Exposition: How Low Can You Go?

Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.

This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.

Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”

And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.

Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.

Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.

But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?

Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.

If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.

Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.

So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?

Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Memories Alive

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words; however, my experience is that most of the words are meaningless adjectives by themselves:  it is only when the thousand words are strung together in coherent sentences that they attempt to explain the picture.   And when these sentences are strung together, they create a memory.  So, it is memory that truly brings life to a picture; it is memory that tells the tale of why that moment in time was captured.

Neptune, Virginia Beach

I am looking down at a picture of my first trip to Virginia.  My dad and I are on the waterfront in Virginia Beach posing by a gigantic statue of King Triton, also known as Poseidon.  In the picture my hair is blowing and I am wearing my letter jacket and two layers of clothes.  These pictures only capture one-second snapshots of my adventure.

By itself  the words I can use to describe it are cold, windy, ocean, statue, but when I recall that day I remember the awe I felt as the birds constantly hovered above me, noisily waiting for me to throw them my last remnants of fries.  The wind was sharp and cutting, blowing salty ocean spray into our uncovered faces.  I remember jumping and laughing as I tried to touch the oncoming waves with just the tips of my fingers, hoping not to get soaked.  I can hear my dad complain about the cold while all I wanted to do was stay at the ocean’s edge staring off into space.

I desperately wanted to see dolphins playing in the horizon.  I wanted my dad to realize that our trip was not a waste of time.   The dolphins, I thought, would help him over his disappointment in driving ten hours for a restaurant that had closed years ago.  However, the dolphins never showed, but King Triton did.  A towering piece of art, the statue both intrigued and enthralled our imagination.  It was absolutely wonderful.  We left both happy and content.

Memory is the key to life; pictures and words are just the tools used to record memories.   Because as time goes by memory fades and is sometimes lost all together, pictures and word stories are vital in preserving memories.  My mother has no memory of a complete 18 month time period.   She can remember childhood friends and stories and songs, but her memory for a year and a half years is completely empty.  Not even a picture can help her remember those days because there is no basis on which to establish a mental connection.

That is how I know that memory is the key to remembrance.  Pictures say nothing, they know nothing.   Capturing the outward façade only they cannot express the joy or sorrow that lies underneath lying eyes.  They cannot tell the tale of the day.  Only memory can.  And through that memory, word stories.

As writers we have a powerful tool that many people do not possess.  We have the ability to capture memories and bring them to life for people.  The best biographies and the best histories are not the ones that clearly convey fact after fact.  No! Rather, the best ones are those that can transport the past moment into the present, evoking all of the sweetness and amazement or all of the tenseness and bitterness that existed at that time.

Scrapbooks are nice.  They are helpful for reminding us of our past.  But, written documentation of those moments is so much more powerful, so much more poignant, and so much more necessary for preserving and sharing memories.  You have within you the words to take a memory and bring it to life.

Aurora shooting victims. This picture belongs to The Hollywood Gossip, and this blog and its writers claim no ownership.

Two weeks ago I referenced a news article on the Aurora shooting.  I had seen pictures of the crime scene and had heard the news reports online and had felt disgusted, but it wasn’t until I read this news article that I truly felt the pain and sadness of the situation.  That’s because words hold memories, and memories hold power.  This memory is not mine.  I had no connection to it in any way.  But, as author Brady Dennis described the emotional turmoil, the confused and hurting thoughts of one of the victims, I was able to connect.

“But then he felt the molten buckshot of a shotgun blast pierce his neck and face. His left arm went limp. He collapsed onto the floor in front of his seat as chaos unfolded around him. As he lay bleeding, Barton heard the sounds of the movie yield to more primal sounds of terror. The screams of the wounded and dying.”

This is a memory.

the ART of writing

Look at the title above.  The title of this blog post is the same as that of Tobias’ blog for one simple reason: to remind us that writing is ART.

ART.  For anyone who has kept up with my past posts, you know how much I love that word.  art. Art.  ART.  In all of its forms, mediums, styles.  ART!  I could sing that word all day.  Roll the “r” off the tongue.  “arrrrt.”   Bite into the “a.”  “Art.”  Caress the “t” at the end.  “art…”

No matter how you say it, the word is magical.  One three letter word encompasses such a huge part of life.  Everything from movies, media, video games, advertising, fine art, sculpture, theatre, live art, literature, and more.  It’s all art.  But, here is something for you to chew on.

