Thursday, November 17, 2005

PH: The Art of Milling: Reduction vs. The Expositional Lump

Imagine that you have been engaged in a discussion at a party by a guy who you’ve been told is a great storyteller. You don’t know much about his topic but you are listening and gleaning so that you can understand and get the same satisfaction out of his tale that he seems to be getting. As he explains the story to you, he appears to be in a hurry, a little giddy, and he seems to be cuing you to feel what he is feeling, wanting you to understand in a hurry so that you will also agree that he is, after all is said and done, a good storyteller. He seems to know exactly what he is thinking but wants you to make the leap into knowing what he knows. So all at once, he throws out this statement: “And you of course know what I mean and where I’m going with all of this so I don’t have to explain it to you. They lived happily after that.” If you don’t know him too well, you might shrug in bewilderment and excuse yourself to another part of the room. If you know him all too well, you might tell him that you really can’t agree because he hasn’t shown you enough information. More likely than not, you may feel manipulated because he did not earn the right to make that statement. He has thrown a lump of information at you and expected you to “believe it.”

When plot is trapped inside the dreaded expositional lump, it becomes the clogged artery in the story. The expositional lump is the narrative statement that is pregnant with too much undeveloped information that assumes the reader will draw the conclusions the writer intended. The expositional lump serves the summarized scene well because you as the author know where you will eventually take it. So it is a device that can serve the author. But once you’ve launched your story the lumps must then be subjected to your critical reduction so that the beauty and mystery that unfolds as narrative craft will take your readers where you want them to go. I see it as a milling process, grinding the lumps down into all of the specific sensory details the writer will integrate into that particular scene. “Making the information part of the story is a learnable skill,” says novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. “The trick is to tell us things without appearing to tell us.”

My husband and I love to grind coffee beans each time we make a fresh pot of brew. We have become spoiled to the fresh taste. But if I dropped the beans straight into his cup, poured over hot water, and handed it to him, well, he’d think I was kidding. The same is true of the expositional lump. In order for the reader to digest all that the writer intended, the telling narrative has to be reduced to its finest specificity.

Now it is true where, for the sake of time, we transition from one scene to the next because the details that we would have to add in are not intrinsic to the story. Time passing would not be a pregnant lump but a natural transition and is the perfect place for an achingly beautiful piece of summary or a natural beat in the story’s rhythm. We’re not leaving behind any handholds.

The art of reduction can also be misunderstood in the course of story movement. I don’t want to mislead the new writer into believing that every single detail she envisions happening in scene has to be told such as “standing up, glancing into every eye,” showing every hand movement. When I see a new writer reduce details to this point, I blame it on the video age that has replaced our former reading habits. The writer becomes a puppeteer, trying to literally embody the character and walk and move for them. Story movement takes on speed in pregnant elements, but that can be as small as an important key that has turned up or a family secret that has accidentally come spilling out. It can be as large as the character flying halfway around the world or as vertical as a lunar landing. Reduction played out in the mere physical movements of the character would only serve to weaken scene, of course, unless that movement has meaning. The point of reduction is that we are not asking the reader to “see” a universe of compelling information unfold without having had it explained through the sensory details in an immediate scene.

You’ve heard of sentimental writing. Sentiment is simply unearned emotion. The writer who is in a hurry to make us feel something, like our storyteller at the party, will give gratuitous emotions carte blanche in a scene, forming an emotional clot in the narrative.

And she knew that his feelings for her from that time forth would be forever changed because she could read it in his eyes, feel it in his touch, and she knew that God had given him to her, fulfilling the desires of her heart because He loved her and wanted her to be happy; unlike those who don’t know God. (cue the sunset, release the doves, yada, yada, ad nauseam)

The reader has not had the chance to extract that laundry list of conclusions because she has been told how she is supposed to feel and what to believe. It is writing sin. The contemporary reader will close up that story and hurl it into the sea. The central character through immediate scene has to be allowed to react and respond along the lines of a carefully drawn arc that not only builds tension but also believability. When ground down to its finest essence, that is when the story takes on its potency. Superficial emotional writing is traded for convincing literature.

What is mysterious to me is when the writing surprises me by revealing its secrets, undisclosed details speaking to me from deeper places telling me things that I had not realized were trying to surface. These are often when the universal truths of the story come into focus, those intrinsic human elements that will hook your reader because they are so true of life and of humans. I nearly gasp when that happens because it feels as though the story has taken on a life all its own and now I’m the mere observer taking dictation. Some writers call it The Muse, but I credit God for whispering those things to me. But it happens when we have taken time with that scene to allow all of the mysteries to unfold.

Milling down the expositional lump is how the writer discovers things about her story that even she didn’t know. Reduction gives sway to potency over emotionalism. Potent storytelling persuades the reader to follow your trail all the way to the last page. And we want that very badly.

Author of The Millwood Hollow series and Sandpebbles


At 8:43 AM, Anonymous BJ said...

What a great post, Patty. There's a wealth of key information in just this one entry. I especially liked this: "The writer who is in a hurry to make us feel something, like our storyteller at the party, will give gratuitous emotions carte blanche in a scene, forming an emotional clot in the narrative."

You could do an entire workshop on this. (Or have you?) You've raised two especially important issues about writing in a hurry: the "gratuitous emotions" problem, as well as a critical weakness in narrative skill, symptomatic of the media influence that demands more and more sound-bite fiction--more action, more dialogue, more (but often careless) telescoping--all of which has led to less character development and less carefully written and significant narrative.

You'd make me happy by doing a "Part 2" on this.


At 12:59 PM, Blogger Angela said...

I loved your line about "sentimentality is unearned emotion." (Sorry if that's not exact, but I read your post a couple of hours ago.) For years I've been trying to explain the difference between valid sentiment and sentimentality, and your comment is pithy and right on. :-)

Thanks, Patty!

At 7:37 PM, Blogger Patty said...

I'm developing a workshop on this so this was my first go at expressing concepts that, well, sometimes fall into cliches such as "show don't tell". When I was a new writer, that wasn't enough for me. I was hungry for more. Maybe other writers are too. We'll see!Thanks!

At 1:09 AM, Blogger Lynette Sowell said...

This is a lot to absorb, but thank you for sharing this. I hope to implement this in my own writing. I can understand being so excited to get the story out that I figure "oh, they'll get it." Not always. I see I need to take some time and dig deeper within the scene, not to slow it down but to make it real. And if I end up with extra information, I can always hit "delete." Thanks again~.


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