Subversion Alone Doesn’t Satisfy

Much has been made of how the writers behind the Game of Thrones adaptation enjoyed subverting audience expectations. They talked about it so frequently that it seemed to be not just an outgrowth of storytelling for them. Rather, it was a goal unto itself.

But is “subverting expectations” really what they did? I’d like to argue that the gripping plot twists that made the show so popular in its first seasons had a lot more to do with fulfilling expectations that subverting them.

I’ll begin with Aristotle, who said that the best endings are “surprising, yet inevitable.” When Rhett leaves Scarlett sobbing on the stairs, when Anna’s sisterly sacrifice thaws her own frozen heart, when Scout Finch’s rescuer is revealed as the reclusive Boo Radley, we gasp in astonishment. But a moment later, the shock fades, and we find ourselves nodding slowly, muttering to ourselves, “Of course.”

Let’s take a look at how those “surprising but inevitable” moments happen inside your brain. The “surprising” event is frequently something you would have disqualified as a potential ending when you first began reading. You probably disqualified it because of information you were given, or because of genre expectations.

You’re shocked! But in the very next moments (assuming the writer has done his work right) your brain is latching onto little clues you’ve been given along the way. This is the “inevitable” part, and it happens suddenly, on an intuitive level—and then again, more slowly, as you think back over all of the clues and consider their import. If you’re watching The Sixth Sense, you’re suddenly realizing why Bruce Willis’s wife was so sad and distant. If you’re watching Fight Club, you’re thinking about the narrator’s contempt for himself, and how Tyler changed everything for him. If you’re watching Season 1 of Game of Thrones, you’re thinking about the deaths of Lady, Mycah, and Stark’s men, and about Bran’s fall from the tower. You realize no one in Westeros was ever safe—and you realize that you knew it long ago.

Note that most of the items on this chart don’t have a lot to do with practical clues: the initials on a handkerchief, the lock of hair clutched in a victim’s hand. They’re more emotional than that. They have to do with comprehending things like tone (Game of Thrones), theme (Frozen), character (To Kill a Mockingbird), or human nature (Gone With the Wind).

Game of Thrones subverted expectations exactly once: when they laid the network of clues throughout Season 1 that told us what kind of world we were really inhabiting. Stark’s beheading is not an example of subverting expectations; it’s an example of fullfilling the expectations we had internalized for this world without even knowing it.

When they did, eventually, subvert the expectations they had established—by, say, brining Jon Snow back to life after some hurried mumbo-jumbo, or having Jorah Mormont find the cure to grayscale in the very first place he looked, it was inevitably disappointing. In these cases, Game of Thrones subverted the expectations they’d established: that no one was safe, and that serious losses would not be reversed. No matter how much you liked Jon, these were among the least enjoyable moments of the series.

Subverting expectations sounds cool, but it doesn’t make much sense as a storytelling goal. If that’s your goal, you’ll wind up surprising people, but without that punch of inevitability that really satisfies an audience. It’ll be like the 1930 mystery novel The Door, which debuted the famous solution “the butler did it.” Surprising? Yes, because it defies genre expectations. Inevitable? Satisfying? Not so much. 

A better goal is to control and selectively fulfill expectations by:

1. Either:

 (a) Understanding the original set of expectations your reader brought into the story or 

(b) Creating a set of false expectations based on information that turns out to be compromised (“Boo doesn’t leave the house”, “Ender’s battles were simulations”)

2. Creating a competing sense of expectations based on subtle, emotional clues you’ve woven into your narrative.

3. Fulfilling the second set of expectations.

* The TV show Friends went another way with a couple who had put each other through the wringer. The writers’ decision to paper over the decade of damage Ross and Rachel had done to one another with “I love you” was pleasing to longterm fans, but ultimately a little unsatisfying, because it didn’t feel inevitable in the slightest.

