Crossed the 25,000-word mark this evening. I’m now at 25,068 words.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the axiom repeated ad nauseam by writing instructors and fellow writers offering critiques to one another: “show, don’t tell.” At the moment, the vast majority of my NaNo novel is exposition–”tell”–because that’s almost always how my story ideas come to me. In my first draft, I write the story as if I were explaining to someone what my story is about and what it means. It’s more analytical-essay style. Some concept pops into my mind that interests me, and when I start writing what I’m doing is describing the themes and the characters and plot points that will be used to explore the themes. Sometimes I might go so far as to describe how I want the reader to feel or what I’m trying to convince the reader to believe. But none of that is really storytelling.
Storytelling requires scenes.
I’ve done very little scene work so far in the NaNo novel. Scenes are the hard work, for me. Coming up with a concept that interests me is easy, and once I have a scene, polishing the language is easy. What’s hard is deciding on that perfect mix of exposition, action, and dialog that transforms an idea into a transporting experience for the reader. You have to transform this big messy pile of concepts into something that can unfold in a linear narrative (or approximately linear narrative) that’s told from a well-defined point of view (or points of view). Instead of just saying how or why something happens, you have to make the reader experience what happens through action and description, and at the end you hope that this conveys to the reader the idea that was so exciting to you in the first place. It’s interesting how the brain works. You need this action and description stuff to help you put the reader in the shoes of your point-of-view character so that the reader experiences your story in a participatory way.
There’s still something intellectually interesting about exposition, but exposition on its own doesn’t give you that feeling of being transported. If you hear someone airing a political opinion at the dinner table, you might be interested, but you most likely won’t be transported. What might transport you, though, would be the series of anecdotes of life experiences that brought your bombastic [insert relative here] to this opinion. Finding out why someone believes what they believe is usually way more interesting than finding out what they believe.
It could end up that I write 50,000 words of which 40,000 words are exposition. Then the main work of the second draft will be transforming all of that exposition into scenes. At the moment, though, there’s no time for editing, and so this mess of a draft is a pretty true reflection of my brain at work. I guess I have a pretty roundabout method of storytelling. This might have been discouraging to me before, but clearing the hurdle of my first novel gives me a lot more confidence. I’ve experienced this process before, of a concept percolating in my brain and evolving on the page until that moment where I suddenly recognize the scene that relays the concept. I’m confident that I will be able to transform this heap of exposition into something entertaining and worthy of a reader’s time. At the moment, though, I have to be content with my own solitary entertainment as I glimpse bits and pieces of the story through clearings in the wilderness of my mind and tie down these bits of pieces with copious exposition.
Maybe a good storyteller is, in the end, merely a skilled bushwacker cutting a path through the wilderness of the writer’s mind to let the reader come in and share a glimpse of all the strange and wonderful scenes hidden therein.