Dorothy Dix and the Expository Lump

The title sounds like an unpleasant experience at Hogwarts but is in fact something I'm noticing in my own writing as I edit.

My blog posts have reduced in frequency because I've been deep in edits for Book 2, working title The Magnesia Sanction. (The title will change before it sees production). I'm at major revision #8, and I think This Is It, The Final Version. Of course I thought the same for revisions 2 through 7, so what would I know, but in any case I've printed the entire ms and am pacing back and forth in my office, reading the whole book aloud. I find reading aloud essential to

a) get the flow and rhythm right; and
b) find redundant words which I don't need.

BJ Muntain warned me to drink enough so my voice doesn't go hoarse while reading 305 pages. Never fear, each lap takes me past the beer fridge.

What I'm noticing as I read is all my expository lumps are preceded by a Dorothy Dixer.

Wikipedia, which as we all know is never wrong, tells me Dorothy Dix was an early agony columnist in the US. How her name came to be associated with faux questions in the Australian parliament I don't know, but it is nevertheless the case that when an Australian Government minister wants to make a set-piece speech during question time, he arranges for a colleague to ask a totally fake question which allows the minister to produce his prepared speech. This is a cheat, but they do it all the time, and such a fake question is called a Dorothy Dixer.

Expository Lumps are a (relatively) benign cancer which must be excised for the good of the book. One character goes on and on telling another character something they probably should already know. The real target is the reader, who certainly doesn't know whatever is being explained. This is the author's dodgy way of delivering information direct into the reader's brain.

Expository Lump is a particular disease in science fiction. As you know, Captain, the hyperdrive works by folding space into tiny packets of... followed by two pages of exposition. Expository Lump is also a threat in historical writing. As you know, Pericles, the Athenians hold their meetings at the Pnyx, where the people vote...

As you know is the time-honoured method for introducing an expository lump. (If you're a writer, this would be a good moment to do a quick global search on your own ms.) I don't write as you know. Instead, one of my characters asks a really dumb question, purely so another character can tell the reader something.

Yep, that's a Dorothy Dixer.

Incredibly, I don't notice when I write these things in the first draft, but when I read aloud they stand out like a sore thumb. The good news is, the ensuing expository lump is almost never required. My readers, who are much smarter than me, can work out an amazing amount purely from context. When I find an expository lump I remove the lot, then stand back to see if the text still makes sense. Usually it does. At worst, it might need a sentence or two. The other trick which works is to change the scene setting or some other passive element of the story to deliver information by implication.

12 comments:

Matthew Delman said...

This is where I admire the brilliance of J.K. Rowling. During one interview, she was asked if Harry and Ron would ever read Hogwarts: A History. Her answer was a resounding no ... simply because Hermione's purpose as the in-story info dump who explains everything to Harry/reader would then disappear.

When I read that, I was absolutely floored. Sheer effing brilliance! Make a character who's purposely uninformed so you can then make another character who fulfills the role of explaining everything to them/the reader.

And then I hated her for it because now no one else can do the same thing. LOL!

Oh and re:cashews -- when I was a kid, I used to pick them out of the mixed nuts packages, thus annoying my father to no end.

A Writer said...

Thanks to you, more names for inadvertently bad form in writing. This will come in handy for 500, because of Roger acting as info man, although maybe if the main protag is still left confused, and the reader has figured it out, a character flaw is produced, and an information is released in secret. Did that make sense? Good. I didn't get it either. Thank you as always for your blog posts. I appreciate the informative nature and less self-aggrandizement.

Joanna said...

Yay! Cut those expository lumps right out!

I can't wait to read the next version!!!

Amalia T. said...

I've tried reading aloud--as a procrastination device. It doesn't do a lot for me, at all. I feel like this makes me somehow defective as a writer, because everyone is always extolling the virtues of reading aloud to yourself, but when I do it, I don't get anywhere. That being said-- I think hearing someone else read it aloud would probably be more effective.

I'll definitely be looking through my ms for expository lumps! The timing for this post couldn't have been more perfect for me personally!

David J. West said...

Excellent Gary, I didn't have a name for the "Lumps" and now I do.

I usually just make sure that no one has to explain anything in more than one sentence-except for some big vital things and thats only perhaps 2 or 3 times in a 115,000 word book.

scaryazeri said...

Loved this one, Gary.

I always notice these "lumps", even though never had a word for them; and I always find them incredibly irritating.

Funnily enough, since you and somebody else here mentioned Harry Potter, I have to say I thought of her books as I was reading your posting. Not because she had the lumps. What I personally find annoying, and perhaps that is just unavoidable when you write more than one book in series, is that in the following book she tries to explain what had happened before. So Ron, remember when I lived under the stairs, when I had no idea I can kick some a***s with my wizard tricks...etc.
I cant remember in detail, but I always found that a bit frustrating. This is where Lord of the Rings is so different. I am just reading book 2 right now, and nowhere does T. repeat or explain anything. You just have to work it all out, and guess what? if you want to know, go back and read the first book. :) simple, eh.

Gary Corby said...

Rowling has many excellent qualities, but originality is not among them. The earliest instance of a Walking Expository Lump I can think of is Dante's Inferno, in which Vergil is there purely to be a tour guide. Hermione is in the same tradition.

There are lots of other examples, many of them involving characters with names like "Professor".

Scary, I've seen numerous comments that the later Harry Potter books could use a good edit, so you're not alone in your thoughts.

Amalia, whatever works for you. Really. As long as a good book comes out the end it doesn't matter how you got there.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Lumps, eh? That's brilliant! I've had many of those myself- a whole page describing a boat, the virtual layout of a tomb, and so on.

It's painful to read, but such is life. Then I get to take the red pen to them and for some reason, that makes me happy, like I'm accomplishing something.

And I love editing out loud now! It felt obscenely goofy the first time I did it, but I've now done two full readings of HATSHEPSUT and I really think it makes a difference. I can spot awkward phrases and repetitive words a mile away!

Gary Corby said...

That's exactly my experience Stapehanie. If your tongue trips over a word, so will the reader. You can hear the book improve as you cut the dud phrases.

Janet Reid said...

As you know Gary, your editor and her godsends will be reading this with a keen eye AND the antidote to vegemite nearby.

As J said earlier, we're all very much looking forward to reading this!

Bill Kirton said...

Nicely put, Gary. It reminded me of so many plays (by classical, highly reputable authors) who start with character A onstage. From the wings comes character B.
'Good Lord, B. Lovely to see you.'
'You too, A.'
'Haven't seen you in ages.'
'Indeed. So what's been happening?'
And the snappy dialogue is replaced by a monologue full of biographical, sociological, political information, recent marriages and heartbreaks, news of the woman A was betrothed to before her father found out he was an actor, and the impending public execution of A's best friend from the old days for upsetting the Laird who, incidentally, has stolen all A's father's lands.
As it ends, A says 'Oh dear' or something close to it, then adds, 'Well, great to be back. See you later'.

Gary Corby said...

Yes Janet, I know. I'll have it finished any moment now. Just one or two more tweaks...