I don’t even have an excuse for why this post is so much later than planned. Sorry about that. But here I am, nevertheless, and finally on track to write about manuscript assessment and issues of dialogue, description and exposition.
At this point in a manuscript assessment, I’ve transitioned from primarily looking at structure—yes, even point of view counts as a structural issue—to looking more at matters of style. This part of the assessment process can be quite personal, and needs a lot of tact, because as an assessor I’m looking for both what works well in key areas of the book, and what doesn’t, and an assessor pointing out flaws can feel, to an author, a lot like being told they’re a bad writer. That’s not what I’m trying to do, though. It’s just that as a fresh eye, I have more distance from a manuscript than its author does, and I get to see only what’s on the page, not what’s in the author’s memory or imagination. Because of that, I can help them snip away anything that’s hiding their story from the reader, and prune it into its best from.
When I look at dialogue in a manuscript, I want to see it doing three things: revealing character, moving the story forward and dramatising incidents. Dialogue is one of the best ‘show’ techniques there is, when it’s done well, because while it doesn’t reflect exactly how people speak in real life, it does approximate it, and real people don’t always talk about things directly and in full. They leave things out, make assumptions, cut to the chase in an emergency or dance awkwardly around sensitive topics, and writers can use all of these things to reveal character, advance the story and dramatise at the same time. For example, imagine a character who’s so afraid that even in an emergency, with disaster barrelling toward them at a hundred miles an hour, they absolutely cannot speak up and say something critical directly… If you don’t sacrifice this character point for plot convenience, what does the conversation in which they try to speak up give you? Character revelation, and a new mystery (what’s happened to leave this person so unable to speak directly?), plot development (they don’t get the words out in time, disaster happens, and your characters have to deal with the aftermath) and drama (the tension of the conversation and the frustration of other characters).
So when you look at your dialogue, ask yourself if each bit of it shows character, moves the story forward, and dramatises the action in some way. If it doesn’t, consider whether you can trim any of it out, or whether it’s necessary to set up something else. You can also look at how you use ‘tags’ to show who’s speaking. Sometimes a ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is absolutely necessary and okay, whether it’s for clarification purposes or to create a ‘beat’ in the reader’s mine. Sometimes adjectives are also okay! And action tags are fantastic—another ‘show’ tool. But like dialogue, always check if they’re needed at all…
These days it’s de rigeur to complain about how much description Tolkien included in The Lord of the Rings, but that’s mostly a case of times and tastes changing: both literary and genre fiction is expected to move more quickly now than it was when Tolkien was writing, and the trend for minimalism applies to more than just punctuation. That means that description is expected to serve more of a purpose than just ‘describing the world the story takes place in’.
When I look at description in a manuscript I ask myself what it’s directing my attention to. Is this key to the story, or is it trying to hide something from me (this is not necessarily a bad thing: misdirection is an important tactic for mystery writers, for example)? Is it there because it’s funny, or emotionally significant to a character (or the author), or to pad the word count? Is there not enough description? I don’t need to know every detail of a character’s looks, for example, but I should be able to build some sense of who they are based on what I know about how they look—whether they have big, work-worn hands, or a perm/mullet that looks like it’s just escaped from the 1980s, or crooked teeth and an awkward smile. The same goes for environments: I don’t need to know everything, but I should know something. A few key details will provide clues that let me both follow the story and fill in the rest of the image for myself.
So when you’re reading back over your story and you come across a phrase or passage of description, ask yourself why it’s there. What detail is it directing your reader’s attention to and why? Is it there just because you thought it was cool or funny, or are the cool/funny aspects serving a purpose within the story? And if you have long passages without description, ask yourself why not*? Could description help the reader to track this conversation or understand this scene? If so, you might need to add some in.
Exposition is not evil.
There, I said it. And what’s more, I believe it. Exposition is not evil, and sometimes it’s even necessary. You can’t show every last tiny detail of everything that happens in your story, after all, or your book would never end. Sometimes you have to skip over things, or recap, or time-skip, and that’s where exposition comes in very handy. Imagine that you’ve spent a third of your book having one character painstakingly discover some jaw-droppingly important information…and then they have to tell another character about it. Do you go through the whole rigmarole again, even though there’s no way the reader will have forgotten those points yet? Or do you just write, ‘Elena drew a deep breath and launched into the story, ticking off point after point on her fingers. By the time she reached the end Brian’s eyes were wide, and she realised she’d convinced him’? I’d prefer to read the latter.
What I look for when I’m assessing a manuscript is whether there’s a lot of exposition, and whether it’s telling the reader new information, or recapping old points. If your exposition is telling the reader new information, you may need to reconsider using it. Nothing annoys readers like an infodump—it’s boring, and it slows the story down, and it actually makes things harder to remember. Ask yourself if you can get that information across in a way that’s shown instead of told. Exposition’s job is to move the story forward, full stop; if it grinds the story to a halt, it’s failing at that job, so check if your expository passages move things forward or slow them down. If you really need to lay out a lot of ground rules all at once, you can disguise an infodump by turning it into a diary entry, a letter, an anthropological paper or a police report depending on genre, but whatever you do with it, make it relevant, and make it advance the narrative.
Next time (notice I didn’t say next week, ahem), tune in for the final entry in this series: style and the use of language!
*Long passages of dialogue without any description or tags at all can work…but really only if you’re Alexandre Dumas. Or Steven Brust.