More on Exposition and Scene in Creative Nonfiction

In The Practical Stylist (6th Edition) Sheridan Baker offers an excerpt from Loren Eiseley as an example of exposition:

The apes are not all similar in type or appearance. They are men and yet not men. Some are frailer-bodied, some have great, bone-cracking jaws and massive gorilloid crests atop their skulls. This fact leads us to another of Wallace’s remarkable perceptions of long ago. With the rise of the truly human brain, Wallace saw that man had transferred to his machines and tools many of the alterations of parts that in animals take place through evolution of the body. Unwittingly, man had assigned to his machines the selective evolution which in the animal changes the nature of its bodily structure through the ages. Man of today, the atomic manipulator, the aeronaut who flies faster than sound, has precisely the same brain and body as his ancestors of twenty thousand years ago who painted the last Ice Age mammoths on the walls of caves in France.

A detailed descriptive passage, but no motion, and some abstraction. It doesn’t set a scene in the same way narrative summary might. In Write Away, Elizabeth George cites as an example of narrative summary — though fiction —  a passage from E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India:

So the cavalcade ended, partly pleasant, partly not; the Brahman cook was picked up, the train arrived, pushing its burning throat over the plain, and the twentieth century took over the sixteenth. Mrs. Moore entered her carriage, the three men went to theirs, adjusted the shutters, turned on the electric fan and tried to get some sleep. In the twilight, all resembled corpses, and the train itself seemed dead though it moved — a coffin from the scientific north which troubled the scenery four times a day. As it left the Marabars, their nasty little cosmos disappeared, and gave place to the Marabars seen from a distance; finite and rather romantic. The train halted once under a pump, to drench the stock of coal in its tender. Then it caught sight of the main line in the distance, took courage, and bumped forward, rounded the civil station, surmounted the level-crossing (the rails were scorching now), and clanked to a standstill. Chandrapore. Chandrapore! The expedition was over.

A detailed but quick summation of  a train trip. Compare the above to a passage from a scene from Richard Selzer’s “Under the Knife” cited in Tell It Slant:

There is a hush in the room. Speech stops. The hands of the others, assistants and nurses, are still. Only the voice of the patient’s respiration remains. It is the rhythm of a quiet sea, the sound of waiting. Then you speak, slowly, the terse entries of a Himalayan climber reporting back.

The passage further explores the surgery Selzer is describing; it extends it to the dramatic moment the surgeon discovers a cancerous deposit.

These examples are clear to me when another writer points them out. Where I feel I falter is differentiating between fully evolved scene and narrative summary in my own writing.

This week, to reinvigorate the writing juices, I’ve been working on the exercises in Tell It Slant. The first exercise says to go through a piece of your writing, pick out a passage of summary that might work better as a scene, and then write that scene.

Here’s the passage from a piece of writing that I selected:

Of grief I was aware. My August 1, 2006 blog post contemplates what my father might have felt as he lay dying in the hospital. Almost two years after my dad died, I was still haunted by his death. I was not there in the hospital at the moment of his death. I was there several hours before, watching his kidneys fail, his blood rinsing his catheter, while me, my sister, my aunt and my uncle huddled with Dad’s pastor to pray. On my part the prayer was forced; it was to a god long dead, one indifferent to my grief.

Clearly summary of  a dramatic event. Here is the scene I wrote:

For days my father lay semi-conscious in a hospital bed, a rasping ventilator tube unnaturally twisting his lips. The ventilator is off, he is alive, but not conscious, or at least, as far as I can tell, not aware anyone is with him, when I get to his room in ICU that Sunday evening. His body is swollen and distorted. His mouth is probably slack, ringed with the vestiges of peppery whiskers. But the image I remember the most is this: a stream of blood, bright red like children’s cough medicine, flushes through the clear plastic catheter tube and winds its way into a clear plastic box at the foot of the bed. Someone — a nurse perhaps — told me kidney failure is the first sign a patient is dying. Or the last. As the blood spills into the box, its tendrils reach into a pool of brackish urine.

At about this moment, if not before, my aunt, uncle, and father’s pastor materialize. When I see the three of them, I become aware of how thick my breath is with beer. The reverend huddles us up for prayer. Her hand touches mine. She and my aunt and uncle bow their heads. The beer fogs my breath so much the odor seems like a permanent fixture in my nostrils. The reverend is saying something, probably my father’s name, something like blah blah blah your servant Parker. I can’t wait until we break our huddle, I can’t wait until the pastor leaves, I can’t wait until my sister gets here.

What I wonder is if I was successful in revising my initial passage into a scene. Or is the revised passage narrative summary?


3 thoughts on “More on Exposition and Scene in Creative Nonfiction

  1. Todd, Your revised passage is a scene, a powerful one that engages many senses. It is by definition a scene because it shows unfolding action. The first account is exposition or narrative summary: it tells a story but in more summary or “told” form. I’ll have to look at George’s book again.

    It is ironic that was torturing myself with these questions at the same time as you, because I tell too much instead of show. What I decided is that the key is SCENE, not how much exposition or summary is mixed in. That will vary by writer and topic, and visual aspects can be enhanced in revision. Scenes are active, visual. But the writer’s point of view is one of the most appealing and powerful aspects of prose, and it’s basically expository, as is voice.

    • The exercises in Tell it Slant are some of the most challenging I’ve done, especially when thinking about essays in terms of scene and dialogue, etc. One thing I noticed, too, is how distracted I get, how often I digress in what’s essentially a first draft of an essay. I start going off on tangents and waxing philosophic. Something David Kaplan in his book Revision tells writers to weed out.

      The particular passage I chose is part of a larger essay, and it’s part of a tangent on grief. As I was rewriting the passage for the exercise to see if I could do it as a scene, I realized this passage is to me about my religious skepticism. Which, as I was writing, I was also imagining a full essay on that subject.

      Which comes to another tangent: I seem to be able to show scenes or partial scenes for a paragraph or a page or two before delving into summary or worse abstract philosophizing and then losing track of what the essay was about.

      Still, it really is challenging to tell when to tell or show, and to figure out when something needs to be dramatized, and when it works well as expository writing.

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