Today’s Tip for Clear Writing—Exposition

You may have heard of the term, ‘exposition’ in English class as another word for the beginning of a story. And likely, you ignored and filed it away as one of those things that you need to know in order to pass the next quiz and never need to know again. You may be right. The name of the term is not really as important as what it does for your writing. Exposition gives your writing the depth and roundness that allows the readers to see your world in their heads. The point of exposition is to keep your reader reading instead of breaking out a dictionary or flip back to earlier parts of the story to understand something they think they may have missed.

Oftentimes, exposition takes the form of an info dump at the beginning of a story. You know an info dump as the boring first three chapters of the last novel you have read. But you also know that not all novels start out quite as boring as that particular one. How do you avoid the boring beginning of your story? To some degree you don’t. A story has to start somewhere and even the most exciting stories have a buy-in period, but there are a few ways to delay exposition for more important parts of the story.

The most obvious way to spread the exposition through the story and avoid the info dump is through the use of a flashback. The flashback is the scene that interrupts the smooth flow of time to create a context for what is about to happen in the next scene. At its best the flashback explains something in further depth that you have already understood from the progression of the story. The detective of the story who has always been seen interested in the books that the victims had been reading flashes back five years to the event in college that made him change his major from English Literature to Criminal Justice only to find out that his knowledge of literature is necessary to solve the current case.

Or at its worst, the flashback is used by the writer to add something that had never been hinted at before. The detective of the story who has always been interested in the books that the victims have been reading flashes back to his high school days on the pole-vaulting team because it turns out that he has to jump over a large gap to catch the bad guy despite the fact that he has never shown any type of physical prowess up until this point. This flashback is poorly planned both because it is implausible and because it is poorly placed. The flashback interrupts the flow of the action and takes away from the tension of the moment.

So instead of adding a second flashback you could sprinkle a few bits of action throughout your story up until this point. Early in the story, add in a conversation between this detective and one of the side characters about track and field as a legitimate sport. Show the detective’s daily exercise routine. Have him explain to a rival that he could beat him in a race. In fact, if you include all of these things there will no longer be a need to explain why the detective could perform the pole-vault because now the detective is recognizable as athletic and well versed in English literature. But don’t get too caught up in how things are coming out the first time through. The best way to fix a story is to finish it, give it a little time, and then read it through with fresh eyes. You are a good reader, and you recognize good storytelling and know how to fix clunky writing when you see others do it. And the best writing advice is always revise, revise, revise.

Sorry, Microsoft Word, You are Wrong Again

I think the newest version of Microsoft word is an alien from another world. It learned to speak by downloading English textbooks directly into its brain. Every time I write in conversational English, it underlines in blue and offers me a far inferior wording if not one that is totally inappropriate to the context of the situation. This sentence for example:

So he takes the stairs to feel like he’s getting some kind of exercise.

It double underlines the ‘so’ and tells me that I need to put a comma after a transition. Sure. If I wanted to make ‘so’ be a synonym for ‘therefore,’ the program would be right. But instead, I want the sentence to be a sentence fragment because it follows a rather long sentence and joining them with a comma can make the sentence harder to understand. Sentence fragments are no-nos that can make your writing hard to understand. But if you are a skilled speaker and writer of English, like many people are, sentence fragments can enhance the readability of your writing. I include myself as a ‘many people.’ And I include myself as a ‘people.’ However, that is beside the point.

Microsoft word wants me to write:

So he takes the stairs to get exercise.

Instead of:

So he takes the stairs to get some kind of exercise.

The longer version is more wordy, but the extra words convey a context that the concise version does not have. ‘So he takes the stairs to get exercise.’ Tells you only why he took the stairs. ‘So he takes the stairs to get some kind of exercise.’ Tells you not only why he took the stairs, but it also tells you that he does not get any exercise other than that. Let’s look at those at those two together.

So he takes the stairs to get some kind of exercise.

So he takes the stairs to get exercise, and he does not get any exercise other than that.

Now, Microsoft Word, which version is more concise. Huh? Not only is ‘So he takes the stairs to get some kind of exercise.’ more concise, but it sounds better and reads better. But English textbook brained aliens don’t know that.

Also, I wrote this sentence:

She looked into the cup of coffee.

I don’t know. Maybe there was a bug in it. Maybe she wanted to see if she needed to refill the thing. Who cares?

Microsoft Word underlines ‘looked into’ and says that it would be more concise to write ‘investigated.’ Well, wait a damn minute. That is not the same, at all.

She looked into the cup of coffee.

She investigated the cup of coffee.

Does Microsoft Word think I am writing some kind of CSI cop drama? Does Microsoft Word think She is dusting for fingerprints?

She investigated the cup. She dusted it for prints. The white powder formed into clumps on the surface of the coffee. She took a sip and thought it made her coffee taste bad. Next time, she would dust for fingerprints with hazelnut coffee creamer.

