Craft Essay: How I Learned to Stop Worrying (As Much) and Love Exposition
BY HOLLY GODDARD JONES
I’ll begin, as I so often do in stories and in life, with a series of digressions. For the first, I’ll take you back a few days before the time of this writing, to a conference I was holding with Angela, one of my MFA students. We met at a coffee shop to discuss the newest pages she’d written on her novel, and when I arrived, Angela had already purchased her coffee and a pastry, which she recommended—“It’s like a fancy pop tart,” she said. I left her sitting at a table outside the café, went in, and perused the case of desserts. The options were extensive, and overwhelming, and I ultimately chose the fancy pop tart, but not before I looked a few times, longingly, at a hamburger-sized cinnamon bun with an inch of buttercream on top of it.
Back outside, I joked with Angela about the cinnamon bun. “I know I’m not supposed to admit this,” I said, “but I love frosting. I really sort of wanted to get that cinnamon bun.”
“Oh, I love frosting, too,” she said, and we made those funny, self-deprecating noises that women often make when we’re talking about food—when we’re trying to reconcile a lifetime of cultural baggage about the shame of our imperfect bodies with the more recent cultural conversation around body positivity.
That done, Angela and I started talking about her new novel chapter, which picked up perhaps 75 pages into the draft and introduced the reader to the first major switch in point-of-view characters. That chapter began, as this essay does, with a memory: the day the point-of-view character sold her childhood home. Then, the character ruminated her way back to the present moment, as I’ll soon do, connecting the incident from her past to the latest episode in the 75 pages of story that the reader had experienced so far. I used that word, ruminative, to describe the chapter to Angela, and I said there was nothing wrong with rumination, but suggested that she might want to transpose the chapter’s order: begin in the contemporary moment, then pivot to backstory, so the reader knows what goal they’re reading toward. “I’m actually working on an essay right now about exposition,” I told Angela, “and one of the points I’m trying to make is that exposition can be tense and interesting and page-turning, but a lot of how you pull it off is in where you place it and what you attach it to.”
“I love exposition so much,” Angela said apologetically.
“So do I,” I said, with the same level of self-conscious over-enthusiasm I’d use to defend, say, my lingering teenage affection for U2. You can probably see the connection I’m about to make without me making it for you, but I’ll do it anyway: when the conversational topics drifted to fatty desserts or to using exposition, my student and I both, instinctively, succumbed to the same apologetic tones of voice, the same ashamed postures. We were making a confession: I like this thing I’m not supposed to like. And I like it for the very reason a virtuous person does not: because it’s excessive, because it’s indulgent.
OK, a second digression, this time reaching back to my own graduate school days, when two things were happening for me: I was learning to write, and I was learning to run. Or, rather, I was relearning those things, abandoning my instincts and reaching for proven methodology.
I was 24, and it was the summer before my third and last year in my own MFA program. What I can tell you about my relationship to my body at that time was that it—my body—was a near-constant dismay to me, and the fact that I had never successfully adopted an exercise routine or sporty hobby—that gyms and athletic hobbies were part of a rarified world that I couldn’t access, I intuited, due to my poor genes, bad habits, and my class status—seemed further proof of my failure. And this next thing is going to be hard to explain, though I imagine some readers will instantly get it: my imperfect body also seemed to me a visible proof of my imperfect intellect and insufficient talents. The conversations around writing in those days (and often still in these days) sounded a lot like the conversations around exercise and dieting. The most serious among us at least performed self-loathing and masochism. We bragged about how little sleep we’d gotten. We wrote in marathons, in sprints; we metabolized a diet of high-quality literary fiction, obsessed over habits, demanded each of our visiting writers to come up with a new metaphor to explain to us, again, that writerly success is one part talent and nine parts butt-in-seat determination.
Outside of workshop, I had begun to lace on a cheap pair of Nikes, walk from my apartment to a nearby track, where nobody knew me, and haul my body around in miserable circles. I would jog the steaming fresh black asphalt until I could barely breathe, and an ice pick seemed to be lodged in my chest, then walk long enough to catch my breath and ease the pressure of the ice pick, then jog again. What I remember about those days was the low and punishing sun angling across a retention pond and the occasional auspicious visitation of a slender crane or egret—a glimpse of wonder in the middle of Ohio flatland. Across the weeks, weight began falling off me. In short order, my body started to change, and my face became more angular—and people complimented me, congratulated me. I gave a reading along with a clutch of other students in the basement of a downtown ale house, and a visiting graduate of the MFA program whom I’d not seen in a couple of years stared at me marvelingly. “You look great,” she told me. “Wow, I didn’t even recognize you.”
“Thank you,” I told her, and boy-howdy, I meant it.
Along this same trajectory, it felt like something was starting to happen with my fiction writing. A mentor once told me that a writer’s improvement was rarely a steady incline; instead, for most of us, it would come as a series of plateaus with sudden and mysterious elevation changes between them. And so it was with me. I suddenly knew things I hadn’t known before. I began to publish stories. That fall, with my new, reduced figure, I went to Banana Republic to buy a pinstripe suit for my first MLA interview. I’m reminded of this line from Andre Dubus’s “The Fat Girl,” a story I read in graduate school, and loved, somehow without seeing myself in it: “By slimming her body she had bought into the pleasures of the nation.”