True or false: Some art is better than others?  

I’m sure most of you answered yes.  If you are like me, you would much rather see a Picasso rather than a contemporary piece with three black lines on it or one of those you think your two year old could draw.  Or, you would much rather read Charles Dickens, J.K. Rowling, Juliet Marillier, or Edgar Allen Poe rather than some cheesy harlequin or the latest self-published book on Barnes & Noble that is littered with grammatical mistakes and plot holes as large as the Grand Canyon.

But, here’s the main question.

Does the quality of art affect the status of a piece as art?

Hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago, this piece by Piet Mondrian is titled Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red, and Gray.
Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh is currently hanging in the Modern Museum of Art New York

These two pieces use the same basic colors, are both famous artworks hanging in galleries, and are both representative of their time.  So, leaving aside the art history classes about representation of line, form, symbolism, etc is it fair to say that one of them is art and one of them is not?

The answer: It doesn’t matter if it is fair or not; our minds instinctively do it anyways.  

And, here’s the thing.  Readers will do the same to your work.  Yes, on a basic level, your writing can be classified as “art” because it has a title, a string of paragraphs held loosely together with lines of words that make some semblance of sense.  But, at the end of the day, would you rather be known as a Van Gogh or a Piet?  (Disclaimer: instinct aside, I do have respect for Piet in a art theory type of way, but let’s face it, his work does tend to make me think that my two year old nephew could produce something of equal or greater interest and quality.)

So, what does it take to become a Van Gogh?

1.  Practice. All art, regardless of medium, genre, etc requires practice.  Thus Tobias’ challenges.  Think of all the great authors and painters who were apprentices, who studied under masters.  Their apprenticeships were their practice runs, similar to internships today.

2. Criticism.  Whether we like it or not, every piece needs to be critiqued.  Many times we miss when our work is crap.  We invest so much of ourselves into our babies that we cannot see the flaws, and it hurts to be told that they exist.  But, that is the only way to improve.  That being said, even with critiques, we should still be true to ourselves, and not all criticism is good criticism.

3. Faith and persistence.   Rejection is part of the art game.  It is going to come, and come, and come.  And just when you think you are drowning, you will be hit with 10 foot tidal wave to keep you under.  But, if you keep on practicing and keep trying to improve your work, then eventually, someone will hand you a floating device.  And maybe, just maybe, by the time you swim yourself to shore using every last resource of breath and muscle you possess, someone just may label you a Van Gogh.

All pictures are from Mark Harden’s Artchive at http://artchive.com/.  A most fabulous site.

J-ing with Style

My focus today is on that dreaded “J” word. The one that is often mocked and ridiculed. Sometimes it goes by the even more sissified word that begins with… a “D.” That’s right, today’s topic is on journaling.

As kids we are often encouraged to journal, or write in a diary, by our parents in teachers. As adults, we are often encouraged to journal by our shrinks. But, what makes us hesitate to write out our lives and our thoughts in a book? Why do we make fun of those who do? I’ll admit, for the longest time I was one of those who publicly scorned journals, and yet secretly attempted to keep one. But, I was HORRIBLE at it. I never had the discipline to write in one daily. And then I would feel guilty and stop. And then I would feel guilty about stopping and begin again. Vicious circle repeat.

Nowadays, almost everyone is a journaler whether they know it or not. It’s called blogging. Whether you blog about your life, your political aspirations and opinions, or your favorite recipes, you are journaling. And that’s what has allowed me to come out and proudly proclaim to you today, I JOURNAL. I even have a physical journal. I first really started journaling while I lived in Russia. Then, when I arrived back in the States, I kept at it. But, it’s different for me now than it used to be for two simple reasons.

