Presented by Louise Bergmann DuMont at the NJCWG - 7/25/05
Most of prose is divided into: Description, Narration, Exposition, and Dialog. This lesson will discuss the first three.
Most authors aren't conscious of what they use and when they use it, but new writers should make an effort to know the difference. You produce better writing when you use all four in your manuscript.
DESCRIPTION - to give sensory impressions of a thing.
Good description includes: 1) accurate observation 2) an appropriate level of detail 3) optimal word choice
When writing description you must not include speculation or the probable outcome of a scene. You simply describe what you see (from the POV you've chosen) -- as accurately as all of your senses can discern it. This means that you do not limit yourself to what you see. You may want to include in your description some of what you smell, hear, taste, feel and/or see.
Level of Detail
How much detail a writer uses to describe something to an audience depends on what the reader needs to know. You determine this by deciding what you want and need to convey -- the specific point of the manuscript.
How-To-Article -- In a "how to build a staircase" article you need to convey the specific size and weight of the lumber used, the type and size of the bolts/ screws/ nails, various lumber treatments used to waterproof wood (if it is for outdoors), and many other specifics.
Murder Mystery -- You may want to mention some portion of the staircase construction if the murderer deliberately creates a fault in a staircase he is building - which he will use to kill his mistress.
Romance Novel -- You will mention very little about the construction of the staircase if the only thing that hero and heroine do is kiss at the foot of the stairs.
Optimal Word Choice
Effective writing uses specific words and should connect with as many of the senses as appropriate. For example, do not say, "It was delicious," when you could say, "It felt smooth and cold on my tongue and reminded me of fresh kiwi, but sweeter. When you offer only your own feelings, you distance your reader. To say, "I cried through the first half of the movie," does not engage the reader. It is better to say, "When George left his family to find work at the very beginning of the movie, I remembered the loneliness when my father left home for six months to find work in another state. The women who played the part of George's wife did an excellent job of acting and she reminded me of my own mom who had to keep the family together during the time when my father was away." Now the reader not only knows why you cried but is allowed to experience part of the movie with you.
Avoid judgment words like "good" or "bad." Give specific details that SHOW the good or bad and allow your reader to experience the event.
Every word must carry its own weight. Chose your words carefully.
NARRATION - to tell, in detail, what happened. Read about giving details under 'description.'
Most stories begin with Narration. That is where the hook is usually set. When a person tells a story during a conversation, they are most often using narration.
Imagine meeting an old girlfriend (or boyfriend) outside a coffee shop. You decide to have a cup of coffee and talk over old times. During that time you realize that she's recently divorced and now she's hitting you. What sort of conversation would you have with your current girlfriend to tell her about this event? What sort of conversation might you have with your best "buddy" when you meet for tennis next weekend? In both cases the extent of the details may be different but you are essentially telling about the same event. People narrate verbal stories all of the time. Good written narration becomes great with practice. Excellent writing becomes evident when you show the appropriate details and your purpose in telling the story is clear -- also honed with practice.
In the case of telling your current girlfriend about meeting your former girlfriend, your purpose is to be honest but not alarming. When you tell your best friend about it after your tennis game, your purpose might be to show that you've got a much better girlfriend now than you did before -- and maybe, that you've still "got it" when it comes to attracting the ladies. In both cases you will use details that contribute to your purpose rather than detract from it.
EXPOSITION - the setting forth of the meaning or purpose of something, especially in writing.
Exposition is always objective. The writer informs or explains but does not express their opinion. News (both print and broadcast) is an example of exposition. This would, of course exclude the editorials. Textbooks, instruction manuals and reports are also exposition. A writer may tell or interpret facts but it must be without personal bias. The writer's "voice" may come through his writing (making it uniquely his) but his opinion on the topic in question should not appear in the writing.
A writer can "slant" a piece by choosing to include some facts and by leaving others out. This makes exposition not entirely objective, but as a whole, writing that would be considered "useful" is exposition. Because of this, exposition is not necessarily the most interesting writing to everyone who reads it (think 'owner's manual'). The purpose of exposition is to convey information clearly and accurately. If you are writing a novel you want to seriously limit your exposition because few people read novels for instruction. If you are writing a book about the care and feeding of new puppies, anyone seeking that information will find your exposition interesting enough. "Cat people," those who don't currently have a puppy and people who don't like animals won't care about your writing no matter what fascinating writing techniques you use. Exposition, more than any other writing, requires the author to know their topic well and know their audience and have an expertise
Important things to remember when writing exposition:
*Know what you are talking about. Only people seriously interested in your topic will read exposition. Fakers are quickly exposed.
*Know your purpose. A clear purpose will help you decide on things like what order to provide your information and what you should emphasize.
*Know what your audience knows and doesn't know. Don't write for both the beginner and the expert. You'll bore both.
*Use headings, short paragraphs, lists, subtopics, and bold print to make your reader's search for information easier.