It might appear that I’m setting up a certain kind of provocative claim here—that my weight loss made people take my writing more seriously—or that, less provocatively, I’m arguing that my weight loss made me take myself more seriously. Both of those things were perhaps at work in some measure, but here’s the point I’m actually reaching for: in those heady days of my early 20s, when I was coming into my craft and, it had seemed, sloughing off my excess self to reveal the “true” me, a toxic set of associations formed between how I viewed my writing—what I was allowed, what I could get away with, what should cause me shame—and how I viewed my body. Just as I started to tell myself that I could drink the two martinis and enjoy the huge bowl of pasta so long as I ran for an hour, I came to view story structure as a series of negotiations between what I could get away with and the price I had to pay to get it. These negotiations generally took the form of meetings with my thesis advisor, a silver-haired, darkly tanned man who spent Sundays on the golf course and once, in my pre-running days, suggested to me that I might benefit from taking the stairs in our classroom building rather than using the elevator.
Even several years after his death, that professor occupies a corner of my brain, a corner where he paces, cigarette burning between his thick fingers—this corner looks a lot like the cement pad outside the MFA office wing of my graduate program’s classroom building—and occasionally offers judgments or encouragements or cryptic directives. I continue to miss him, to resent him, to rebel against his precepts in a way that only proves the power of those precepts. Claire Vaye Watkins, another Ohio State grad, wrote in her 2015 essay “On Pandering” about both this professor and the broader societal idea of him, and I encourage you to seek that essay out if you somehow missed it, but my interest here is a bit more granular. While Watkins wrote well and rightly about her history of creating stories to please this teacher and the white male gaze, I’m going to try to unpack his influence on how I came, early on, to think about exposition and acceptable story structure. In doing this, I’m not suggesting that my professor was unique or uniquely problematic in his take on these things; in fact, what made him such a powerful figure in the classroom and an appealing mentor to the hungry and ambitious young woman that I was, is that he took the abstract, prevailing attitudes already ubiquitous in American literature and made them visible, understandable, and actionable. Where another professor might say, vaguely, “There’s something off about the pacing here,” this teacher would instruct a student to rip off the first two pages of their story, wad them into a ball, and pitch the ball into a trashcan. God, how we loved it when he did that stuff. He had a reputation for harshness, which a moment like that was supposed to exemplify, but what is kinder and more inclusive to a self-doubting young writer than plainspoken directions to success? My professor didn’t equivocate. He told you how you were wrong, and he told you how to fix it.
In a course called “Forms of the Short Story,” my professor directed the class’s reading of three recent volumes of Best American Short Stories, and one of the topics that came up frequently in our discussions was what he called the “Page-Two Move.” The Page-Two Move was ultimately a spin on the classic framed story, characterized by the professor like this: the story opens in medias res, usually right in scene, and establishes a problem—for example, an elderly woman and her three adult children are crammed into a windowless room where a brass safe deposit box has been laid out on a table. With shaking hands, the mother turns the key in the lock and folds the box’s lid open. There’s a clutch of papers bound by a rubber band, and she unbinds the papers, smooths them open, pulls down her reading glasses. “Well, how about it?” her oldest son asks. “What do they say?”
Boom. White space. And the next section picks up with a line like, “It wasn’t until six months ago that the family had discovered the full extent of their father’s secret-keeping, and by then he was installed in a nursing home and no longer able to remember his own age, much less account for the choices of his younger self.” From there, the reader learns about the Wilhelm family, the children’s difficult upbringing, the father’s affairs, the first clues that he had been hiding a second life from them, and his death. After this swath of exposition, the reader is deposited back at the scene in the bank, where the Wilhelms are going to learn the contents of their father’s will and then have to reckon with the fallout.
My professor didn’t like the Page-Two Move. I don’t remember the nuances for his reasoning behind this dislike, and I’m not entirely sure he ever communicated those nuances, but the implication was that it was a formulaic trick, contrived and obvious, and a story would do much better beginning as close to the climax as possible and then just weaving in necessary backstory as required to make the conflict sensible. And though I didn’t fully understand his distaste for the Page-Two Move, I was grateful to have a practical directive to enact, one that was within my powers, one that prepared me, when I entered his workshop the following spring, to write stories that stood a chance of pleasing him.
The flipside to my professor’s clarity and decisiveness was, of course, a certain amount of rigidity. By my third year of graduate school, my desire to earn his praise was in clear conflict with the pleasure I took in writing sweeping expository story openings and psychology-rich digressions. And, as I came eventually to realize, my professor’s advice about structure was sometimes even in conflict with itself. This realization hit me one afternoon in his office as we discussed a draft I’d been diligently revising of the story that would eventually conclude my first collection. The story, “Proof of God,” was about the rape and murder of a college student, told through the perspective of one of the two young men who committed the crime. The original draft began with the protagonist’s memories of childhood, how he was parented, his difficult high school years and the way his peers tormented him for his sexuality. It was a long story, probably close to 30 pages, and it dropped no hints about its eventual, grisly subject matter until perhaps a third of the way in, when the night of the crime begins to be dramatized.
