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Hemovore Under the Hood #2 - Exposition

Hemovore, a vampire thriller by Jordan Castillo PriceShow, don't tell. Writing advice books have been giving us this order for so long it's lost its meaning, kind of like if you say the word "cheese" over and over until it doesn't sound like a word anymore. (Or, if you really want to freak yourself out, you can do it with "the." But I digress...)

So if "show don't tell" is so old-hat that it no longer means anything, then what's the whole deal with exposition, and why should we care?

Exposition is when you tell readers what's going on rather than writing a scene so that a movie unfolds in their heads. It's not that you can't ever use exposition, but you paint a heck of a lot more vivid picture if you can figure out a way to demonstrate this thing you're going to show rather than "telling" about it.

As I readied Hemovore to send to the editor, I opened up the document to give it a readthrough and was dismayed to discover it was bursting at the seams with exposition. No, no, no. Exposition is the kiss of death, especially when worldbuilding is involved, and Hemovore has a lot of worldbuilding happening. I could see right away that I needed to immerse the reader in the world, rather than explaining how the world came to be. Let me show you the original first page.

ORIGINAL:

It’s amazing, the flaws a good suit once camouflaged. Love handles? Gone. Paunch? Covered. Nonexistent derriere? No problem.

Suits are cut much slimmer nowadays. The dwindling of roomy suits was probably precipitated by the Human Hemovore Virus, which leaves its few lucky survivors gallivanting around in trim, toned bodies. Vogue Magazine claims that menswear silhouettes had been growing sleeker throughout the end of the twentieth century even before the virus reared its fanged head. Maybe. I still say suits got skinny because of vampires.

I used to wear suits because it was expected of me, not because anything on me needed to be hidden. This was back in the days when I’d just completed my mediocre stint at a so-so college and had a perfectly useless BA in Art History to hang on the wall, before I’d started working in the private sector.

Fast forward eighteen years. Now, I jump at the chance to wear a suit. Even though suits are no longer the bastions of structure and padding they once were, I still look a hell of a lot better in a suit than I do in a T-shirt. I cut a stunning figure in a charcoal gray Prada, gliding across the carpet in my handmade Tanino Crisci oxfords that, as the shoe salesman assured me back when I’d plunked down three paychecks on them, have never gone out of style.
Of course, now one is expected to wear gloves with a suit. Because one is expected to wear gloves with everything. Suits. T-shirts. Tube tops.

And to think, there was once a day when gloves were worn only to high tea or Olympic skiing events. How sad.

***

I had the narrator Mark's voice down pat, obviously. But right at the beginning was not the time to give you a window into his personality (that he was addicted to clothes) or worse, his whole friggin' history.

That's okay. That's what word processors are for. Saving iteration after iteration so you don't have to be scared of starting things over. I did start over. In fact, I re-wrote the first fifty pages of the book from approximately two pages of longhand notes and a bunch of Post-Its. I only saved lines that were so memorable that I was able to search them. (In this case, I did save the original first paragraph about the slimming of suits. But I presented it farther into the story, after you've gotten a chance to watch Mark navigate his day to day life for a while. And while he's suiting up for an important occasion, where his thoughts about suits actually feel relevant.

This was...not my second try, because friends, I've been re-writing this story forever trying to nail it. Let's say it's my twelfth try. Or my twentieth. But either way, it was my most recent try, and I was bound and determined to tell the story right. I started with my favorite scene, the supermarket scene, and I let it rip.

THE UMPTEENTH TRY:

The blood is the life.

So Hollywood’s been telling us, ever since the advent of the talkies. But like so many of the vampire myths, Hollywood got that one wrong. Because blood low in fat, low in calories -- and unless you’re a South American bat, the quantity it would take to sustain life, all by itself, is staggering.

The vampiric diet is more of a triumverate of water, oil and blood. Water for hydration. Oil for calories. And blood for…well, it’s been nearly eight years now, and researchers still haven’t figured out what, exactly, the V-positive folks get from blood. Whatever it is, the clotting action of platelets negates it.

And whatever it is, they sure do suffer without it.

Maybe the blood really is the life. A day or two without a fresh dose of the red stuff, and a vampire will get week and woozy. Blood, oil and water. A vampire’s food pyramid makes my dietary needs, as a regular, run-of-the-mill, uninfected V-negative look more like a skewed quadrilateral.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s more of a straight line, since I live on Lean Cuisines. Though sometimes I have to eat three or four so I don’t feel as if I’m starving to death. I have greater caloric needs than your average-sized person. I’m male, so add an extra Chicken Florentine right there. Big-boned, too. And tall, annoyingly tall, tall enough that everyone assumes I played basketball in high school or college (and makes a point of asking me about it), along with the current state of the weather “up there.” So on a particularly lengthy, solitary, empty night, I might need an extra Penne Carbonara or Shrimp Scampi or perhaps a few French Bread Pizzas to fill the void.

A shopping cart rattled as it swerved around me on shaky wheels. How long had I been standing there, glued to my cart, staring at the bottled water aisle?

Yes, a whole aisle with nothing but water. Hollywood may have gotten vampirism wrong, but the marketing execs at the big ad agencies? They had their fingers on the pulse of a whole nation of consumers. Because if you could buy a product related to your condition, then everything must be okay.

***
So here's the crazy part. Even after I had re-written the first fifty pages, I read through it again, and lo and behold, the fucking thing was STILL swarming with exposition, for about the first 20 pages. Here's what clued me in. If I had to describe the action and nothing more, I would regretfully need to say, "Mark is standing there looking at something and thinking." There's a clue!