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Character Introduction Project: Umbrella Academy

How important is a character introduction, really? Maybe you have a lot to cover in the first few scenes. Can’t you just get rolling on the plot, and trust your readers to bond with your characters a few steps down the road?

To explore this, let’s look at The Umbrella Academy, as adapted for Netflix. The first ten minutes of the show serve to introduce the premise (eccentric billionaire adopts and raises kids with super powers) and the five surviving members of the Umbrella Academy: Vanya, Diego, Luther, Allison, and Klaus. Most of these introductions serve up a spreadsheet that looks like this:

Rather than give these characters voices, or actions to perform, the writers chose to go for a combination of Visual Interest + Evocative Music for most of the introductions. It’s not boring, but it doesn’t do much to help us understand the characters. The one exception is Klaus.

On paper, he’d seem like the least interesting of the Academy members—he’s not a movie star, an astronaut, or a vigilante. He’s a druggie in rehab. But he’s the only one who is active, establishes his voice early, and displays an internal contradiction.

Of these five characters, Klaus remained my favorite throughout the season. Is this because of the good introduction? Or is it the other way around— maybe he has a good introduction because he’s an interesting character, and gave the writers more to work with?

Either way, I think pushing yourself for that killer intro is important, every time. Maybe it brings your awesome character work forward and begins the bonding process between reader and character. Or maybe it pushes you to discover or invent greater problems and internal contradictions for your characters.

If the writers of this episode had pushed themselves, they might have written brief intros that capitalized on these internal contradictions:

I enjoyed the heck out of this show. But intros like these, I would have loved to see.

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The Character Introduction Project

What makes a good character introduction? To me the keys are: 1) you want to give your reader some notion of who the character is, even if that notion isn’t yet quite accurate and complete. And, 2) you want to evoke some sort of emotional reaction.

Inspired by Matt Bird’s whip-smart blog, Secrets of Story, and its downright lovely Ultimate Story Checklist, I’ve put together a checklist of elements that help a character introduction to hit on all cylinders. Let’s see how it works by examining three of the first characters introduced in everyone’s favorite series: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. 

First, let me explain the questions I’ve chosen to examine for each character introduction:

Is the character active?

By active, I mean not physically active, but decisively active. The character has a goal in mind, even if it’s a small one, and is pursuing it.

Does the action imply something about the character that is important and true?

Being active is good, but being active in a way that is endemic to the character is much better.

Do we have an emotional reaction?

Anything counts here, from sympathy to contempt to laughter.

Does the character have a moment of nobility/moment of humanity?

A moment of nobility is something that makes us admire the character; a moment of humanity is something that causes us to identify with them, to recognize them as a fellow human being. I first encountered this term on Matt Bird’s blog, and I think it’s a really useful thing to keep in mind when introducing your characters.

Is the character’s voice established?

This can be a set of slang they habitually trot out, a level of diction they use, or even just a general attitude toward other characters they address.

Does the character display an intriguing internal contrast?

A tough one to hit, but gold if you can manage it.

Is the introduction visually interesting?

I really struggled with whether to include this question, because the answer, especially in books, is quite frequently “no.” Nevertheless, I think it’s worth consideration, because a visually interesting element really pumps up a character intro and makes it memorable. I think nothing makes this clearer than the Harry Potter intros, which nearly always give you something cool to “look” at. 

Now, let’s dive into some Harry Potter. Hagrid, McGonagall, and Dumbledore are all introduced in the same scene, and they all come away deeply interesting and memorable. I’m going by the book version. The movie version is highly similar, but some of the details that made Dumbledore’s intro shine in the book are lost in the movie (ably compensated for by actor Richard Harris’ charismatic presence).

I feel like those checkmarks speak for themselves, and so does the history of the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore and Hagrid were instantly, and eternally beloved by readers. And who can be surprised? Both were built on the bedrock of a dynamite intro.

McGonagall probably has the weakest introduction (she’s mainly here to give Dumbledore someone to talk to until Hagrid shows up). Still, it’s solid, and the character charmed plenty of fans.

