In rewriting Holland Bay from scratch, I found a lot of the description in the story disappeared, replaced by expository dialog. Now, I know what some of you are saying. “Jim, you’ve been at this for a while. Exposition? How dare you?”
Exposition exists because, if you count on characters to act out everything that needs to be communicated to the reader, you’re going to end up with Lord of the Rings. That works well if you have wizards or starships or whatever other grandiose story elements you want to toss in there. Tom Clancy tends to over-tech his stories. So be it.
This ain’t Lord of the Rings or Dragon Riders of Pern or even The Hunt for Red October. This is a novel inspired by the 87th Precinct and taking queues from The Wire. The bulls don’t need no twenty pages of expos. Ya feel me? So what’s a poor author to do when he has to explain something that can’t be organically communicated?
Blake Snyder, in his book Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, says you need to put the Pope in the pool.
“Huh? Wha’? ‘Pope in the pool?’ I hope, Jim, you’re not talking about showing us Benedict in a speedo, ‘cuz dude, that’s just wrong.”
Once again, chill. What Snyder is referring to is a movie where the Pope is setting something into motion and is explaining the situation. Now no one, not even the current Pontiff (not Benedict, who’s too busy surfing ChristianMingle.com to be doing all that holy stuff these days), wants to see an elderly priest in a thong doing the backstroke. On the other hand, stop and think about this. When I say “Pope,” you have an image of an old man in elaborate religious garb holding court and sitting on a throne. Compelling image. Boring storytelling. If you see an old guy taking a dip and talking to several religious high muckety mucks while chilling in the pool, you’re likely to listen to his long, boring exposition, ‘cuz dude, you wanna know why the Pope’s in a swimming pool discussing God stuff.
He cites other less pope-ly examples. Essentially, when dull stuff must be given to the reader to help him or her understand the setup, place the appropriate characters in an oddball situation or an unexpected one. In The Wire, Stringer Bell used to talk to the corner boys in a funeral home he and Barksdale owned. The corner boys, except maybe Bode Gibbs after the first couple of times, always glanced around nervously at the coffins and the odd guest of honor laying out. Meanwhile, Stringer is casually sipping tea and looking like he just got done taking Milton’s red Swingline stapler away from him. All this catches your attention, since the idea of the crime boss sitting behind a big desk barking things out to his goons would likely cause viewers to go looking for something less cliched, like a reality show on VH1. Worked, didn’t it?
So these dialog-heavy scenes will need something to make them worth reading. Watching young girls at the local mall while two thugs discuss whacking an informant. A cop questioning a witness at a daycare center while a four-year-old has the mother of all meltdowns. Things like that which fix a scene in the reader’s mind.
Maybe the pope will come to town and try out the diocese’s new indoor swimming pool.