In his office that day, my professor was laying out this for me—the problem of the story not signaling early on that it will make this turn to violence, that I was burying the lede—and I was resisting him. “But doesn’t that take some of the pleasure out of a story?” I asked him. “Giving it all away right at the beginning?”
“Grab that book off the shelf for me,” he said, pointing. “The Didion.”
I pulled it out and tried to hand it to him. “No,” he said. “Read the first page to me.”
It was Joan Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer. I read aloud the first page, which included these paragraphs:
Here is what happened: she left one man, she left a second man, she traveled again with the first; she let him die alone. She lost one child to “history” and another to “complications” (I offer in each instance the evaluation of others), she imagined herself capable of shedding that baggage and came to Boca Grande, a tourist. Una turista. So she said. In fact she came here less a tourist than a sojourner but she did not make that distinction.
She made not enough distinctions.
She dreamed her life.
She died, hopeful. In summary. So you know the story. Of course the story had extenuating circumstances, weather, cracked sidewalks and paregorina, but only for the living.
“You see,” he told me. “She lays out the whole story right in the beginning.”
“OK,” I said. “I’m not saying you can’t do it. But why do you always have to do it?”
My recollection at this point was that my professor started being annoyed with me, or perhaps that was just my insecure take, because I was terribly worried about letting him down. What I do know is that I submitted a next draft of the story to him that opened with a give-it-all-away opening line, something like, “Two years before the rape and murder, on the day Simon turned sixteen, his father gave him his old car: an ’88 Corvette, just four years off the showroom floor.” And I dropped a few little reminders in the sequence of exposition that followed, signposts to the reader that yes, they were wading through backstory, but scary, dark, and salacious stuff was coming. My professor liked this next draft enough to suggest I send it to the editor of The Georgia Review and use his name, which I promptly did. A few weeks later, the story was rejected, and the editor said something to the effect of, “The story telegraphed its climax too much; it didn’t hold any surprises.”
The lesson here isn’t that my professor was wrong and I was right, any more than it is that Didion was wrong to open A Book of Common Prayer by having her narrator lay out some of the story’s broad plot points. Ultimately, The Georgia Review’s editor was another middle-aged white man with his own deep shelf of accomplishments, assumptions, and preoccupations, and I was no more beholden to his vision than I was to my teacher’s. Pleasing my professor got me past the slush pile at The Georgia Review, but failing to please the editor kept me from appearing in their hallowed pages. This is life as a writer: satisfying some, disappointing others, and you’re lucky if the split is about 50/50. The hope, when all is said and done, is that you’ve at least managed to please yourself, and that’s the rub here: I hadn’t.
“Proof of God,” as I’ve said, was a story about two young men who participate in a terrible crime, but my original impulse had been to begin Simon’s story not, as prevailing wisdom tells us, as close to the story’s climax as possible, but years earlier, on his sixteenth birthday. What happens then—the gift of his father’s car and the subsequent vandalism of the car with homophobic epithets—was not obviously part of the plot. It’s not something that would be put in the narrative presented at Simon’s trial if he were later prosecuted for the crime. But to me, there was a clear causal line between the gift of the car and its vandalism, or at least what those events represented, and Simon’s participation in the crime. What’s more, as I’d drafted the story, my desire had been to introduce the reader to Simon as an innocent, an abused teenager deserving of empathy, and not as the murderer he would eventually become. My revisions, as guided by my professor, caused me to foreground Simon’s guilt in a way that had actually been antithetical to my vision, proof that Simon’s fate was preordained rather than tragically avoidable, but I didn’t have the language then to explain myself to my professor—or perhaps I just didn’t have the courage.
I’ll reiterate here: my professor was not the originator of anti-exposition sentiment in the creative writing workshop. He had some firm ideas about how structure can be managed, but these ideas were meant to troubleshoot a broader set of grievances against what I’m calling exposition but, for the purposes of this essay, could also be called, or include:
- The “once upon a time”
Already, you’ll see, I’m straining the definition of exposition. When writers talk about exposition as a part of story structure, what we’re usually referring to is anything that chronologically precedes the appearance of a central conflict, whether that material is front-loaded, the way it is in fairy tales, or woven into the story later on. That phrase, “woven in,” is ubiquitous in feedback to writers, but let’s put a pin in that for now. In his book The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, Frank O’Connor writes:
There are three necessary elements in story—exposition, development, and drama. Exposition we may illustrate as “John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X”; development as “one day Mrs. Fortescue told him she was going to leave him for another man”; and drama as “You will do nothing of the kind,” he said.
If you look beyond craft texts to the broader dictionary definitions of exposition, I think it’s easier to see why exposition has such a dubious reputation as a craft device. The Cambridge dictionary calls it “a clear and full explanation of an idea or theory,” and Webster’s calls it “a setting forth of the meaning or purpose (as of a writing).” One doesn’t have to leap far from these definitions to the old “show, don’t tell” axiom. If exposition is basically explanation, it must be one of the clumsier tools in our writer’s toolbox—a way to circumvent the hard work of dramatization.