Posted in Character, Character Introduction Project | 2 Comments

Go Ahead and Scrub my Mouth Out

The recent release of a new app, CleanReader, has created quite a stir in the indie writing community. The app replaces any profanity in a book with euphemisms, offering a choice between Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean settings.

Many writers are upset, complaining that their work is being censored and diminished. Try as I might, I can’t understand the consternation. Like any other writer, I give a lot of thought to the words I use, especially when I put profanity in my characters’ mouths. If it’s there, I put it there deliberately, to create a certain effect. So why am I not steamed that a piece of free software may go in and chop it right out?

Because it’s nothing new. Writers have never been able to control how readers encounter their books. You can’t keep them from reading the last chapter first. You can’t keep them from reading the whole thing in five-minute chunks while distracted by the TV. You can’t keep them from skimming your battle scenes, or mispronouncing your character names, or deciding that your ending sucks and the one they have in mind is what happened instead.

And you certainly can’t control the lifetime of experience they bring to your work, which will inform and distort how they perceive it.

Given all this, is it really that big a deal that you also can’t make them read fuck?

Perhaps the problem is that many a writer sees himself as the director of a movie when in fact he’s really the producer of a script. You hand that script over to the reader, and she performs it, in her own mind. And like any performer, she is apt and even entitled to make alterations as they suit her.

In fact, it is almost inevitable that she will.

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Technician’s Life: Maternity Leave

See this gorgeous face? It is two and a half months old. Which means it’s about time for me to wrap up the maternity leave I’ve so generously granted myself, and return to writing.


Getting back in the groove after a long hiatus is always a painful thing for me, fraught with stomach-churning anxiety, Herculean feats of procrastination, and bouts of real depression. A friend of mine recently posted this image on Facebook:


and I don’t know whether it makes me want to laugh or cry. I only know that it’s the truth. There is rarely a moment when I don’t feel anxious about the writing that needs to get done, or guilty about the fact that I’m not doing it.

So what if I just gave it all up? What if I raised my babies and took care of my home, and at the end of a long day, I knew that there was nothing else that required doing? Instead of stressing out about writing, I could spend the last hours of the day pursuing my hobbies, or maybe just kicking back for a couple of guilt-free hours in front of the TV?

Honestly? It’s a fantasy I return to from time to time. It sounds like a really nice life.

It just wouldn’t be my life.


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Wool, by Hugh Howey
Publication: Self –> Hybrid
Genre: Dystopian Sci Fi
Verdict: Yes

If you keep abreast of the news in self-publishing (or possibly even if you don’t), you don’t need me to tell you that Hugh Howey’s Wool is selling. It’s the Next Big Thing, the latest book that proves that self-publishers can in fact find an audience, excite them, and make a zillion dollars. It is also a really compelling piece of dystopian science fiction, and as your local Technician, I set out to analyze why.

Wool starts out with the promising premise,

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death…

and goes on to tell us all about Holston, and the life of desperate misery he’s been living for the last three years, ever since his wife left the underground silo in which their entire society lives to clean the lenses of the cameras that provide them their only view of the bleak, dangerously toxic world outside. People don’t come back from cleaning, so sending someone out to clean is the method of execution. And as the silo’s sheriff, Holston had to help do it to his wife.

But he’s now determined to join her, to find out for himself what actually exists beyond the silo’s walls. Could his wife still be alive? Holston, in his grief, seems to simultaneously believe she is, and isn’t. Why was she so determined to leave the silo? And why do the exiled people clean the lenses anyway? Why don’t they just sit down on a rock and wait for death, to spite the society that sent them to their doom?

Before the end of the sample, Holston will have the surprising and horrifying answers to all these questions. And that is what makes the sample of Wool such a compelling selling tool: it tells a complete story. It is a sample in the purest sense: it tells you what this writer can deliver as a storyteller, not just at the beginning of a tale, but at the end.