1) A journal doesn’t have to be a “Dear Diary” experience. From the beginning of my recent journal adventure I cast away with they typical cliche of writing down only what you did. My journal is small enough that I can carry it with me anywhere. As a result, it has become my “miscellaneous, catch-all drawer” if you will. Any random thought that pops into my head that I want to remember to dwell on later goes in. Any story idea, art idea, etc. If I have four lines of something that resembles a poem, it goes in. This means my journal is more closely a reflection of me than any “Today, I went to the store” entry could be. Especially, when you consider the random sketches and half sentences that have been collected in there.

2) When I do write about my day, I throw out the cliche. Think of it this way. If you were a historian, or even a random reader, who found your diary 50 years from now, would you rather read “Today I went to the store.” Or “Today I found out that the Fred Meyer store is what occurs when Wal Mart and JC Penny have a love child that exploded.” The same basic information is conveyed, but the latter has a little extra spice.

Essentially, it’s as if you were making a story out of your life. And, if you want people to read it, you have to make the brand “YOU,” not “Generic.” It can also serve as good practice for writing stories, and you can switch perspectives for even more practice. Write about your life in first person. Then do another entry from third person.

“All great writers begin with a good leather binding and a respectable title.” James Barrie in Finding Neverland

As an example, I will give you a peek into my journal.
A good friend of mine and I were discussing Thanksgiving last night. One of the statements he made resonated with me. Basically, he was iffy about the whole holiday, as it was just another excuse for people to gorge themselves under the pretense of “family togetherness.”

And it made me think of my family. My whole extended Robinson clan of a family. Every Thanksgiving and/or Christmas, my mom’s side gets together and – celebrates. That means two grandparents, one great-aunt (who acts like a 50 year old), eight parents, eleven grandchildren, and an assortment of friends and significant others all gather into one three bedroom house to “enjoy” each other’s company.

Now, looking at it and the amount of food consumed by this clan of twenty-two plus people, it may be easy to group us into the category of superficial Thanksgiving-ers. But I don’t think that would be true. Now, I’ve never really celebrated Thanksgiving with any other family (well, I did celebrate it with my aunt-in-laws family once), so I don’t know how others celebrate holidays, but this is a little how ours goes.

One by one, the families trickle in. My memaw is already in the kitchen, her foster bedroom during these holiday days, and the house is filled with the aroma of freshly-baked, homemade rolls. A batch of fresh dough is sitting on the counter, because she knows that my aunts and uncles can’t pass by without taking a pinch.

The women congregate in the front living room and in the kitchen while the guys crowd around the tv in the den. Football is on. The Cowboys. And, even though most of the family has drifted away from their Cowboy-obsessed phase, it’s still football. Their boos, catcalls, and cheers can be heard down the block. Well, at least my brother’s voice can.

The grandkids have split themselves up, roaming about the house, sneaking into the kitchen for pre-feast bites, talking with aunts, cheering or booing the cowboys, facebook stalking their friends, inviting old friends over. We do it all.

“Dinner. Everyone gather round. Cassandra, go round up the guys.” My Memaw’s proclamation is like a magnet, attracting the family to her (or at least to the food in her hands). We gather round, hold hands, and then . . . “Ohhhhhhhhh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” Yes, we break into song. Yes, my family is very patriotic, but the tradition of singing the “Star Spangled Banner” before our great meal actually has nothing to do with that. It started several years ago as a joke. I’m sure it happened because the boys were watching football, and the national anthem got stuck in their head. Still, whatever the reason, before we pray, we sing the anthem (usually loud and out-of tune).

We then bless the meal, fill our plates, and recreate Darwin’s theory of Survival of the Fittest: The quickest get a seat, the losers get the floor (or a really uncomfortable, small, black chair). We go around and state our thanks as is “traditional” Thanksgiving behavior, but after that we talk. And we talk. And we talk some more.
Then, after the food has begun trickling its way down our digestive courses, the music begins. With four pianists and a whole horde of singers in the family (and a grandmother who doesn’t take no for an answer), the singing can last for a while. A long while. Days even.

Now, my family isn’t perfect by any means, and we do have our arguments, our petty differences, our annoyances, but we’ve been given a great gift. We have two parents/grandparents that have made it their life mission to make sure that they keep the family together. And because we all love them, and we deep down we really love each other, we get together. We catch up. We celebrate the love that has filled this house for over twenty years of family togetherness.