Another criticism directed against exposition essentially boils down to, “It’s boring,” and I think that’s ultimately what my professor was getting at; he did not enjoy having a story’s momentum interrupted. That’s why he hated the Page-Two Move, and that’s why he wanted me to give away my story’s secret before I had narrated my way to that secret. In this configuration, exposition is like that 20-minute training talk you have to watch before you get to drive the dune buggy or clip on at the ropes course. It’s information you need to know, yeah-yeah-yeah, but also, can’t we just get to the fun stuff?
I’d counter these criticisms with the following: I have frequently enjoyed lengthy expository passages that tell rather than show, and I’ve considered those passages fully immersive, even exciting. And to the latter point, this isn’t some sign of my readerly sophistication. Anyone who has read Stephen King, one of the most popular American writers of all time, knows that man loves a run of backstory or a descriptive digression, and that hasn’t once hurt his rank on the bestsellers’ lists. If one of the most successful suspense writers in the game is doing it, then we should acknowledge, if nothing else, that exposition can be a page-turner, and perhaps even to a crassly commercial extent.
Consider this argument I’m laying out right now. I warned you that I’d begin in digressions, and I delivered on that promise. Another version of this essay might have summoned the spirit of Freshman Composition and begun about a page ago with Webster’s definition of exposition. Instead, I walked you past a coffee shop dessert case and to the track where I started a self-punishing running regimen back when I was an MFA student. I told you about my body-image issues, and then I told you about my thesis director and his distaste for a thing called the Page-Two Move. In the way I shaped the beginning of this essay, I tried to imitate for you some level of my own thinking process: a stylized level several ticks above stream of consciousness but not so conventionally structured and argumentative as, say, five-paragraph form. I did this, and I do this more generally, because I’m convinced—as both a fiction writer and occasional essayist—that the way I’m built to tell stories, which is different but not better or worse than the way other people are built to tell stories, is intuitive, both in fact and in imitative structure, and the branching flow of ideas, the backtracking and redirections, are sometimes part of how I make meaning. And sometimes it’s not—it depends on the material. If this essay had been about conflict, I’m sure I’d have been inclined toward a quicker, punchier, more direct opening gambit. So it is, too, with fiction and narrative nonfiction. Sometimes, depending on what you’re going for, the Joan Didionesque, “Here is what happened” approach will be the right one. But for those seeking permission to occasionally meander, throat-clear, or artfully tell, my message is this: It’s often done well, we can talk about specific strategies for doing it well, and you need not hang your head in shame or apologize for loving exposition.
One of the reasons I’ve thought so much about the connection between conversations about exposition and conversations about body image is that it has occurred to me that exposition is treated in stories like the full soft belly or the dimpled upper arms, the flat chest, the wide hips, the knobby knees or improper waist-to-leg length ratio. Exposition-rich stories are asked to go on a diet—and if losing the exposition isn’t possible, the next best option—the one my professor was steering me toward when he suggested I tip the reader off early to my short story’s eventual murder plot—is to dress the story flatteringly so as to hide the exposition, girdling it and putting it in vertical stripes and accentuating its nice legs with high heels. To gleefully mix my metaphors, this is where the aforementioned suggestion to “weave in” exposition often comes into play. Weaving in exposition, or distributing it throughout the story in smaller parcels, can be a smart move, but I’ve also found with my MFA students that it can encourage a kind of prefab story structuring—that the strategy of hiding exposition puts so much emphasis on scene-showing that some of the scenes aren’t necessarily doing good dramatic work.
I want to build toward explaining this scenario with a progression of terms. First, for our purposes, I’ll define a basic prose scene as a portion of a narrative that attempts to approximate the flow of real time. It’s the quintessential act of showing—a character is doing something, saying something, carrying out a process or holding a conversation. Dialogue isn’t a requirement, but it’s often a feature. Janet Burroway says in Writing Fiction that scenes are the bricks that make up a building, and summary is the mortar. At the risk of really getting into the weeds here, a scene can function in an expository way, which I’ll soon go into more detail about, just as summary can be narrative, moving the reader more quickly through time and connecting critical dramatic moments. Burroway also argues that, while one can tell a story entirely in scene, you can’t tell a story entirely in summary, and I think there are notable exceptions to that rule, especially looking at shorter shorts, but it holds well enough as a general principle.
So, to break things down in perhaps a stupidly basic way, here’s a little diagram:
In the category of Normality are things that are true for the characters before conflict is introduced. This is, of course, the characters’ normality, their status quo, and not a comment on whether their circumstances are normal by some nonexistent objective measure. Ronald’s normal state of being could be devastating alcoholic dysfunction, for instance, but his story doesn’t begin until his estranged daughter, Sharla, shows up on his doorstep, broke and in crisis, with her girlfriend. That arrival, the conflict, would challenge Ronald’s status quo and launch the story’s causal sequence of events.
As I said before, the stuff before the conflict can be summary or scene, and we often refer to the scenes as flashback and to the pre-conflict summary as exposition or backstory. What follows the conflict I’ll call the plot, which is usually told in a combination of scenes and connective narration.