This is a tactic frequently employed by self-publishing authors, though usually in a slightly different form: release an abbreviated version of your book, or a short story based on your characters, for free. Use that to sell your larger work. It’s a good tactic, and what makes it even more effective here is two things:

1. It leads seamlessly into the larger novel, and
2. It not only answers questions, it raises others.

In the final pages of his story, Holston will learn of a terrible lie that has shaped life in the silo. It will bring his tale to a satisfying end, but it will leave us readers with a couple of important questions to answer: Why perpetrated this lie? And why?

This, I think, is the best way to use a short story as a selling tool, whether you’re releasing it as a standalone story or as the initial pages of your book. Let some balls come to rest, but leave others in the air. Satisfy and perturb. Tell us that you know how to end a story. But whatever you do, don’t end it completely.

Posted in Dystopian, Hybrid Publishing, Reviews, Sci Fi, Self-Publishing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Technician’s Thoughts: No, Knitting is My Hobby

Since we moved to Seattle, I have been fortunate to make many friends who, like myself, are stay-at-home moms. They are wonderful. They are sweet and caring, and generous with their time. They are, on many days, the linchpin of my sanity.

But they don’t understand what I’m doing here.

As a writer, I mean. By and large, I’ve found that my mommy friends just don’t get what writing means to me. Some of them have referred to my writing as “something for you” and “a really great hobby.” I say this without rancor, really without even irritation, but just with a sense of quiet surprise. Because writing fiction is not, and never can be, a hobby for me. It is my Real Work, just as it was when I worked at a newspaper, just as it was when I worked in the game industry. It is the thing I’m meant to do.

(So, does that mean that motherhood has become my new day job? Well, no, not really. Motherhood is my real work, too. I’ve got two real jobs, and though there are times when the writing must get short shrift, I am trying to make them both work.)

I was thinking, when I began this post, that this was sort of a Mommy Issue, that once you have kids, people start to think of your work as more of a pastime than a vocation. But as I look back, I realize that this is how people have always thought about my work. It seems to me that this is less of a Mommy Issue than an Artist Issue. Specifically, an Unpaid Artist Issue.

If you work at a bank, and your family comes into town for a visit, no one expects you to take a vacation day. If you work at home, for no pay? They pretty much do. And the fact that this expectation is there makes it easier for you to do it. After all, you  probably want to anyway, because who doesn’t like a day off work now and then?

And the same thing is true for all sorts of small social and familial obligations, like letting in the neighbor’s cleaning lady, or being the one to drive a yowling, incontinent cat halfway across town to the extra-special, inconveniently located and outrageously expensive kitty eye doctor. People assume you will do these things, because you are the one who is “not working.” And in some cases, you really should, because you are the one with flexible work hours, and it’s nice to help out people who don’t have that same luxury.

But in other cases, you should hold your ground. Treat your work with respect, and others will do the same.

Back in mid-2011, I started The Indie Book Podcast, a show that reviewed self-published books. After Story was born, I didn’t have the time, much less the quiet space, to keep recording—but for a while there it was something I was pursuing with gusto.

One day I was browsing around the Kindle boards, where self-publishing authors like to congregate, and saw someone mention that she had sent me a review copy, and she hoped I’d get around to it. I posted that I enjoyed the opening of her book, and was planning to review it. She then responded something to the effect of: “This is a lesson for all of us: always be really careful what you say online. I had no idea Jane would be stopping by this forum!”

This amazed me. I was just a girl who had bought a microphone. This other woman could have bought a microphone, too, assuming she had eighty bucks to spare. I wasn’t anybody special, not a Name, not a voice to be heeded.

Except I was. By starting the podcast, by promoting it and taking it seriously, I had begun treating my work with respect. And the moment I did, the entire world around me followed suit. Not one of the writers I contacted about interviews ever responded with anything less than enthusiastic courtesy. All I did was ask for respect, and respect appeared.

