Friday, April 17, 2015

More on Expository Technique

Photo by Jackie, via Flickr
In last month’s post on expository technique, I identified reportage as the most utilitarian, least evocative mode of exposition. By way of supporting evidence, I provided parallel passages demonstrating alternative strategies for relaying expository information to the reader. By force of habit on my part, these passages were all written in third person. But what holds true in third person doesn’t necessarily apply in other modes of narration.

On the contrary, there’s a case to be made for arguing that reportage is the very essence of first person narration. This is owing to the narrow restrictions in first person vision and perspective. Information pertaining to setting, atmosphere, backstory and plot can only be layered into the narrative through the medium of the narrator’s self-expression. First person reportage is thus both highly selective and highly subjective.

The challenge for the writer is to establish the first person narrator as an authentic source of information, preferably asap. Success is often predicated on being economical with the word count. When it comes to selective detailing, there is no better stylist than multi-award-winning children’s and SF author, Jane Yolen. A particularly clear demonstration of first person expository technique in practice can be found in the opening paragraph of her YA novel Snow in Summer, (Philomel Books, 2011):
I have an old black-and-white photograph on my wall of all the things Papa loved. Its edges are curling and brown. In those days in the small towns of West Virginia, we didn’t have cameras that could take a picture in color. I’ve no idea who took that photograph, but I do know how it came into my hands. Cousin Nancy gave it to me years after this story happened.
This short passage – a mere 70 words long – serves several narrative functions simultaneously. Let’s take a closer look.

The focal “prop” is the old black-and-white photograph. This photo anchors the narrative in place (“small town West Virginia”) and in time (the past, within the living memory of the narrator). By alluding to “all the things Papa loved” the narrator establishes her credibility as a witness to the events of the past. Her use of the childlike term “Papa” in preference to the more formal “Father” infuses the narrative with a tone of retrospective tenderness. This small detail defines the essence of their relationship.

The fact that the narrator doesn’t immediately reveal what is in the photo engages our curiosity: what are these “things Papa loved”? The unanswered question concerning who might have taken the photo is trumped by the disclosure that it was given to her by “Cousin Nancy”. This familiar reference signals that Nancy also has a significant role to play in the story which is about to unfold. By now, the reader is hooked. We read on, eager to find out how these different pieces of the puzzle fit together.

It’s true that Jane Yolen makes it look easy. But if you’ve ever struggled with exposition, take heart: performance improves with practice.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. Sheesh, Debby ... when you told me you've 'provided parallel passages demonstrating alternative strategies for relaying expository information to the reader', I figured it was time to go get more coffee before I dug into this post. Three cups of coffee (and two bathroom breaks) later, I came away with an appreciation of that ... you know ... expository thingy. Man, you big brained people!

  2. I don't mind the character "telling." It's done all the time and quite frankly darned hard to write without doing so. I do hate author intrusion, though I will overlook an occasional lapse.

  3. For third person, Michael Connelly does this very well in his Harry Bosch books. (And I agree with Christopher - I needed more coffee, too!)

  4. I'm a third person writer, but in my WIP I couldn't get my main character to come alive--until I put her in first person. There was a bit of backstory, and it only worked with her in first. I left the other three POVs in third, so I don't know how this will be accepted.

    1. debby turner harrisApril 19, 2015 at 9:02 AM

      Very interesting, Polly! Transposing the narrative from third person to first person is a very useful exercise if you're having trouble bringing one (or more) of your characters to life.

  5. The restriction of first person writing, in my opinion, is the necessity of the protagonist's having to be in every scene and always knowing what's going on. It's more fun (for me) to write in third person and layer the story with multiple POVs. The same goes for books I read. However, Jane Yolen's opening intrigues me. Maybe someday I'll try a first-person piece.

    1. debby turner harrisApril 19, 2015 at 9:07 AM

      We are kindred spirits when it comes to sharing a preference for third person omniscient narration. I, likewise, have yet to attempt writing a novel in first person. Must think about it.


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