Now, beyond a scene’s relationship to the story’s timeline, I’ll make a further distinction between scene types. Roughly, scenes are causal, episodic, or illustrative. Though causal and episodic scenes can illustrate, purely illustrative scenes do not— as I’m defining them here—also serve a secondary function in furthering the story’s plot, and that’s where a writer occasionally has problems that good, unapologetically ruminative writing could perhaps fix.
A causal scene occupies a vital position in the plot chain, either dramatizing the conflict or a complication of the conflict. It is interdependent on other parts of the story. Take, for example, Elizabeth Strout’s story “A Different Road,” which appears in her Pulitzer Prize-winning linked collection, Olive Kitteridge. “A Different Road” is a framed story, narrated from a point in time past the highly dramatic narrative arc, but here’s the basic premise of that framed material: Olive and Henry, a retired couple, go to a nice out-of-town dinner with friends, and Olive indulges heavily on questionable seafood. This is part of the story’s expository set-up; the first dramatic moment occurs as Olive and Henry are driving home from dinner. Olive starts to experience some acute gastrointestinal upset, and she alerts Henry that she’s in dire need of a bathroom. They’re passing a hospital emergency room when she reaches the crisis point, so she tells Henry to pull over so she can go inside and find a toilet, which she does.
We have clear cause-and-effect here: Olive eats a big dinner while away from home, needs a toilet, and tells her husband to stop at the first public facility they pass that’s open at night. In the hospital, she gets directions from a nurse to the nearest bathroom, and the nurse expresses concern that Olive’s upset stomach could be a sign of some more serious medical issue, such as an allergic reaction. Over a subtly comedic conversation with this nurse, Olive is convinced to get checked out by a doctor, just in case, and as a consequence, the course of her night—and ultimately, the rest of her life—is changed. The emergency room is descended upon by a couple of desperate young men who take Olive, her husband, and a handful of other people hostage—a situation that will end without serious death or injury but permanently alter Olive and Henry’s relationship. The story’s title, “A Different Road,” is a clue about how carefully it builds its chain of dramatic causality, stacking up a series of “if-not-for” moments until a case of mild food poisoning turns into deep marital unrest. If not for Olive’s stomach problems, she wouldn’t have gone to the hospital. If not for the fact that she fell into conversation with a bored nurse, she wouldn’t have relented to being examined by a doctor. Because she was being examined by a doctor and wearing a small paper robe when the desperate young men came into the hospital with weapons, she was taken hostage in a way that heightened her shame and vulnerability—and if not for that shame and vulnerability, Olive wouldn’t have shown her husband her very worst self—the self that emerged when her sense of safety and dignity were taken away.
An episodic scene is one that happens not as a direct consequence of the previous scene but because of an outside structural imperative. The classic example of literary episodic structure is the picaresque, with the journeys of rascals such as Huck Finn, Don Quixote, and Tom Jones bringing them into contact with interesting characters who make for entertaining asides but who don’t permanently set the story’s narrative track off course. But episodic structures don’t have to be built around journeys; another example would be a story about a therapist meeting four different patients over a day’s work. In that example, too, the story is structured from the outside—by the therapist’s schedule—and what transpires in each of the sessions has its own internal momentum.
The final kind of scene I wish to discuss, which I’m defining as illustrative, basically serves an expository or purely tonal function. It’s a dramatized moment, but the drama serves some other function than advancing the plot; it’s a block that, if removed, will not send the tower of story tumbling down. Illustrative scenes can be useful and effective in a work of fiction or narrative nonfiction, but I’ve noticed in my students’ stories that the presence of illustrative scenes can be a symptom of some deeper uncertainty or insecurity.
Let’s try to make this idea more concrete with a specific example. Here’s a story about Tia, a new mother with postpartum depression, who has a crush on a younger coworker. This is the draft’s basic layout:
- Tia, up all night with the baby, is making a pot of coffee. Her husband comes downstairs, asks her breezily how she slept, and gets a cup of coffee from the pot before she can. He kisses her and goes to work.
- When he leaves, Tia sends a text message to Jay, a younger man at her office, telling him about the TV show she watched all night while the baby was fussy. He replies with humor and thoughtfulness. She shoots him an inside joke, and he sends her a picture of her office plant, which he says he has been carefully watering. She gets a zing of pleasure from this exchange.
- The baby awakens. Tia nurses it and feels the crushing weight of her love and attachment and loneliness. She texts the coworker again, and he replies again. He tells her to bring the baby by the office so everyone can meet it.
- Tia spends time, while the baby fusses, trying on outfits and fixing her hair and makeup for the first time since the birth. The story flashes back here to moments from Tia’s and Jay’s flirtations at the office. She lands specifically on the memory of Jay’s apparent shock and disappointment when she announced her pregnancy.
- Tia takes out her wedding album and examines the photographs, pondering how it is her life came to such a pretty pass. She texts her husband a picture of the baby. He replies with a thumbs-up emoji.
- Tia packs the baby into the office. She arrives in time to see Jay flirting with another coworker, a woman of about his own age. He is oblivious to her humiliation and pain. The story ends with him asking to hold the baby and telling her the baby looks just like her husband.