My point is that if you are a writer who thinks you do not have the authority to speak on your field, well—you’re right. But it’s not because you’re not published, or not traditionally published, or not making enough money.

It’s because you think the authority isn’t yours. But the moment you grab it, it is.

Writing this blog is, in some way, an act of faith. I’m betting that people will care what I have to say about plot and structure, not based on the strength of my career (which is minimal), but on the strength of—well, of me. Of me being here and telling you I have something to say.

So, the next time a friend refers to my writing as a hobby, I’ll kindly but clearly say, “Well, really, it’s my job.” That is likely all I’ll have to do.


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Exposition Done Right

The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge
Publication: Traditional
Genre: YA Steampunk
Verdict: Yes

Last week I blogged about a book with a disappointing lack of exposition, which prevented me from becoming truly engaged with it. This week I’m flipping the bit, and talking about a book that does a lot of exposition, and does it very well: The Iron Thorn, by Caitlin Kittredge.

Just from reading the back cover copy, you know that a big draw of The Iron Thorn is going to be its setting. That’s because it takes place in the city of Lovecraft. The city of Lovecraft! And as we move into the story, it’s clear that Kittredge has created a complex world, and has a lot of information to convey about it. This is tricky.

Because despite my assertion last week that readers are more interested in exposition than you may think they are, you still want to slip that exposition in smoothly. You want the information to come across as the character’s natural thoughts, not as the writer’s deliberate efforts. You don’t want to be seen standing behind the curtain.

That is very much what Kittredge manages, as in this passage, in which the narrator, Aoife, sits beside her mother, Nerissa, in a madhouse:

I picked up the mirror and ran my thumb over the backing. It was silver, and it had been pretty, once. When I was a child I’d played at being beautiful while my mother sat by the window of Our Lady of Rationality, the first madhouse in my memory, run by Rationalist nuns. Their silent black-clad forms fluttered like specters outside my mother’s cell while they prayed to the Master Builder, the epitome of human reason, for her recovery. All the medical science and logic in the world couldn’t cure my mother, but the nuns tried.

There’s a lot of information here: religion, for one, is not like we know it in our own world. The nuns in the city of Lovecraft don’t pray to God the way we understand him, but instead to a Master Builder. Reason, not kindness, is considered the ultimate virtue. And it’s all conveyed very naturally through Aoife’s point of view, focusing on the thing that is most important to her at this moment: her mother’s insanity.

After Aoife leaves her mother to return to her boarding school, we get a few more glimpses of Lovecraft:

Dunwich Lane ran under the feet of the Boundary Bridge, the iron marvel that Joseph Strauss had erected for the city some thirty years before…it was the model we practiced drawing schematics with, until we were judged competent to design our own. If you couldn’t recreate the Boundary Bridge, you had a visit with the Head of the School and a gentle suggestion that perhaps your future was not that of an engineer  There had been three other girls in the School until that exam. Now there was only me.

Again, while we’re learning about the world, we’re also learning about Aoife’s relationship with it. From this paragraph, we know that she’s isolated in her school, and perhaps more talented or tenacious than the other female students. In nearly every expositional passage, Kittredge makes an effort to tie in Aoife’s interests and feelings.

I also think it’s worth noticing how much space is invested in these paragraphs. Each takes up about a third of a page, no small sum of words. And in the case of the Boundary Bridge, it’s not even critical information. In fact, this paragraph exists for nothing more than local color.

Does this mean the author would be better off cutting them, that we should go ahead and get to the chase, find out where this plot is taking us?

Not on your life. An intriguing plot is worth its weight in gold–but you cannot sacrifice readers’ interest in your character for their interest in your plot. Nor, when you’re writing a deeply setting-driven book like this, can you sacrifice reader interest in your setting.

So when Kittredge takes her time to paint a picture of Lovecraft with expositional brushstroke after brushstroke, it’s absolutely the right decision. Her investment in expositional text is large–but it’s one that pays off.

