Tag: Exposition

What Can We Steal From Junot Diaz’s “Miss Lora”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Miss Lora,” short story
Author: Junot Diaz
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in the April 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.  As of this writing, the story is available for free on the New Yorker web site.  You will also find the story in his collection This is How You Lose Her.  You will also find the story in the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Bonuses:  Very cool!  The Brooklyn Academy of Music commissioned Nathan Gelgud to adapt “Miss Lora” into the form of the graphic novel.  You can view it here.  Writer and critic Charles May shares some thoughts about “Miss Lora.”  You may or may not agree with them, but you should enjoy the discussion.  Here are my thoughts about the Junot Diaz story, “Alma.”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Exposition

You are a young Dominican man whose brother has recently died.  Your girlfriend Paloma is the “only Puerto Rican girl on the earth who wouldn’t give up the ass for any reason.”  Why?  She doesn’t want to make any “mistakes” that would prevent her from going to college and succeeding in life.  That’s why you start sleeping with Miss Lora, a teacher who is so skinny that she “made Iggy Pop look chub.”  Miss Lora makes you cheeseburgers and “gets naked like a pro.”  Time goes on.  Miss Lora gets a better job, you and Paloma go to different colleges.  One of your college girlfriends tries to confront Miss Lora for sexually abusing you, but Miss Lora never enters the door.  Years later, you try to track Miss Lora down.

Look at what Mr. Diaz does in the first few pages.  After establishing that the bulk of the narrative will take place in the past (“Years later,”), Mr. Diaz heaps the pathos onto the reader.  The narrator has some kind of interesting sexual affair and his brother is dead and he’s very in love (sexual and otherwise) and his current girlfriend isn’t quite fitting the bill.  The first three sections increase in length; Mr. Diaz is doing what I call the “flood and release.”  The reader is given some highly emotional content…and then the narrative jumps, providing the reader with time to digest and contextualize the narrator’s unique situation.

At least one of Mr. Diaz’s lines made me stop and consider what he meant.  About halfway in, the narrator describes Miss Lora by saying, “She gets naked like a pro.”  I could think of at least two meanings for the sentence:

  1. Mr. Diaz could be making use of the “like a pro” idiom.
  2. Mr. Diaz could be referring to people such as prostitutes who do indeed get naked for a living.  (I gather that the nudity is a prelude.)

I’m not sure other readers will see ambiguity in the sentence, but the line stuck out to me for whatever reason.  I suppose what I’m recommending is that you take a moment to consider something that may not occur to you very much: the literal meaning of idioms.  Why do we lightheartedly call a group of judgmental folks a “peanut gallery?”  Why have we chosen to point out that congenital complainers are “the squeaky wheels” that “get the grease?”  Why does a sale get us “more bang for the buck?”  The reader (if fluent in English, of course), absorbs the language as a figure of speech.  The real words remain, however.  I wonder what linguistics and other really smart people think about this subject.  How do the literal and figurative meanings of idioms affect our reading?

Mr. Diaz made a choice in this story that isn’t to my personal taste.  I hasten to say that I understand many great writers make this choice…and they’re not necessarily wrong.  Mr. Diaz eschews quotation marks in his dialogue.  As with any decision, there are costs and benefits.  Why do I make the personal choice to use quotation marks?  Here are a couple big reasons:

  • They eliminate confusion as to which sentences are spoken by a character and which are contributed by a narrator.  Maybe it’s just me, but I always find ambiguities and spend time trying to figure out which words are which.  When I write a story, I want my reader thinking about the characters and situation, not trying to divine what I mean on so basic a level.
  • They offer a clear distinction between dialogue and non-dialogue scenes.  When I see a bunch of quotation marks, I know that the writer is crafting a scene between people instead of offering the narrator free rein.

What Should We Steal?

  • Imbue your exposition with an ebb and flow.  The release of exposition should resemble a pleasant weekend drive.  Your foot is sometimes on the gas and sometimes you coast to enjoy the scenery.
  • Take a moment to consider the literal meaning of idioms.  Literal and figurative meanings influence the way we perceive a sentence, don’t they?
  • Complete a cost/benefit analysis to determine whether or not you want to employ quotation marks.  Writing is an artistic pursuit, isn’t it?  We should all have some justification for the choices we make.

What Can We Steal From Stewart O’Nan’s Emily, Alone?


Title of Work and its Form:  Emily, Alone, novel
Author: Stewart O’Nan (on Twitter @stewartonan)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The book can be purchased at all fine bookstores.  Why not give some business to a local retailer, such as Oswego, NY’s The River’s End Bookstore?  You can also buy the book online from sites such as Powell’s.

Bonuses: I am healthily jealous of Mr. O’Nan for countless reasons.  He wrote a book with Stephen King…and it was about baseball.  Faithful is excellent and anyone who loves sports can relate to it.  (I’m a Tiger fan and I loved it.)  I also enjoyed the very short but very powerful Last Night at the Lobster.  Here is an NYT piece in which Mr. O’Nan discusses the book.  Here is a Washington Post review of Emily, Alone.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Exposition

Books bring us many blessings.  In addition to the joy of “living” with Emily for a few hours, Mr. O’Nan removed me from the stress and inconvenience of a flat tire.  I heard the dreaded thumpthumpthumpthump and knew that something was wrong and immediately pulled into a safe area between houses/apartment buildings.  I hasten to point out that I tried to put the spare on myself, but the tire wasn’t coming off.  I didn’t want to kick the tire too hard, sending the car off the jack and rolling into the street, so I called for roadside service…and waited.