So this is my attempt at a kind of quintessential literary story of the kind I found myself trying to write as an eager young writer—my attempt at evoking the quiet gravity of something from Best American Short Stories circa 2003, when I was in graduate school. As I came up with this hypothetical story as a representation of a specific time in my writing and reading life, the emotion I most wanted to recreate was frustration—the frustration I often felt about plotting and pacing, how a story’s characters and situations were so clear to me but their trajectories toward a conclusion almost always, at some point, began to feel awkward and arbitrary—not urgent.
If you look over the list of major events in the hypothetical story about Tia, you’ll notice how heavily the story relies on illustrative scenes. Scene one, with the coffee making, is there to show that Tia is exhausted and her husband is oblivious. It delivers exposition but no news. The next scene, when Tia texts with her office mate, is a little spicier, but even then, there’s no indication that this is a new kind of interaction between Tia and Jay, so the purpose of the scene is, again, to show a reader some things about what has become Tia’s normality: escaping into flirtatious text exchanges with Jay.
We get to Scene Three—the baby nursing. This scene begins with more of the same: Tia’s crushing love for her child juxtaposed against her loneliness. She texts Jay, which again, seems to be part of an established pattern for her, and this time, Jay’s reply introduces a new development: he encourages her to bring the baby to the office. Finally, we’re cooking with gas, and the hair and make-up scenes also strike me as quietly rife with potential as well as an interesting moment to place the flashback, which seems to indicate—at least through Tia’s biased perspective—that news of the pregnancy had disappointed Jay, perhaps even interrupting a trajectory they were on toward full-blown adultery.
Next comes the most egregious of the hypothetical story’s illustrative scenes: when Tia—oddly—takes out her wedding album and contemplates her marriage. I am hard on this kind of scene because I have, so often, written this kind of scene, and always, in the writing, I knew that I was trying some street magician-scale distraction techniques, hoping the reader wouldn’t notice my attempt to build false tension toward the climax and distract from my story’s inherent lack of narrative urgency. I like better the moment when she texts her husband a picture of the baby, though his thumbs-up emoji reply is so absurdly awful that it’s practically insisting to the reader that she be granted a full pass for infidelity.
The moment at the office, when Tia’s expectations are disappointed, could also be good, but in this hypothetical story, its success is reliant on delicate, between-the-lines work that I can’t possibly imitate without actually drafting a version of this story for you. And a successful version of that draft would have to be built on a different scaffolding than the one I offer here, because the question I’d bring to that final disappointment is this: Is Tia let down by Jay because he was never more than a friend to her and she built this entire emotional affair up in her own head? Or has Jay more consciously let her down, and if so, what do I know about their relationship that would help me guess at his possible agendas?
You may be wondering at this point why I’m talking so much about scenes in an essay that’s supposed to be celebrating the pleasures of exposition, and here’s my point: When stories meander this way, we often attribute the problem to a dearth of ideas, but one possible root cause is our workshop-bred fear of utilizing well-written summary. I can imagine a version of this story about Tia that begins in a sweep of lyrical exposition that mounts tension carefully across perhaps two or three pages of tension-filled summary rather than “showing” the reader Tia’s established patterns in seven to ten pages of illustrative scenes. In fact—and this decision is as personal as any choice you make as a writer—if I were tasked with making this story into reality, I think that sweeping expository approach would better fit the subject matter. The weeks after the birth of my children were a stew of hormones and sleep deprivation, the highest heights of love and joy I’d ever experienced and also the deepest wells of sudden despair. An orderly narrative approach that emphasizes particular examples of exhaustion or breastfeeding or husbandly obliviousness doesn’t, to me, obviously capture the rhythms of that singularly strange and wonderful time in a life.
I mentioned before being reminded of Andre Dubus’s short story “The Fat Girl,” and I want to return to that story now. Dubus is one of my favorite writers and was, I will say with confidence, one of the great American masters of expository brilliance. Many of you here will have encountered “The Fat Girl” in a workshop or literature course, but for those of you who haven’t, it tells the story of Louise, the story’s titular “fat girl,” who disappoints her mother, her peers, and ultimately her husband by being unable, and then finally unwilling, to maintain the impossibly slim figure they believe she should have. If you’re able to find a copy of “The Fat Girl” and simply page through it, considering the superficial visual impact, its density is obvious. The story begins when Louise is 16, and a boy kisses her at a barbecue, but then it jumps into the very next paragraph back to when she was 9, then to high school. By the fourth page, Louise is at college. The reader meets Carrie, Louise’s roommate who will go on to become her dear friend. Three years pass. And finally, six pages deep, there is a flicker of a moment like scene. One Sunday night, Carrie—who has fallen in love and is worrying about what will happen to Louise after they graduate—asks Louise, “If I help you, really help you, will you go on a diet?”