No Microsoft Word that is not my story. She ‘looked into the cup’ as in, ‘she used her eyes to see into the cup.’

Does Microsoft Word think she is looking for seamen stains?

She investigated the cup of coffee. She grabbed a clear coagulated mass out of the coffee with tweezers and placed in a plastic bag for DNA analysis.

Nope. Nope. Sorry, Microsoft Word, you are wrong again.

Writing Joke Stories–Today’s Tip for Clear Writing

Ending Your Stories with a Punch

I love to be funny in my writing. When I have write funny stories in the past, I have been told that I don’t take my writing seriously. Once, I described my writing as ‘silly stories,’ and my writing teacher took offense. He told me that every time I call my writing silly, I denigrate the entire practice of writing. He was a little more severe than most. More often, I have heard from writing teachers that a story should not be based on a joke because it makes you too cautious to explore, or something like that. Honestly, I have taken so many classes that it is hard to synthesize all the differing reasons into one coherent one. From time to time I am even guilty of giving myself reasons not to write joke stories. Something like jokes are too cliché, or it’s going to be too dirty or offensive to post on line.

And I don’t remember the book or the author anymore, but I read in one of those writing classes that instead of ending a story on the punchline of a joke begin at the punchline. Supposedly, starting at the punchline gives you, as a writer, a much fuller world to develop. And that is true to an extent. Starting at the punchline and working on from there is a great way to develop a full-fledged and fully embodied story. But comedians tell stories. Many of them very good. And a good story from a good comedian ends on a punchline. It does. And some of these stories would blow many short stories from professional short story writers out of the water.

You need some proof to back up my claim? Go on YouTube and watch Bert Kreischer’s story, “The Machine.” I will give you the link, but please promise to watch it after you finish my rant. Other wise you won’t come back to read what I have to say. You will be down the rabbit hole of great comedians. Here’s the link:

Truthfully, there is nothing wrong with writing up to a punchline. It is fun. Just because something is fun does not mean it is bad. Often these stories end up on the shorter side, but they don’t have to. And you do have to avoid some pitfalls like giving over your original vision and falling into thoughtless clichés. But those are the pitfalls of all writing. There are clichés of fine literature just the same as there are of common jokes. And many good writers start writing with an ending in sight. A punchline is just that: an ending. And a rather strong one, I might add. You don’t see people rolling on the floor laughing begging to hear what happens next. They say stop it. You’re killing me.

Many people credit Mark Twain with the creation of standup as we know it today, and that is debatable. What Mark Twain really was, was a short story writer. He dabbled in Novels, essays, witty aphorisms, and speaking tours, but he mainly wrote short stories. And the majority of his writings that maintain notoriety are jokes. And one of his particularly famous short stories, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” ends in a punchline. It is one big joke and it ends in a punchline. No one would say that this story is cliché or say that it is not fully fleshed out. Some might even call it silly, but it is a great story. Here is the link to “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County:”

Mark Twain loved writing joke stories so much that he even wrote an essay, “How to Tell a Story.” In which essay, he describes in detail how he turns a joke into a story. At first glance, his essay looks about half of a page long, but it has several smaller sections. I would recommend that you take the time to read the entire essay to get the whole effect, but the first section would be enough to tell you what he thought about writing joke stories. It is, also, very funny and entertaining in its own right. Here is the link to “How to Tell a Story:”

Mark Twain doesn’t avoid character, place, and story development to fit the joke. He lets the characters, the narrator, and the story digress as much as it wants only to jump back on track and digress again. His slow methodical and round about style of telling a joke story makes the punchline even better when you hit it even when you see the punchline coming from a mile away. In fact, when done correctly, guessing and waiting for the punchline ahead of time makes it that much sweeter when it comes because you are taking the time to enjoy the ride.

All of this is really to give you this little piece of advice. Don’t let people or even yourself talk you out of having a good time with your writing. If you want to write silly joke stories, write silly joke stories. And while you are at it, go ahead and call them ‘silly stories’ if you want to. I give you permission. Write whatever you want to write however you want to write it. If you do that you will have fun. If you have fun, you will keep it up. If you keep it up, you will get better. And revising will be fun because you wrote something that brought you joy. Then you will want people to read it in front of you so you can see how much joy your stories bring them. So you will want to go back and worry whether or not someone else will understand your story. That way you will make clear writing fun.

Avoiding Clichés—Today’s Tip for Clear Writing

Avoid Clichés or Use Them to Our Advantage?

Join the Darkside: Let the Cliché Flow Through You

We all know clichés when we come across them. They are any phrase, idea, or scene that is so overused that every time we see it, in print or on the screen, we groan and want to get up and go play outside or some other terrible thing. We all know what clichés are, and we hate them or do we?

