I’m reading a pretty terrible novel in fits and starts; I like to finish novels when I start them. In fact, there has been just one novel I’ve picked up in my life that I didn’t finish. That was a weird moment in my life, actually; I bought the book when I was probably 15 or 16 and felt this weird antipathy towards it. Like, I dreaded the book. I also hated the story, but I dreaded the physical object. So I decided to bring it back to the store for a refund, but when I got to the store I had a weird anxiety attack and so I wound up just leaving the book on the shelf again, no refund.
In another life, that’s the beginning of a horror story, somehow.
Anyways, other than that one time if I start reading a book I finish that son of a bitch, trust me. So I’m struggling through this one, and one of the main reasons it’s terrible is the way the characters routinely stop whatever they’re supposed to be doing to explain themselves. Everyone in this book is a Basil Exposition, constantly pausing to make a speech about their motivations.
Here’s a simple trick for better writing and better characters: Don’t do that. In fact, it’s better if your characters never actually explain themselves at all.
Sweet Mystery of Life
Exposition and how to do it is always a challenge, but having your characters stand up and make a speech is almost never the right way to do it. The Somers Rule for How to Do Characters Or Not Hey What Do I Know Rule states that your characters should behave like real people, within the bounds of the universe you’ve created. And real people don’t usually stand up and make speeches explaining themselves.
In fact, in my experience people are frustratingly prone to the opposite. People usually assume their motives are obvious, their innocence printed on their faces, their feelings towards you plain. Imagine if everyone around you randomly launched into lengthy speeches about their plans for the evening, the reason they’re not attending that meeting, that party, their lengthy designs on world domination and mass murder. It would be kind of weird, wouldn’t it?
So it is with characters. If the best way you can explain your plot or your timey-wimey bubble of special universe physics is to have everyone stop cold and make speeches, you are not writing a good book.
However—if you’re working on a zero draft and you’re using the speech technique just to map out the fundamentals, and you fully intend to revise these ugly speeches out when you get to later drafts that humans will be expected to read, that’s totally fine. Zero drafts are ugly, pus-filled horrors. All is forgiven if you rub enough revision salve on ‛em.