If another writer had been audacious enough to linger in summary as long as Dubus has done so far, this is undoubtedly the place where a series of scenes would be strung together, hastening the story to its climax. But Andre Dubus was able to operate under a distinct set of rules from the rest of us, and what ensues, in fact, is another seven full pages of summary. Yes! Seven. You may not feel enticed. But consider this line that begins after Carrie’s offer to help Louise go on a diet, then a space break: “Louise entered a period of her life she would remember always, the way some people remember having endured poverty.” Maybe that line doesn’t automatically impress you as it does me. Maybe you need to see how Dubus packs his summary throughout “The Fat Girl” with sentences just as good as this one, an embarrassment of good and insightful sentences, sentences that move the reader efficiently and elegantly forward, letting us know both about the passage of time and some future, finite conclusion to the period of Louise’s life that includes her crash diet. And, too, there’s this comparison to how people think of poverty—a comparison that’s interestingly ironic because Louise’s weight is one of the ways she fails to live up to her family’s upper-class image, and it’s the thing that is keeping her from marriage and its attendant security.
Louise, with much sacrifice and suffering, loses the weight, and she is roundly celebrated by friends and family. She marries a colleague of her father’s, adopts a heavy smoking habit, and imitates her socialite mother’s ritual of cooking rich meals for her husband, snacking on the antipasto, and otherwise denying herself. She is able to maintain this fragile balance until she becomes pregnant, and it’s here that I want to pause and offer you another example of Dubus’s brilliant summary, a passage that follows quite well on that hypothetical story outline I showed you earlier.
Now her body was growing again, and when she put on a maternity dress for the first time she shivered with fear. Richard did not smoke and he asked her, in a voice just short of demand, to stop during her pregnancy. She did. She ate carrots and celery instead of smoking, and at cocktail parties she tried to eat nothing, but after her first drink she ate nuts and cheese and crackers and dips. Always at these parties Richard had talked with his friends and she had rarely spoken to him until they drove home. But now when he noticed her at the hors d’oeurves table he crossed the room and, smiling, led her back to his group. His smile and his hand on her arm told her he was doing his clumsy, husbandly best to help her through a time of female mystery.
Another writer might have staged a scene around one of these incidents when Richard caught Louise eating and steered her away from the hors d’oeurves table. And that wouldn’t necessarily be the wrong move. But “The Fat Girl” is a story about a lifetime of accumulation—accumulation of weight, of humiliations, of hurts, of habits, of toxic, intrusive thoughts, and of cultural baggage. Summarizing allows Dubus to demonstrate this accumulation. Now, don’t get me wrong here. I have, many a time, circled a moment of broad summary in a student’s story and instructed them to show me a “representative scene” to illustrate the idea. But I like this paragraph I’ve shared here better than I would seeing that same interaction play out in a singular scene. For one thing, I don’t think that subtle line of interiority—“his smile and his hand on his arm told her he was doing his clumsy, husbandly best to help her through a time of female mystery”—could have worked attached to a representative scene, and I love that line like crazy. Put that thought into a specific moment in time and it reads as too insightfully exacting, especially for a character like Louise, whose defense mechanisms include a healthy measure of self-denial. In summary, the thought joins with Dubus’s gentle, loving narration, and he interprets for Louise what she might not fully wish to perceive.
When Burroway calls scenes the bricks of a story and summary its mortar, she’s suggesting that summary is glue but not substance. But summary can be wonderfully substantial. It can, as Dubus demonstrates in “The Fat Girl,” deftly show us the truth of a complex character across a span of years. Because “The Fat Girl” is, as the title suggests, the story of a woman through the lens of one defining trait—a trait the people around her keep insisting on defining her by, so much so that what she’s left with when she loses the weight is an absence of self—it begs for a structure that accommodates this sort of brazen attention to theme. A short story operating in accord with the traditional Aristotelian unities couldn’t capture those larger rhythms in Louise’s life, couldn’t trace how the girl who is kissed, pityingly, at a barbecue as a sixteen-year-old becomes a new mother whose unthinking enjoyment of a candy bar, in front of the husband she knows will soon leave her, is a victory.
I want to end with a very tangible anecdote about the triumph of exposition over obligatory illustrative scenes. This involves a former student of mine, Kristin Inciardi, who kindly gave me permission both to write about her and to share some excerpts from two versions of her short story “Sbalordito”—both an early draft she submitted to me in MFA tutorials at UNC Greensboro and the version that was eventually published in the fine literary journal Crazyhorse.
Here’s how “Sbalordito” opened when Kristin originally turned it in to me:
Attilio removed one hand from the steering wheel and placed it on Alyson’s abdomen as he drove along the winding, gravel road. She was asleep; otherwise, she might not let him touch her so intimately. He knew it was too early to feel anything move inside her—she wasn’t even showing yet—but still, just by the warmth of her skin, he knew someone was in there, that they were all connected. He remembered how he’d begun to sweat, how he was at a loss for words, when she told him she was pregnant, and those symptoms sometimes still caught him unaware.