Have you ever wondered why so many movies have a bank robbery scene? They are everywhere whether they support the plot or not. The movie, Heat was one big bank robbery scene. That is OK. That is what the plot is about. So clichés are the worst thing in the world until the entire movie is about them. Well, not so fast. The movie, Oh Brother Where Art Thou had a bank robbery scene that could have been left out of the movie without changing the plot in the slightest. But it was awesome. The scene helped to develop the characters, turning the movie into a believable story despite the fact that they act like live action cartoon characters. So clichés are the worst thing in the world except when they develop the characters. Well, the reality is that clichés are only the worst thing in the world when you use them as shorthand.

Why is a bank robbery cliché? If you have a boring story adding a bank robbery could add some excitement. But if it is the same old cliché we have seen a thousand times, we hate it. If you freshen it up even just a little bit, it is great. That is why clichés are cliché. They are awesome and everyone loves them.

Here are two possible conversations that you could hear about any of the many movies about bank robberies. This one depicts the lazy use of cliché:

“Did you see the bank robbery in that movie?”

“I sure did, and it was terrible.”

“It was just like every other bank robbery.”

“It sure was, and I hated every second of it.”

“Me too. I don’t know what made them think they could pull that off.”

“Seriously. Those writers were hacks.”

This one depicts an innovative use of cliché:

“Did you see the bank robbery in that movie?”

“I sure did, and it was awesome!”

“It was just like every other bank robbery.”

“It sure was, and I loved every second of it.”

“Me too. I don’t know what made them think they could pull that off.”

“Seriously. Those writers were geniuses!”

The point is that clichés are everywhere because they are inherently interesting. People wouldn’t use and reuse and reuse and overuse and beat to death an idea that they did not like. I have done a lot writing trying to avoid cliché and people read it and say they liked it. And I have written a smaller amount allowing myself to use cliché and people read it and say they like it. Sometimes they say they love how unique it is. A unique cliché, who would expect that oxymoron? In fact, some my most enjoyable writing experiences come when I am throwing one cliché after the other into my writing. So I say use your cliché. I say good! Your cliché has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your cliché destiny and take your father’s place at my side! Just don’t plagiarize Return of the Jedi the way I just did.

Today’s Tip for Clear Writing: the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule is also known as the Iceberg rule, or Hemmingway’s Iceberg rule. Hemming way not the first person to follow this rule, but he was the one to popularize it with a name. The idea is that when you see an iceberg floating on the ocean only twenty percent sticks out of the water, and the other eighty percent is what you crash into that sinks your boat. So in the context of a story, the writer only writes twenty percent of the story and the other eighty percent of the story is inferred. Often, the 80/20 rule is oversimplified in the phrase ‘show don’t tell.’

Essentially, the text of a story is like a trail of breadcrumbs that you leave for the reader. The reader follows the breadcrumbs you left and creates the rest of the story in his or her mind. A really good example of this is how you experience a movie. When a character is angry, they don’t say, “I am angry.” They go out and punch something or someone. I guess, the incredible Hulk is a notable exception. But when he says, “Hulk angry,” he does back it up by smashing up a tank and tearing down a building. You don’t just see him say, “Hulk angry,” and then see him just move on to some other part of the plot. Hulk is a big angry ass whooping machine, and you gotta show him go out and whoop some ass. But just enough to get the point across and not derail the story.

Say you have a character named, Bill. You don’t like Bill, so you say he is an ass hole. But you need Bill to go to the store and pick some groceries for the nice old lady down the block. And he has got to do it without taking too much time. You could say:

This is Bill, and he is an ass hole. Now, he is going to the store.

This one is fine, but Bill seems very one dimensional. Or you could say:

This is Bill. He just got back from a diner where he berated the waitress and talked the manager into comping his meal even though he ate the entire thing. Now, he is going to the store.

This one is better. We know who bill is, and we have a pretty good idea that he is an asshole without just going out and saying it. Also, it is relatively brief and lets you get on with the story. Or you could say:

This is Bill. He just got back from a diner where he berated the waitress and talked the manager into comping his meal even though he ate the entire thing. Yesterday, he kicked a puppy after luring it to him with a milk bone that he still has in his pocket. Tomorrow, he is going to hang out in the neonatal ward of the hospital giving papercuts to newborns and rubbing them with cut lemons. He intentionally gives wrong directions to lost motorists. He has had five arrests for driving under the influence in the last two months. And he really loves farting at the dinner table especially when he is berating a waitress. Now, he is going to the store.

This one is just too much. It shows exactly what kind of an asshole Bill is, But the story has been derailed. It is no longer about him going to the store. It is about him being an asshole.

So that is how the 80/20 rule works. It allows you to write a clear and interesting story without going crazy with the details.