I am working on a new novel, and as I write my way through the first act I find that I am being very careful--some might call it paranoid--about exposition. It's impossible to avoid exposition because at some point we have to actually talk about the characters and setting and situation (unless we're writing the sort of story where the reader is supposed to be kept in the dark about what's actually happening), but we don't want to write in big blocks of backstory and stop the forward momentum of the tale. Last night I gave up reading a novel because it was all exposition, more a nonfiction biography than a novel and after 100 pages I didn't know the first thing about any of the characters' emotional lives and I simply didn't care what happened to them so I shelved the book and I doubt I'll ever bother to finish it. That's something I don't want to ever happen to one of my own novels.
I wrote last week about my method of folding exposition into the middle of scenes, and how I'm not allowing myself to write anything but scenes in this book. If it's not a scene, it doesn't go in. I am even being as spare as possible in my transitional passages between scenes. But what do I mean by "scene?"
To me, a scene is a self-contained dramatic incident where we are shown a specific event in "real time." Moreover, my personal rules for scenes include such things as a change in situation for one of the characters (that is, something is different for some character at the end of the scene, and this difference will change the direction of the story in some important way--not necessarily a huge change, but a real change that cannot be ignored by the character in question), and either the introduction or increase of tension between two or more characters (that is, I don't let myself have scenes that exist simply to introduce a new character or setting; there must be, as just mentioned, some change for one of the characters).
So, I am writing my novel in units called "scenes" that:
Are self-contained dramatic incidents in "real time"
Dramatize events that change a character's life
Introduce or increase tension between characters
My scenes can do more than that, but they must do at least those things, or I have to start over. The plan is to have the entire book built of scenes, one after another, with little or no summary. I may cheat and have something like flashbacks by having my protagonist dream about people who have died, but I may decide that's too much of a cheat and not. We'll see when I get there.
I also admit that I am not going to be a tyrant about my rule of writing in scenes only. My basic concern is to stop myself from going off on long tangential digressions, writing chapter-length histories for each character or supplying readers with essentially lists of things and losing the direction and urgency of the story. My writing is constrained by a sense of doubt over each word I set down: do I really need this or that factoid, and why? It's a load of work, and I'm not even sure how necessary it is, but it's how I'm writing this book.
So here are my questions to you: Do you write in scenes? Do you know a scene when you see one? Can you take sections of exposition or narrative summary that stop the momentum of the story and make them into dramatized scenes? Bonus questions: Do you think this is important, or are you willing--as a reader--to let writers hand you pages of backstory? I happen to live with a bright, well-read person who is nowhere as impatient with backstory and exposition as the hypothetical stereotypical reader that agents and editors online go on about all the time. I don't, frankly, know if that reader exists. Just saying.