I’ll be reading The Iron Thorn. Even though I can’t seem to stop calling it The Iron Throne.

Posted in Dystopian, Steampunk, YA | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Technician’s Thoughts: I Only Buy Weird Chocolate Now

Spoilers For: A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

I recently finished reading A Trace of Smoke, a mystery by Rebecca Cantrell, in which the narrator, Hannah Vogel, faces a fascinating dilemma. Hannah’s brother has been murdered, and during the course of trying to find out whodunit, she uncovers a stash of love letters to her brother from Hitler’s best bud, Ernst Röhm. It’s 1931, Nazi power is on the rise, and now Hannah has the means to destroy one of the party’s most powerful members. The problem? She has to destroy him for the “crime” of loving her brother.

This is the classic “Do the ends justify the means?” dilemma, which I always find interesting, because I am not a hardliner on this old adage. I feel that sometimes the ends do justify the means, provided that the ends are necessary and the means bearable. So for me, each new combination of means and ends is, of course, different and interesting.

In this case, I think I could publish the letters for the purpose of bringing down Röhm. Or I could, at least, knowing what we know now about how history unfolded. But if I try to imagine myself in 1931, the question of what to do becomes a bit more murky. Picture yourself as a good German citizen in 1931. You’re appalled by the Nazi ideology and methods, but you don’t really have any idea yet of how bad things are going to get. Even if someone told you, you might not really believe it. Surely your country is going to walk itself back from this precipice. Surely you don’t have to betray your dead brother to make that happen.

And there’s another question to consider, which is that you are mucking about with a degree of power you really can’t control. If you try to take on Ernst Röhm, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe you bring him down, and the man who replaces him is even worse. Maybe you create a situation that becomes the catalyst for the Nazis to grab even more power. Maybe you bring a lot of notoriety upon other gays in Germany, and some of them wind up dead.

It would be tempting, considering these possibilities, to just walk away from the power you’ve accidentally acquired. To say to yourself, “I don’t have the wisdom to choose the right course. I can’t choose at all.” But that’s a false choice. Choosing not to choose is really just choosing not to act, and denying that you’re responsible for that choice. The power to choose is the responsibility to choose.

In a small way, the chocolate is like this. I recently learned that a significant chunk of the world’s chocolate is produced by slave labor—specifically, the slave labor of children. I learned this by reading Refuse To Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery, by Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim. I had two fears when I began to read this book. The first was that it would tell me I had to stop buying something I rather like to buy (Fear realized!) And the second was that it would prompt me to take action that might end up hurting the people I intend to help.

Back in the nineties, Americans got very interested in the plight of children working in sweatshops in Southeast Asia. It began to be a big part of the public conversation, and many of us began to boycott companies, like Nike, that had significant amounts of their goods produced in sweatshops. We used our consumer power, and we made a difference. The sweatshops began closing.

And the rate of child prostitution in Southeast Asia soared.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that removing crappy jobs from an economy without replacing them with anything might lead people to seek even more desperate ways of keeping their families fed. But, that’s hindsight for you. It does not seem completely obvious to me what a widespread boycott of chocolate produced by child slaves might do. I know it would make those cocoa farmers poorer, and more desperate. I don’t know what the price of that desperation might be, but I’ll bet there will be one. And I don’t know who will wind up paying it.

The fact is, I don’t have the foresight to make this decision perfectly. But, the power to choose is the responsibility to choose.

So, for now I am buying only Fair Trade chocolate, or chocolate sourced from South America, where child slavery on cocoa farms is not a problem. In particular, I will be supporting Fair Trade products from major chocolate producers, like Hershey’s Bliss line and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars. These companies buy a ton of cocoa, and so what they do has the power to really impact the supply line. And I want to do what I can to show them the way I, as a consumer, would like them to behave.

Part of me feels like this is the easy choice, the one that makes me look, and feel, like a good person. But I have to accept that, although I lack the wisdom to see all the possible consequences of my actions, I still am responsible for making the best choice I can.