Writer’s Block Unleashed

This post is more or less a continuance of Selayna’s post  on musical inspiration.  I too have some go-to pieces that get the knots of writer’s block into a nice curvy line again.  However, I also have a few other tricks I use for inspiration.  Now, when you are in the midst of writer’s block on one particular piece, sometimes the trick isn’t to figure out what comes next.  Sometimes you just need to let your imagination flow in another direction on another, completely different piece.  Then, when you go back, you have fresh eyes.  So, to start with, let’s look at:


Here, I will post a few of my favorite songs that get the juices leaking, flowing, and rolling.  However, instead of me telling you how I use them, I want you to come up with a brief scene, scenario, or the random thoughts that come into your mind based on the mood it puts you in.

Bach/Break from August Rush

The Wandering Kind by Josh Groban

No Good Deed from Wicked the Broadway Musical

Permanent by David Cook

Now: Onto Play

In my previous posts Tableaux Art and Re-evaluating your Environment for Art, I discussed the benefits of using your surroundings for inspiration.  Now, I’m going to take that a step further and say, BECOME part of your surroundings.  Interact with them.  PLAY with them.  If you watch a kid at the playground, you will find that they can spend hours entertaining themselves.  They come up with stories in their heads and act them out.  One of the most famous things for kids to do is “play house.”  Now, they also “play cheerleader,” play “pirates,” play “ninjas,” etc.  As adults, we tend to grow out of “play” (LARPers not included).  And, as a result, our imaginations tend to suffer.  Combine their playtime with the fact that kids “say the darndest things” and you have yourself a winner.

So, what I am suggesting is that you find time to play.  If your imagination is a little rusty, then find a kid to play with (in a non-creepy way, of course).  Babysit your friends’ kid(s) for the night.  Play with your own kid.  Accompany a friend and their kid to the park.  Volunteer at a church nursery.  Then, after your playtime, record some of the stories told, the words said, the thoughts and facial expressions that popped into your head and on your face.  Believe me, it will be worth it.

J.M. Barrie: What did you think?
Peter Llewelyn Davies: It’s about our summer together, isn’t it?
J.M. Barrie: It is.
Peter Llewelyn Davies: About all of us.
J.M. Barrie: That’s right. You like it?
Peter Llewelyn Davies: It’s magical. Thank you.
J.M. Barrie: No, thank you. Thank you, Peter.
From Finding Neverland

And finally: ART

Below are two paintings that I absolutely love.  Your challenge is to use them to come up with 1 sentence for


Plot in the immediate sense (what are they doing in the picture):

Plot in the broader sense (what came before and after):


At the Moulin Rouge: Two Women Waltzing by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
Two Girlfriends by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Psychological Criticism and A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

The problem with psychological criticism

Basic tenants of PsychCrit.  Examples from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” (click to read the short story)

Throughout my posts, a pattern has emerged based on the power of words and the using the right words, especially in imagery.  Today is no exception.  In today’s post, I will briefly (very briefly) get down to business with one of the biggest reasons why word choice, concepts, and imagery are so important.  Essentially it all comes down to Psychological Criticism.

Here’s the deal with psychological criticism.  It can be a blast for the imaginative scholar, but it can also be a pain-in-the-derriere for the author.  As soon as your work hits the stands, blogosphere, desk your entire mind will be broken apart by fans, haters, researchers, etc.  Every word you wrote down will be a tool for them to dissect your every intention.  This is why it’s important to at least have the tenants of psychological criticism down.  Even though it won’t stop analyzers from making you seem like an over-zealous, sexual nutjob, it will at least provide you with the tools for being able to 1) best them at their own game 2) have a lot of fun at their expense.

Defining the PsychCrit Approach:

Essentially, the Psychological Approach “reads between the lines.”  It looks at the unstated motivations that drive the author, the characters, and the audience. Because it looks at both the author and characters, psychological criticism can be used along with the traditional and formal approaches.

Why Use (In addition to the reasons stated in the intro):

Psychological Criticism enhances the text by searching for common aspects of human nature manifested in literature.  It adds depth and makes the text relatable.

By searching for the below, you will find yourself relating to the characters and author on a higher level which affects your psychological view of the story.

