Award-winning author DiAnn Mills is a fiction writer who combines an adventuresome spirit with unforgettable characters to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. DiAnn’s first book was published in 1998. She currently has more than fifty books published. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists and have won placements through the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Carol Awards and Inspirational Reader’s Choice awards. DiAnn won the Christy Award in 2010 and 2011. DiAnn is a founding board member for American Christian Fiction Writers and a member of Inspirational Writers Alive, Romance Writers of America, and Advanced Writers and Speakers Association. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. DiAnn is also the Craftsman mentor for the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild. She and her husband live in sunny Houston, Texas. Website: www.diannmills.com
Exposition, Narrative Summary, and Internal Dialogue
Novel writing is often compared to fitting all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into a wonderful landscape with many layers of depth, beauty, and creativity. Understanding where each piece fits takes time, effort, and lots of sweat. Let’s establish the difference between exposition, narrative summary, and internal dialogue so we can understand if any of these literary techniques fit into your story.
Writers often question the use of these techniques, understanding that these devices have the potential of dragging a story. Telling means rejection from agents, editors, and readers, so some writers determine that anything that is not dialogue must be deleted from their story.
Readers want to see action unfold as it is happening. If they don’t, they are disappointed because it doesn’t allow them to be part of the story, as though someone threw a party and they weren’t invited. But is there a place in a novel for exposition, narrative summary, and internal dialogue?
Exposition is commonly referred to as an information dump. This occurs when the writer hits the pause button on the POV character to unload her truck of what she feels is vital information. She tells the reader all she knows about a subject, including her research. Not only is author intrusion annoying to the reader, but also it demonstrates a lack of skill. In short, exposition is not what you want to incorporate into your writing. Take your dump truck filled with exposition and park it where your readers will never find it.
Can you pick out the exposition below?
Lena eased into the chair. “You wanted to see me?”
“You’re fired.” Karen lifted her chin. “I told you when I took over as supervisor that I’d look for a way to get rid of you.”
Lena coaxed her lunch back into her stomach. “I just landed a two million dollar account.”
Karen smiled. “I’ll take the credit.” She nodded at the door where the security guard stood. “Please escort Lena to her desk. Make sure she retrieves only her purse before removing her from the building.”
The unfairness of the situation had gone on for years. Lena’s past showed one failure after another. The first one was in kindergarten when her mother held her back because she couldn’t read yet. The next-door neighbor told her she was stupid, and her dad said they’d have to move. Two weeks later, she spilled milk at the table when her parents had guests for dinner. Three days later, she tripped over the dog and the animal howled and bit her. Her grandmother accused her of stealing money from her purse. Lena had a temper tantrum . . .
Get the picture?
Backstory is kin to exposition; however, the events that happened before chapter one influence the character’s motivation and are important to the story. Backstory is revealed in bits and pieces according to the plot, not as exposition.
Narrative summary is also known as summary or narration. Its purpose is to summarize what’s happened in the story that’s not important. Although show-don’t-tell is a writer’s guideline, some information needs to be revealed in the most effective manner—clearly and succinctly. The average reader skims those areas that are not dialogue, so be certain narrative summary is needed before writing it into your story. Your mission is to show a protagonist achieving a goal and making an internal transformation in the process. Keep your writer engaged!
These are ways narrative summary can be useful:
• To cover time.
Strive to write narrative summary in the POV character’s voice, weaving it into your novel seamlessly, and then move quickly into the scene. Narrative summary tends to be nonemotional, and emotion keeps the reader turning pages. Used sparingly, this device can provide information that moves the story along without disturbing the reader. Overwriting narrative summary causes the reader to skim passages and move on to action, possibly forsaking the writer for another more skilled one.
For example, the first paragraph below is narrative summary.
Three years passed before Lena saw Karen again. Her ex-boss scooted into a church pew in front of her.
“How are you?” Lena hoped her smile looked more sincere than what she felt.
Karen’s lips trembled. “My parents were just killed in a fire.”
Internal dialogue is the conversation inside your character’s head while she’s reacting and responding externally. This is also referred to as introspection or interior monologue. Internal dialogue is able to explode character emotion onto the written page, ensuring the passage is rich and credible. Written in the character’s POV, it’s intimate, often speaking of things that the character would never say. Internal dialogue does not lie, unless the character is mentally unstable. The revelation is gut-wrenchingly honest, and it hooks the reader into the privacy of the character’s heart and soul. During high-stress action scenes, a character can be on an emotional high and think irrationally, or the character can be calm and focused. The reader learns much about the character, goals, problems, emotions, scars, symbolism, and spiritual dilemmas. First person is the easiest to write internal dialogue because the story is told through a single point of view.
The example below is dialogue mixed with internal dialogue. It’s written in first person.
“Lena, why not relax and have a drink?” Dad lifted a glass filled with amber-colored liquid. “Lighten up. So your mom’s dead. Good riddance.”
I needed to get away, someplace where I could breathe. The stench of tobacco laced with alcohol brought back the painful memories of home. I swore when I was seventeen that I’d never step inside this house again. Never be subjected to his foul mouth or his beatings. Yet, here I—
“Cat got your tongue?”
I smiled. “I’m fine. Just a glass of water will do.”
“Still too good to drink with yer dear old dad?”
His slurred words brought back far too much. How had Mom put up with him all these years? I used to despise her for not taking me and running, but her faith kept her a prisoner. Made me wonder if her heart attack was a blessing. I had no idea where her afterlife had taken her, but it had to be better than living with Dad.
What about your story? Have you decided to edit exposition and never drive that dump truck through your story again? Do you see ways narrative summary can move past the unimportant details? Can you use internal dialogue to show the real character? I bet you can, and your story will be filled with deeper characterization and an action-filled plot.