Letter to Students: Positive Techniques for Busting the Exposition Trap
Monday, April 18, 2016 at 10:00AM
Hannah Sternberg in creativity, letters to students, writing advice, writing games
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Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

Last week's Letter to Students featured some emotional techniques for dealing with the "exposition trap" and self-limitation. This week, I offer three concrete, stylistic tips for reducing or transforming exposition in our work.

This week we did three short games to explore three common sticking points for writers. The overarching theme was fighting the tendency to get lost in exposition instead of slowing down and creating scenes instead of flying past them with expository prose. We have three tools to fight Creeping Exposition: dialogue, action, and the creation of incident/filler scenes/transitional scenes.

Dialogue: How many times in your writing have you skipped past an opportunity to write out a dialogue scene? I recently experienced an example of this. In my current work in progress, a teen sneaks out all night to participate in some scary supernatural stuff. When she returns in the morning, her mom catches her and asks her where she was. Her alibi is that she snuck out to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time. As I was revising my first draft of this book, I realized I'd just written something like "And then we had an awkward conversation about sex," and then moved on to the next scene. Looking back at it, I thought, "Um...I need to write out this dialogue."

Action: The same thing happens with action -- action can be as difficult to write compellingly as humor. It's easy to skip past it without even thinking, too: "They chased the hero down the alley. It was a close one but he made it out." That could be: "The turned, chasing him into the long, dark alley. He dodged behind a dumpster, holding his breath. They shuffled down the alley with muffled steps, hoping to surprise him, looking for any sign of his presence. He held in a sneeze, clenching his fists. They got to the end of the alley, rattled the chain-link fence in frustration, and then marched out again. The hero waited until the sound of their steps was far away, before taking a deep breath." To break the habit of skipping past action, err on the side of too much detail; it'll train your brain to think of action sequences as a series of small and distinct actions.


Creation of Incident: Often we imagine stories in the form of a synopsis, hitting on the major peaks and valleys, and then we sit down to write and realize we have to fill in the gaps with incident, and we're stumped. My suggestion for this challenge is less of a technique and more of an attitude change. If we approach these transitional or filler scenes as unique opportunities to create "mini" stories within the story, they no longer seem like a boring chore, and they become a fun writing experience within themselves. See if you can approach your own work that way.


To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 


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