PsychCrit. History:

Do you see phallic or archetype here?

Sigmund Freud – Immensely Disturbing

  • Main Point: Its all about SEX
  • In a strictly Freudian psychological approach, both the old man’s wings and the activity of flying would have been seen as phallic and sexual symbols.

Carl G. Jung – Slightly-less Disturbing

  •  Main Point: Conscious, Unconscious, Archetypes
  • In Jung’s form of archetypal criticism, great significance would have been placed on the wings in relation to the angelic archetype.

“The unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that are outside of our conscious awareness. Most of the contents of the unconscious are unacceptable or unpleasant, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict…, the unconscious continues to influence our behavior and experience, even though we are unaware of these underlying influences.” Kendra Wagner

The Spider Girl - Superego exemplified

Ego, Id, and Superego

•EGO (the way things are):
  •         Issue of the old man’s humanity
•ID (pleasure principle):
  •  Elisenda reveling in the new money and buying herself   dresses and a new house.
  •   In a sense, the old man represents the opposite of this  as he is denying himself the pleasure of shelter, good food and comfort.
  •   The townspeople, placing their love of entertainment above anything else, are the epitome of this.
•SUPEREGO (morality principle)
  •   The side story of the girl who was changed into a spider is an excellent example of an embedded moral within the story. Her circumstances bring to light that it was the wrongness of her choices that account for the reason why she was changed.

Applying PsychCrit.

1. How are the author’s psychological conflicts revealed in his or her work?

  1. The theme of solitude is prevalent throughout the story as represented by the angel who kept his distance from the humans and who was also held captive.
  2. Religion is described in a very hierarchical and ritualistic respect.  The priest is highly symbolic of this order.
  3. The reader can see the effects growing up in poverty had on Marquez through his description of Elisenda.

2. What is an in-depth analysis of the characters if they were real people?

  1. The Very Old Man: In comparison to some of the other incredible happenings within the story, the old man seems disappointingly normal and human, despite the presence of his wings.   “He argued that if wings were not the essential element in determining the difference between a hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels.”
  2. Pelayo and Elisenda: Their reaction to him and his “familiarity” is the one single tie between their humanity and the possibility of his. “They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.”
  3. Pelay and Elisenda cont.: They’re normal people. In the face of something inexplicable, they grasp at anything that lets them avoid what is unknown and unexplainable.  “That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings.”
  4. The Townspeople: As they belittle the old man, they seem to loose some of their humanity. “…they had to call in troops with fixed bayonets to disperse the mob that was about to knock the house down.”

3. What is the appeal of the work to the readers in relation to their own ability to work out hidden desires and fears?

  1. Fear of the unknown and the mysterious that is outside of ourselves
  2. Question of self-interest vs. consideration for humanity
  3. Self-esteem vs. despair

Mind Bender with Psychological Criticism and your Thursday Challenge:

  1. Does the subconscious mind really effect what the author writes?
  2. Does a reader’s psychological analysis of a piece of text say more about the author’s psychological state or the reader’s own psychological state of mind?

Fun Stuff: Authors Easily Analyzed for HOURS of Great Amusement

  1. Edgar Allen Poe – Any and All
  2.  Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
  3. William Faulkner – A Rose for Emily

Close Reading

Me, pulling out the glasses for some serious Close Reading.

When I was a wee lassie, first commencing my journey into serious writing of the expository sort and first learning how to analyze and review the works of other, more prestigious writers, my teacher, God bless her, set to me a task that seemed the worst form of punishment.   She had me CLOSE READ.  She actually had me perform task after arduous task of close reading!!

“What is close reading?” you ask.  “Scandalous!” I reply.  How can any writer not know what close reading is?  However, never fear.  For those of you who did not have my beloved high school English teacher, the indelible Mrs. Engler, I am here to explain and save the day.

Close reading has a couple of variations to it, but simply put, it is breaking down an author’s works into its smallest components.  The simplest, yet most arduous form is similar to diagramming.  Basically, you look at how many adjectives are used, action verbs, to-be verbs,  adverbs, periods, exclamation marks, question marks, etc.  If you really want to go for it, you can even break the verbs into their many components: transitive, intransitive, linking, etc.

