What is the hallmark of a hack? Look no further than the exposition: you will find a lot of explaining there. Tons of it. And it won’t stop. Ever. Throughout the text, you’ll encounter more of it, again and again. Loads of it. Buckets and buckets, as the late Donald Barthelme would have it.
Now would you, personally, explain to a complete stranger who you are, where you grew up, what you’re up to in life, when you last had sex, and what you found out when you clicked on that dubious link this morning? All that while you’re, say, waiting in line at the register? Riding on a train? Sitting in a Finnish sauna? A Turkish bath? Getting your hair cut? Probably not! But if you’re a writer, and you let your narrative voice or your characters do exactly that, then it’s suddenly okay?
No, it isn’t. To write good fiction, take a hint from this sample:
1 The Decanter of Tokay
Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the Hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests.1
Right, that’s the beginning from Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (a.k.a. The Golden Compass). Are we told what this “Hall” is, or why it starts with a capital letter? What guests will arrive? Who Lyra is? What her motives are? And, first of all, what a dæmon is? No, nothing of that sort. We’re plunged right in, right into the midst of a mystery, and along the action we gradually come to understand this strange world and what’s happening in it.
Resisting the urge to explain is hard, and it’s an ongoing process. As a writer, you will encounter the evil temptation to explain at every step, from the exposition to the ending, from the grandiose narrative intrusion to the unassuming adjective.
Explaining is highly addictive, and as it’s almost always the case with the display of addictions, those who attempt to listen to you will be solidly bored in a minute. Drop that habit. Don’t just cut down on it. Kick it. Sit down and write introductory paragraphs for ideas you’ve had, movies you’ve seen, stories you’ve heard, and try to. Not. Explain. Anything. Just get into the action.
This might be tough at first. But don’t forget: Resistance is NOT futile, and it will make a huge difference.
If you have something valuable to add or some interesting point to discuss, I’ll be looking forward to meeting you on Twitter!