every day that I spend writing , I first read through the chapter I am currently working on, so far as it goes, to make such improvements as may seem felicitous. Often the changes I make are very small, but they all serve to aid the overall flow and to add another layer of polish to the text. Sometimes, though, I find myself so dissatisfied with what I am reading that I attempt to rewrite it, only to find myself equally dissatisfied with the rewrite the next day and attempting to rewrite it again. This can go on for several weeks with me trying to recast the thing this way and that, until I finally realise that there must be something fundamentally wrong with the chapter in question. The principal defect I discover, more often than not, is that the writing is labouring under what I think of as the “dead-hand of exposition”.

What I understand by “exposition” is that a situation has been set up purely in order for some information about the plot to be conveyed to the reader, thus rendering it a dramatically inert contrivance. I was struggling with a section recently in which I had some characters meeting so that one of them could tell the others about something that had happened previously. I kept changing the setting, until it stuck me that no amount of tinkering would render the scene any less artificial. People certainly do sit around telling each other about past happenings, but they do not spend their social lives giving each other bullet point hand-outs concerning relevant plot developments. During a night out on the town one character will not say to his quaffing companions, for instance: “Here we all are in the early summer of 1914, and I harbour deep forebodings in my breast about the imminent outbreak of a general European military conflagration. And, as you may be aware, my wife went off with the coalman last autumn and left me felling utterly bereft; he is a man with a soul as dark as the coals he shoulders etc…etc…”

Another similar contrivance might be to suddenly discover that one of your characters keeps a particularly eloquent and descriptive diary, and to reproduce a conveniently informative passage from it. This sort of vice is particularly tempting when you have, as I do, a first-person narrator who does not necessarily witness every scene you wish the reader to know about. I particularly object to the abrupt switch to a different narrative voice, or to the narrator who effectively hands the narrative to another character while he listens to them. The challenge is to convey everything that is needful for the story’s development, whilst weaving it within the on-going dramatic thread. I find it useful to have my aged narrator write about events of his youth, fifty years before, because he therefore has a good excuse to explain things about those times. Another viewpoint to adopt, of course, is for a third-person narrator to waft in and out of any character’s memories, thoughts and perceptions as they please. Despite this being the chosen viewpoint of some of our greatest writers it seems to me an unwarranted presumption, because we each only ever have access to our own inner lives. Watch out for the dead-hand of exposition, however it manifests itself.