Another variation looks at the type of language used in a broader sense.  How many metaphors, similes, cliches, idioms, etc.  It also takes into account the genre, writing type (e.g. expository, short story, or poetry), and tone.

So, now you’re thinking what is the point of this crazy exercise.  I know that was my first thought when I was clued in on the details of this pain-in-the butt exercise.  Well, it just so happens that I  have an answer for you.

Enough said.

There are actually a couple of good points/uses for close reading.  Close reading carefully scrutinizes an author’s writing style down to the minute minutia.  So, the first point is based on the theory that until you know what good writing looks like, you can only write poorly.  By studying the writing styles of the best authors in detail, You learn what works and what doesn’t.

This leads into my second point.  Whether we like to admit it or not, everyone has at least one author that influences their writing and writing style, sometimes more than one. As you begin to study the works of other authors that you admire, you can learn how to mold and create your own writing style, once again using what works and throwing away the trash.

Point three assists the scholars out there.  For anyone who has dreamed their way through a literary theory or literary criticism class, you will understand what I am saying when I say word choice MATTERS!  Close reading is an incredibly handy tool when you painstakingly have to analyze a piece for a paper on authorial intent, structuralism, deconstructionism, Marxism, feminism, and all the other -isms out there.  However, even more so, when you learn that word choice and tone are important and you learn how different authors play around and around and around with words, your research paper on the death of Julius Caesar will be strengthened; your character analysis of Spock will have extra insight and depth, and your poem detailing the effects of Harry Potter on society will be so much more emotional.

The best part is that you can get all of the above effects just by actually reading a paragraph or two of an author!  Just one or two teeny paragraphs will clue you in on that writer’s style.

Challenge A: Compare paragraphs 1 & 2 for imagery, tone, and action verbs.


“I saw only blackness at first, and the moon’s white trail across the water. But I searched the space where he pointed until I found a low black shape breaking into the sheen of moonlight on the waves. As I squinted into the darkness, the silhouette became more detailed. The shape grew into a squat, irregular triangle, with one side trailing longer than the other before sinking into the waves. We drew closer, and I could see the outline was feathery, swaying to the light breeze.” Excerpt from Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer


“HAVING MOUNTED BESIDE HER, Alec d’Urberville drove rapidly along the crest of the first hill, chatting compliments to Tess as they went, the cart with her box being left far behind. Rising still, an immense landscape stretched around them on every side; behind, the green valley of her birth, before, a gray country of which she knew nothing except from her first brief visit to Trantridge. Thus they reached the verge of an incline down which the road stretched in a long straight descent of nearly a mile.” Excerpt from Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Challenge B: Analyze paragraphs 3 & 4 for word choice.  Do the words used add or detract from type of book?  What tone is created by the word choices?


“Alanna looked Thayet over, fingering the emberstone. Thayet was dependable. She was a good archer, a necessity when they hunted to feed themselves. If she was nervous, Alanna had yet to see it. She never complained, never cried, never fainted. She never shirked her watch. Thayet and Buri would be an asset to an expedition like theirs.

Alanna looked at Buri and was surprised by a pleading expression in the girl’s eyes. She replaced it with her usual scowl, but this time Alanna wasn’t fooled. Buri must be worried sick, she thought. And she knows Thayet will be safe with us. Besides, I’d miss them.” Excerpt from Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce (genre: fantasy)


“When Catherine took the throne, the Russian legal code, promulgated in 1649 by Tsar Alexis, the father of Peter the Great, was chaotically obsolete. Since the code had first been issued, thousands of new laws had appeared, often without reference to previous laws on the same subject…The result was that government departments were disorganized, administration throughout the empire was inefficient and corrupt, and failure to define the authority of local officials had led to landowners taking ever greater powers at the expense of the peasantry.”  Excerpt from the biography Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

Challenge C: Paragraphs 3 & 5 are both tween/teen fantasy books.  Compare the language (word choices) used.  Which one is on a higher intellectual/academic level?  Does this mean the lower level book is bad writing?  Which words would you replace to increase the lower level book and decrease the higher level book?

One will win. One will lose in this ultimate close reading competition.


