I’m approximately a third of the way through a first draft of my second novel for young adults, currently called All Souls. The first book is languishing in the inbox of some Top London Agents, rubbing shoulders with the Booker winners of the future and hopefully stealing their famous dandruff.
I’m at a part in the story where a recently introduced character is having to catch up with what the characters – and the readers – will know from the first book. I’m not a fan of cop-outs such as ‘and then, as time passed in a manner conducive to the exposition of a series of important facts, our heroine told the young man all he needed to know.’ I prefer to allow the readers to witness our new character stumbling over the pieces of the puzzle and trying to fit them in some order which makes sense. There are risks and opportunities attached to this kind of exposition.
The risk: Repetition, i.e., a potted version of what went before that will bore the reader to tears.
How to avoid this? I think the answer is to consider who your characters are and how they communicate. Would they tell the story the same way the writer has? Probably not. Their priorities and experience are different to yours – they are not omniscient (unless it’s a first person narrator, and even then, they probably don’t know everything that’s transpired in the book to date.) Thinking this way turns the problem into a challenge and presents a number of opportunities to strengthen your characters and narrative.
The opportunities: Character insights, plot development
A different version of events, as told by one character to another, can provide humour and insights into a character’s agenda. Some missing information or an incomplete or dishonest version of events can create potential for interesting plotting. For example, my heroine doesn’t want to face up to some facts about her past and her new friend is unaware of this. So he’s probing her answers, which are vague. This allows us to gauge his character – open, a little hapless and possibly none too aware of the complexities of the teenage female mind. My heroine’s reticence serves as a reminder of the obstacle she faces. Her new friend’s questions cause her to examine her own motives for concealing her past. It all works organically (I hope) to reinforce the plot while simultaneously telling us something about the characters.
Finally, there’s the challenge of orchestrating the actual conversation – in this case, between a 16 year old girl and an 18 year old boy. Not only are they miles apart in terms of maturity and life experience, they’re also from different social backgrounds. This makes writing their conversation a lot of fun; there are a thousand and one opportunities for misunderstanding. And then there’s the final challenge; not only do we need to hear what’s being said and communicated, we need to visualise it too. Body language is hugely important and we need to be able to read it alongside the dialogue. If this were a play, aside from the odd stage direction, the majority of this work would be done by the actors. In the case of the novel, it’s all up to the writer – to create subtle yet informative dialogue, paired with physical descriptions that illuminate or contradict the drift of the conversation, thus maintaining an air of tension while moving the plot forwards. Easy…