I do recommend A Trace of Smoke, although, sadly, I feel the author kind of punted on this oh-so-interesting dilemma. I still don’t know what Hannah Vogel would have done, if she had really forced herself to make the choice between dishonoring her brother’s lifestyle or letting a powerful Nazi continue to flourish. Note to authors: when your character is facing a difficult choice, never, never let them off the hook. After all, we seldom get to do that with ourselves.

Posted in My Life, Mystery | Tagged , | 3 Comments


Front Page Fatality by LynDee Walker
Publication: Self
Genre: Mystery
Verdict: No

I read a lot of genres, but probably my sentimental favorite is the cozy, i.e., the amateur sleuth mystery. These tend to feature female protagonists, cute pictures on the cover, and puns in the titles–and they also tend be filled with almost an equal amount of mystery and romance.

They are my thing.

So I was ready and eager to dive into Front Page Fatality by LynDee Walker. It’s about Nichelle Clarke, a crime reporter who, you guessed it, will wind up solving a mystery. But just as I was preparing to settle in for a fun read, I realized that the author was more interested in rushing me along.

Facts were coming fast and furious, with little time to absorb them. Consider the following passage, after Nichelle has walked into her editor’s office:

“I’ve got another dead drug dealer on Southside. They just found him this morning.” My words dissolved his annoyed expression to one of interest, his perpetual aggravation with my last-minute arrivals for the morning staff meeting forgotten at the mention of a homicide.

From this, we’re meant to understand that Nichelle has just walked into the staff meeting, late once again, and that the editor’s office is in fact full of people. But we’re never actually told that, and we’re given no details that might help set the scene, no, “The chief copy editor had taken up her usual position by the coffee machine,” or “The sports columnist grinned at me and pointed to his watch.”

But what’s worse is that we’re given no interiority, no notion of what’s going on in Nichelle’s head. Does she feels embarrassed for arriving late, or perhaps nervous about potential consequences? Is she relieved to have redirected her boss’s attention to her story, or does she consider him a big pussycat whose bark is worse than his bite? I don’t know. The writer has given me no clue.

And I sympathize. I often feel, while writing the opening pages of a book, that I need to keep moving. Make stuff happen. Get this plot in gear. Don’t pause, don’t even slow down, or the reader will lose interest!

Right? Wrong. Too little exposition saps reader interest far more reliably than too much.

The thing you should be asking yourself when you’re writing exposition—by which I mean all the little bits of text where action doesn’t occur, but information is conveyed—is not whether it’s too long, but whether it’s interesting.

And don’t be too hard on yourself when determining where the bar for “interesting” lies. The lines I penned about where the copy editor was sitting, and the sports columnist taunting Nichelle—these are pretty mundane details, but I think they are interesting. They help to draw Nichelle’s world. Whether your book’s about a crime reporter or a refrigerator repairman, you have to assume that if a reader picked it up, she’s willing to be interested in that character’s world.  But she can only sustain that interest if you give her something to hang it on.

But regardless of how much scene-setting you do, the one place you must show us is the inside of your character’s heart. Let’s look at another passage:

Political jokes fired faster than a drunken celebutante’s antics circle the blogosphere, and I chuckled at the warring punch lines as my eyes skipped between the faces of my colleagues—my family in Richmond, really. They adopted me the second I’d stepped into the newsroom without a friend in a six-hundred-mile radius, the ink still wet on my degree from Syracuse.

This is the good stuff. Knowing how Nichelle feels about her colleagues makes everything sharper, realer, more involving. I do dearly wish this paragraph was expanded to about twice its length, that we got a look at a maternal copy editor, or a political reporter who Nichelle considers a sort of big brother. I could even go for a few pages of anecdote showing young Nichelle being folded into the witty, competitive, but ultimately loving bosom of her newsroom family.

In short, I want more.

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