Trust is hard. Trust is scary.
I should know–I’m nearing the end of edits for LITTLE GALE GUMBO and soon the book will be out in the world AS IS, without any more chances for me to polish, tweak, cut or add. Yikes.
This means I have to trust that the reader will understand what it is that I’m saying, what I’ve been trying to say in the two years I’ve been working on this story. I think this is what they mean when they say this is where the rubber meets the road.
But back to trust.
How can we be sure our readers will understand what we’re saying?
One all-too popular option: exposition.
I’ll give you an example:
Halfway through the climactic scene in my novel where sisters Josie and Dahlia Bergeron finally face off about their conflicting affections for their childhood friend Matthew, I develop cold feet. I worry–panic!–that my reader still isn’t 100% clear (at page 345, by the way) that Josie has always loved Matthew and Matthew has always loved Dahlia and Dahlia has always loved Jack.
So I think, maybe, just to be really, really, really sure, that I should gently toss in a few lines of dialog so there’s absolutely no chance at confusion.
It could go something like this:
Josie: “I just knew you’d say that, Dahlia Rose! Because ever since we arrived here on Little Gale Island twenty-five years ago from New Orleans where we fled from our abusive musician father with our Creole mother who’d eventually open the Little Gale Gumbo Cafe and charm the guarded islanders with her authentic Creole dishes, ever since then you always toyed with Matthew’s heart because it was so clear that he loved you, even though you knew I loved him and you didn’t, because you were too busy loving Jack who you kept pushing away because of that time when we were teenagers on the porch of our old house and I was holding our neighbor’s baby boy and you said you’d never let any man own your heart the way Momma let Daddy own hers!”
Yikes. Subtle, huh?
It goes without saying that if by page 345 your reader doesn’t know the basic background of a character (that includes historical AND emotional information, by the way), then there’s a good chance your reader won’t have reached page 345 because they will have long since decided they don’t know enough about your characters to care about them and if they don’t care, they don’t read on. And who can blame them?
So how to know when you’ve committed exposition-icide? A simple test: Ask yourself if your characters already know what it is you have them say? If yes, then you’re guilty as charged. Clearly the sisters already know all this about themselves–they were there, remember? This is clearly a technique to remind the reader, and make no mistake, the reader knows this. Your reader is smart. Your book is not a study guide (presumably)–unnecessary exposition makes your reader feel as if they are either being subjected to a review of what’s on Friday’s test, or, worse, that you the writer don’t:
a) trust the ability of your reader to understand your writing
(b) trust the strength of your writing to convey what it needs to convey, or
So what’s the fearful writer to do?
Work on his or her craft, introduce important information in a smooth and patient way, and, then, TRUST. Make absolutely sure that you’ve shaped a cozy, cocoon of a world where your readers know where they, how they got there and who they’re spending their time with.
We’ve all been there. And sometimes the temptation is still strong (Is there an exposition patch on the market yet, or what??).
Take comfort–it’s just the distrust talking. Don’t listen.