I am convinced that when you start a novel, you simply can't help it. As the author, you have the worldbuilding going on in your head, and there are facts you need to convey to the reader, and no matter how you slice it, the exposition's gonna leak out there.

Enter the big yellow highlighter. I printed out those twenty pages and highlighted everything expository, whether I enjoyed the narrator's voice during the exposition or not, and I proceeded to figure out ways to show all those things happening, rather than just narrating them. It was pretty awful looking at all that yellow. (It was on ballerina pink parchment paper, which is another whole story, though not a very interesting one.)

AS PUBLISHED:

The blood is the life.

So Hollywood’s been telling us, and maybe it’s true, but water is where the real money’s being made. Water should be free—it falls from the sky, after all—but there it was on the shelf in slick, designer-looking bottles, selling for four, five bucks apiece. Water. It had become the fastest-growing, highest-grossing product on the market.

I felt vaguely guilty as I steered my shopping cart full of Lean Cuisines down the water aisle, but only vaguely. Jonathan had never forbidden me to shop in the water aisle—only the vampire aisle. Though you could argue that they were practically one and the same, especially since water now came in such flavors as Dew Kissed Pear Orchard and…Meatball Hoagie.

I did a double take. Yes indeed, I’d read the label correctly. Meatball Hoagie De-Lite. I rotated a bottle so I could read the label. The first ingredient was water. That was encouraging. A bunch of scientific-sounding words followed. Additives? Preservatives? Hard to say. All I knew was, that bottle of flavored water had more chemicals in it than my Aunt Trixie at the last ill-fated Hansen family Thanksgiving gathering.

The shelf had a bright orange tag dangling from the edge. Meatball Hoagie De-Lite was on sale, three for $11—which was irritating, since eleven isn’t readily divisible by three, and which, I suspected, was the very reason it had been priced that way. It couldn’t hurt to try it, since it was on sale and all, but I wasn’t about to put it on Jonathan’s credit card with the rest of our food. Maybe he looked at the receipts, or maybe he shoved them all into a shoebox for his accountant to handle, but either way, I didn’t want to be stuck explaining my sudden perverse desire to taste sandwich-flavored water.

Maybe I had some cash.

***

I dealt with the specifics of the vampire diet later, when there was an actual vampire in the room freaking out because his blood supply was all clotted.

So why bother? Why re-write something eight million times to lose that exposition? Readers read your stuff for the characters, right?

Yes, and no. They do read for character. But characters come alive when they're doing things. Not when the history of something is being told. Not when an etymology is being given. Not when a geography or politics lesson is occurring. People doing stuff. It all boils down to that.

And if your scene involves people thinking, remembering, or reflecting, it's probably time to whip out that big yellow highlighter. It hurts, I know--believe me, I know--but it's for the best.

ETA: I guess a link to the book would be nice (duh)

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
spikeface
Aug. 6th, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)
I've come to realize that I don't mind a fair bit of exposition, as long as it's in keeping with the narrator's voice. I draw the line at God Laying Down The Commandments in the middle of a character's shopping spree, but I don't generally mind otherwise. Probably from watching too much TV, which can be absolutely shameless when it comes to exposition.

But when an author can make it so that I learn about the world without even thinking about it, hot damn. My flighty attention span bounces with glee. You can usually tell from the first paragraph or so if the book's going to be streamlined or littered with exposition, and it's always such a pleasure to find authors who can put you in a world without first giving a Powerpoint on its rules and history.

I haven't read Hemovore yet, I confess, since I want to do it when I have the time to pay attention and a write a proper (and undoubtedly glowing) review, and this has made me very excited about it!
jordan_c_price
Aug. 6th, 2009 08:05 am (UTC)
I think if other aspects are really good -- like voice, for instance -- a huge block of exposition can be snuck in without me minding too much. "As you know, Bob," statements are the worst! Can't they just SHOW whatever it is happening? Too lazy, I guess. Or too oblivious. Or they don't trust their audience enough. This is primarily on TV. And if a lame statement is said by a good actor, sometimes the lameness is minimized until it sinks in and you realize they just said something really stupid.

I was watching a movie on Chiller channel and some poor actor had to say, "We sprayed the swarm with pesticide and it's making them bigger!" to which another poor soul had to say, "Try spraying them with the organic pesticides!"

My brain leaked out my nose.

I look forward to hearing what you think, since you were one of my early readers!
ocotillo_dawn
Aug. 6th, 2009 04:32 pm (UTC)
Since friending you, I've gone out of town on work and find so little time to be online, but want to say I love reading this and your last post.

I'm trying to hone my writing, feel I'm pretty good but need work, and this is exactly the level of discussion that helps me... the personal story, the concrete examples.

You have me thinking that purging exposition is especially important in these first few pages of a novel, because that's when you want to hook the reader. The reader is perhaps not invested enough in the characters yet, and so we need action to generate interest. For me, that is when I am most likely to resort to exposition, because I am still getting a handle on the world myself.

I think I'm finally accepting that my first chapter of any novel will not last. That it is written for me, not for my readers. But it's difficult to make the decision to 'throw away' work you've sweated over. *sigh* :)

I ended up writing a lot up there! Only meant to say I am enjoying your posts.
jordan_c_price
Aug. 6th, 2009 06:50 pm (UTC)
Yay! What you took away from the post is exactly what I was thinking. That as writers, we lean on exposition when we're starting the story--and that's exactly when it's deadly.

Don't worry too much about losing your first chapter. Chances are you can tuck a lot of the stuff in later on.

Or put it in a "how-to" post. (Wait til you see the deleted chapters *groan*)

I also have a free writing podcast at www.packingheat.net where you might find inspiration.

Thanks so much for the feedback! :D
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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