“Except for the fact that each had a large brass number above the door (odds on the left side, evens on the right), they looked absolutely nothing alike. Number nine had smokestacks, like a tiny factory. Number four had tomato vines on the walls and a roof made out of real grass. Seven seemed to be made of solid gold, which gleamed so much in the sunlight it was almost impossible to look at. They all faced a commons area about the size of a soccer field, dotted with Greek statues, fountains, flower beds, and a couple of basketball hoops (which were more my speed). ” Excerpt from The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Avoiding Info-dump

The Info-Dump!

Info-dump can be a major problem in any story, but it is found most often in fantasy and science fiction.  For those of you who are new to writing, or who just haven’t run across the term before, info-dump occurs when you attempt to provide a massive load of background information in a short space.  The problem is common in science fiction and fantasy writing because of the alternate world setting.

Introducing readers to a whole new world, with significant differences from our own, along with certain similarities, is a difficult thing to do.  Info-dump makes it easy.  As the author you simply take a couple of pages and explain the background of your world and the similarities and differences within.  This is an excellent example of info-dump.  Info-dump makes introducing your world easy, the problem is that it is horrendously boring to read, especially in the middle of a story.  In a blog it isn’t such a bad thing, as readers can just skip to the next entry.  In a novel, where many readers feel compelled to read every page, it can be devastating.

Any info-dump can hurt a story, bad info-dump can irreparably damage a story, repeated info-dump can kill a story.  Imagine watching your favorite movie.  Now imagine that the main character takes a break every ten minutes to explain what’s going on.  It breaks the flow of the story, destroys the reader’s immersion in your world, and will often make your characters look like idiots.  Needless to say, info-dump is a bad thing that you want to avoid.

So how do we define info-dump? My opinion is that more than a paragraph of straight, explanatory information borders on info-dump, more than two paragraphs is definitely info-dump.  Furthermore, you must be careful how things are presented.  If you info-dump using characters, like a lot of authors do, then you probably have your characters telling each other information that should be obvious to them.  If you find any dialogue in which the phrase ‘As we all know’ or the phrase ‘As you should know’ could comfortably fit, then get rid of it.  This is info-dump of the worst kind, and you need to find some other way to present your information.

Do you really want to give your readers a nervous breakdown?

Obviously some amount of explanation is required to introduce the peculiarities of your world to the reader.  The first step to avoiding info-dump is to decide what needs to be explained and what doesn’t.  For instance, if the sky on your world is green, or it has two moons, or no moon, this is probably something that the reader should just accept.  It doesn’t need to be explained.  At some point the effects that these differences have on the world might need to be explained, but the difference itself doesn’t.

On the other hand, if an individual or group of individuals can defy the laws of physics, then this probably does need to be explained.  How do they do it? Why is it only them that can do it? These are questions that will occur to your reader, and they deserve to be explained.  However, don’t drop answers on them in one lump sum.  Spread it out.  Let the mystery fester for a while.  As long as he feels like there is an explanation the reader will keep reading until he finds it.  But if your reader feels like there is no explanation, this is when you’ll lose him.

You generally want to avoid having your characters provide information about your world. However, there are some strategies that can work.  Insert a character who would reasonably not be aware of the information, perhaps a child, or a new initiate to the order, and then let your other characters teach it to him.  Alternatively, you could have one of your characters break the 4th wall and speak directly to the reader.  This is dangerous though, if done well it can be very effective (the comic book Deadpool is an excellent example of this), but if not done well it will kill the realism of your story.

An example of small-scale, intentional info-dump from the webcomic, Hazard's Wake.

Another way to avoid info-dump is to provide information in another source.  The easiest way to do this is by providing a glossary at the end of your book.  In the modern world where most authors have their own blogs and websites, and where eBooks are quickly becoming very popular, one other option you might try is providing encyclopedic information on a website or blog, and then linking to it from your eBook.  As far as I know this has not been extensively tried yet, so I can’t be sure if it would be a potential goldmine of reader information, or a potential distraction from your story.

That being said, the best way to avoid info-dump is to draw things out slowly, provide a glossary of terms for reference, and steep your readers in the mythology and realism of your world.  They’ll absorb the information naturally and figure it out on their own – most of the time.