In your fiction reading, have you ever run into a passage that reads like a segment cut and pasted out of an encyclopedia, or perhaps a geography text? Perhaps something like the following:
At last, after eleven years of traveling at trans-light seven, the Earth colonists had arrived at the planet his grandfather, Emilio Nandez, had discovered almost a century ago. Suspecting conditions on the planet were favorable for life, Emilio had convinced the Colonization Alliance of Independent Nations to send an auto-ship on a scouting mission. What the ship found exceeded even Emilio’s wildest dreams.
Even though the planet had one small continent above sea level, it offered an interesting geological formation: a huge fissure that split the continent in half. Millions of years ago, the planet’s tectonic plates had formed a mountain range, leaving two valleys on either side. Dark green moss covered the thousands of canyons of the planet’s large valley, which was thousands of kilometers in length and stretched for hundreds of kilometers in width.
Rivers, some a kilometer or more wide, and others narrow enough for a man to jump across, ran through the canyons, which split off from the large valley like branches on a tree. Spectacular waterfalls fell thousands of feet to the valley below.
Behold, in all its dread beauty, the expository lump.
What’s above is only half of the lump. It goes on for two more long paragraphs: approximately 400 words in toto. I simply haven’t the patience to type out the rest. It’s one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen lately...and it’s from a writer who prides himself on his writing and will tell you so.
Anyone can fall into this trap. I certainly have. It had to be pointed out to me by a crack editor. It was a harsh but quite necessary lesson of a fundamental sort:
The writer’s fascination with his imaginings (or his skill with words) is of no importance to the reader. The reader is there to experience events and changes in the lives of your characters, especially your protagonists. This flows from the never-too-often repeated Two Great Commandments of Fiction:
1. The raw material of fiction is people.
2. The essence of story is change.
A landscape can be attractive, but what’s more important to the fiction reader is how the viewpoint character reacts emotionally (if he does) to the landscape. The backstory events of a novel can be critically important, but again, what really matters is how they influence the viewpoint character as he remembers them in the context of some significant story-time event.
When a writer departs from the lives of his characters for a sizable expository lump, he risks causing the reader to disaffiliate himself from the characters – in other words, to lose his reason for reading the story. No matter how important the facts being conveyed in the lump, it’s a bad bargain. It risks a reader reaction so deadly that it’s usually referred to by its acronym: MEGO, or “Mine eyes glazeth over.”
As if more were necessary, the innate dynamic of the expository lump, like all cancers, is to expand. The lump swells; the reader’s distance from the characters’ story-time lives and events tends to grow. The narrative loses focus from being drowned in exposition.
The lethal power of the expository lump is one of the reasons for Elmore Leonard’s famous advice about descriptive passages:
Long descriptions of physical settings are the most obvious kind. Backstory exposition is just as poisonous to reader involvement, though often less obvious. There are other temptations toward the creation of an expository lump, but these are the most important ones.
If you’ve ever encountered the fiction writer’s maxim “Show, don’t tell,” it’s advice that should immediately warn a storyteller away from such lumps. At the very least, he should be ready to recognize them when he rereads his own work. A number of indie writers I’ve encountered recently seem never to have heard that maxim. A pity.
As a writer of fiction, your principal task is to engage the reader’s emotions and take him for a dramatic ride. No matter how charmed you might be by the factual details of the setting you’ve imagined, your reader will stay with you – if he does – because of the drama you depict. Drama is about emotion, and emotion stems from the changes in your characters’ lives. It can be found nowhere else.