Scene v. Exposition

We all tend to use too little scene in creative nonfiction. We especially forget the possibilities of representative scene. Even when we’re reporting a typical rather than specific event, use of scenic elements . . . conveys a sense of character and situation far more effectively than summary does.

Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

I’ve just started reading Tell It Slant and early on I’m pondering, When do you use exposition and when do you use scene?

When writing newspaper features — and to some extent freelance magazine features — I often felt limited to exposition. At times, when I had the space, I would beef a feature up with mini scenes, usually with short descriptive passages of place or a brief — very brief — description of a person. I rarely had dialogue. Much of what I wrote was expository or quickly dashed-off narrative summary, often out of necessity.

I was envious of writers I read at larger papers, or at alternative weeklies, who seemed to be given the space and time to write detailed, compelling features, alive with scenes, dialogue, characterization. And envied even more New Yorker writers like John McPhee (talk about detail) or Susan Orlean.

And yet, with my recent forays into creative nonfiction I find myself slipping into exposition and narrative summary more than scene. Often I’ll start out with scenes and then slip for pages into exposition. When I read and revise, I see the exposition, and in the back of my mind I think I should cut it, revise it, build a scene, but then, at the same time, the exposition seems to fit so well with the essay. And I think of some the essays and booklength works of nonfiction by writers such as Larry McMurtry or the wonderfully lyrical Diane Ackerman and those writers rely heavily on mixes of scene and exposition.

And I wonder, When should a scene be used, and when should you use exposition?


4 thoughts on “Scene v. Exposition

  1. Todd, you must be reading my mail! This is a current obsession of mine, and I drafted a blog post about it a week or so ago that I haven’t posted. I became tired of the amount of exposition in my book and have tried to use a more scenic approach. Use scene whenever possible, is the answer to your question. However, all writing is a mix of telling and showing. You can think, too, of your first-person exposition in creative nonfiction as if you are a first-person narrator in a work of fiction. The voice of the narrator can be compelling in fiction, right? Same with cnf.

    • Another question: What’s the difference between narrative summary and exposition? Narrative summary includes telling details, some dramatic elements, but isn’t fully dramatized like a scene. Exposition, as Sheridan Baker explains it, is “a setting forth, an explaining, which naturally may include both description and narration” (The Practical Stylist, 6th Edition). It seems they are the same. But isn’t narrative summary a form of showing? I hope Tell It Slant clarifies these questions for me.

      Again, as I say, from what I understand, I tend to drift from scene building to narrative summary/exposition. And have a hard time dramatizing full scenes. It’s a flaw in my fiction, too, though not as much. I think I still may be having a tough time wrapping my head around the imaginative part of cnf.

  2. According to my research in the last two weeks, narrative summary and exposition are just different terms for the same thing: explanation. From my still-unpublished blog post on this:

    Try to show the important stuff, Alice LaPlante says. Use exposition (she calls it narration) to fill gaps (which she shows arising constantly within scenes) and to set up scene. “Ideally,” she writes, “these two elements of writing are organically intertwined.”

    She is VERY strict on what constitutes scene–only what could be seen or heard by a person there, not thoughts or explanations–in order to point out that telling is constantly interwoven with scene, though writers fall somewhere on a continuum as to whether they tend to show more or tell more. She cites Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants as one of the most pure examples of scene. It gets very stripped-down to be that purist.

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