This strikes me as a classic workshop story opening paragraph, and when I say that, I mean that it captures both the skillfulness of a talented MFA student and the anxieties a workshopped creative writer often brings to their drafts. Immediately, Kristin has used a gesture to lay out the story’s central problem: Alyson is pregnant, Attilio feels connected to the unborn child, but there’s a lack of intimacy between the couple that probably means they’re in different places, emotionally, both about the relationship and the prospect of becoming parents. This is inarguably efficient, and it’s not ineffective, but perhaps you’ll understand what I mean when I say that it also feels conspicuously presented, or, to borrow the Georgia Review editor’s word, “telegraphed.” There’s a quality here that reminds me of stage directions in a play script:
From the right, Willy Loman, the Salesman, enters, carrying two large sample cases. The flute plays on. He hears but is not aware of it. He is past sixty years of age, dressed quietly. Even as he crosses the stage to the doorway of the house, his exhaustion is apparent. He unlocks the door, comes into the kitchen, and thankfully lets his burden down, feeling the soreness of his palms. A word-sigh escapes his lips — it might be “Oh, boy, oh, boy.”
The Aristotelian compression of so much theatre makes choices like this one not necessarily imperative but certainly more difficult to avoid; plays cannot present exposition easily, and so we have to be able to look at Willy Loman and know, in seconds, who he is and what his lot in life must be. Prose narratives operate under their own unique constraints, but delivering exposition isn’t one of them. And yet this draft of “Sbalordito” which tells the story of a young Italian bartender who falls unexpectedly in love with an American woman, creates an arbitrary staging point for its story: a car ride that is interrupted when the couple runs out of gas. The ensuing story alternates between this staging space and runs of exposition about how Attilio and Alyson met, fell in love, discovered her pregnancy, and made it back to this present moment. Over the hour or so that Attilio and Alyson are stranded by the roadside, they’ll both realize their relationship is over and that Alyson will likely go through with the abortion she has been leaning toward getting all along, despite Attilio’s fantasies of what might otherwise be. This entire staging space is illustrative, symbolic; it’s not a true point of crisis, and it could just as easily have been some other temporary frustration that makes plain to Attilio what he’s known all along and been trying to deny. The couple could have been stuck in the airport because of a missed flight. They could have been trapped at a boring dinner with another couple. They could have been on a shopping trip at the grocery store where they bicker about what to have for dinner.
When Kristin showed me this draft, I was immediately gripped by the parts of the story sandwiched, as if hoping not to be noticed, between the installments of this staged scene on an Italian roadside. These expository runs, I told her, were where the story’s heat was located. What if, I asked her, she allowed herself to tell the story chronologically? In my office, we sat down in front of my laptop together, and I did some quick copy-and-paste with her document, moving the interstitials into chronological order, setting the stopped-car scenes to the side. I did this not to tell her how to structure her story but to make plain to her what the story’s structure, sans adornment, actually looked like.
I want to share with you now the first paragraph of the published version of “Sbalordito”:
Attilio met them at Space Electronique, a discotheque popular with Americans studying abroad. He was the bartender. Polaroids of him hung behind the bar, his arm around one girl or another, lips planted on her cheek while she beamed at the camera as if to say I love this country. They couldn’t speak Italian very well. They asked him to trill r’s in words never meant to be trilled. Sometimes he’d have sex with them in the storage closet, their pelvises balancing on a case of Peroni. Other times he woke up in 15th century villas chopped into dorm rooms. He never invited them home because he lived with his father, and the American girls didn’t understand why a man would still live at home well into his thirties.
Do we know immediately here what the story’s central problem will be? No, and the pregnancy isn’t even presented as a complication until closer to the end of the story than the beginning. And here’s the reason I think that move was necessary: the story’s problem was never Alyson’s pregnancy; it was the fact that Attilio, so long a playboy who was happy, or at least resigned, to fulfilling the Italian fling fantasy of vacationing college girls—wanted more from this relationship than Alyson was ever going to be willing to give him. The story’s opening pages now carefully build tension through a technique that’s the inverse of the give-it-all-away opening line: it directs a reader so fixedly to the routine of Attilio’s flings that the emptiness of those flings becomes an unspoken but powerfully understood presence. We’re steered inexorably toward some form of relief from that routine, and that’s when Alyson enters Attilio’s life. This is one of the ways exposition can be dynamic—by establishing a character’s normality so vividly and steadily that the reader begins to anticipate the tilt of the coming trouble.
When Kristin was granted permission—superficially by me, in fact by herself—to write the story chronologically, and to linger in as much exposition as was necessary to present the facts of Attilio’s life to us, she could finally tease out the story’s true and devastating heartbreak, allowing the reader to know Attilio as he is before his love for Alyson teaches him to be dissatisfied. “Sbalordito” is a fine story, and it’s one you can read in full text on the Crazyhorse website.
I could go on for far longer than I have here with additional examples of gorgeous, tension-ripe exposition in published fiction, but even the most digressive narratives must eventually make their point, and I hope I’ve managed to do that. If you’re nursing a quiet, perhaps even secret, passion for exposition, know that there are more of us out here, toiling away on our dense, ruminative paragraphs, riffing on character histories and life seasons and psychologies, letting our keyboards dart across weeks and years and lifetimes. Have you ever seen one of those sepia-toned memes emblazoned with the legend, “Life is short, but wide”? Well, so are stories. And that’s something we exposition lovers perhaps understand better than anyone else.