And waited. 

I don’t really respond well to these kinds of problems; they bum me out a lot more than they should.  Thankfully, I am the kind of guy who has a ton of books in his car.  Believe it or not, I waited so long for roadside assistance that I was able to read the whole book.

And what a book it is.  Emily Maxwell is a widow who is in that somewhat sad state of life.  Her children are grown and have their own children.  Her circle of friends is decreasing steadily.  She is surrounded with reminders of her old life.  There is certainly plenty of joy.  Emily sees her mildly disappointing kids and her grandchildren on occasion.  Living in the same place for so many decades makes a trip to the breakfast place an opportunity to see many familiar faces.  The book begins as Emily and her sister-in-law Arlene are off to have some breakfast—with a coupon, natch.  The inciting incident of the novel occurs when Arlene has a mild stroke, collapsing beside the buffet.

The rest of the book represents the craft lesson I’d like to discuss.  A lot happens in the book…and it doesn’t.  Emily thinks about giving away the matched luggage her husband Henry bought a long time ago.  Emily considers (in a pleasant way) her granddaughter’s lesbianism.  Emily wonders whether or not she should hide the ancient liquor before her daughter Margaret visits.  A hit-and-run driver collides with the giant car that Henry loved in the middle of the night.

Is this a thrill-a-minute book?  Yes and no.  Mr. O’Nan has the bravery to tell a thrilling internal story about an interesting woman.  I don’t know if you have the same tendency, but I always feel the need to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN in stories.  I’m not saying that there must always be explosions or kidnappings or alien invasions in my work, but Mr. O’Nan offers a great reminder that story is also about internal conflict and the lives of normal people.

One of the metaphors that I use for storytelling is this:

When the reader begins a story or novel, he or she should feel as though the writer has flipped a chair backwards, straddled it and said, “Okay, I have a great story to tell you.  Here we go.”

Mr. O’Nan certainly makes it clear that he’s going to tell you a great story, but I think he is saying something different after flipping the chair:

“You may remember Emily from one of my previous books.  Check it out: I’m going to immerse you in Emily’s heart and mind for three hours and allow you to understand the kind of person you might not have thought about much.”

In a way, the whole book is an EXPOSITION BOMB.  Mr. O’Nan must tell you about Emily’s family and her past and her town and her friends and her politics and her outlook on money and…gosh, so much.  In my hands, Emily, Alone would probably not be a very good book.  Why?  Well, mainly because I don’t know as much about people as Mr. O’Nan does.  But the gentleman chooses the right narrator.  The third person limited narrator is planted firmly in Emily’s mind and is usually (if not always) in her corner.

What Should We Steal?

  • Ignore the obligation to pack your story with too much action or external conflict.  Try writing a story in which the conflict is far more internal.  See what it feels like to write a story placing characterization over plot.
  • Employ a third person limited narrator to facilitate characterization and exposition.  When your story is all about an older character who is a little lonely, you might have trouble getting exposition across with a confidante.  That third person limited narrator can tell the reader anything it likes.
  • Respond to life’s little hiccups by breaking out a book instead of a sweat.  If nothing else, I had three hours of reading time forced upon me.  There are far worse things to complain about.  Emily, Alone will always be the book I read while waiting for help to come, and I’m thankful that Mr. O’Nan was responsible for making an unpleasant experience more palatable.

What Can We Steal from Nathan Deuel’s “Night of the Gun”?


Title of Work and its Form: “Night of the Gun,” creative nonfiction
Author: Nathan Deuel (on Twitter @nathandeuel)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece first appeared in Issue 4/5 of the St. Petersburg Review, a very cool journal with an international focus.

Bonuses:  Try not to be blinded by jealousy, but Mr. Deuel lives in Beirut and travels all over the place and writes for a million prestigious publications.  Here‘s a piece of memoir he wrote for Aeon Magazine.  And here‘s a piece that was published online by The Paris Review.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Exposition

Who doesn’t want to visit the Middle East?  The cradle of civilization…the region that produced the 1001 Nights…the food.  Admittedly, there are some concerns with spending time in the region, but if The Twilight Zone taught us anything, it’s that people are the same all over.  Cultural differences may be interesting, but they shouldn’t keep us from understanding others.  Mr. Deuel describes an interesting cross-cultural experience that occurred when he was living in Riyadh.  Mr. Deuel’s landlord, Mohammad, invited him to bring his wife Kelly to see his farm.  No longer able to duck the invitation, the two headed out into the desert on a winter afternoon.  (The average winter temperature in Riyadh is over 70 degrees Fahrenheit.)  Mohammad does his best to be a good host, offering food and telling stories about the land and his family’s connection to it.  In the climax of the piece, Mohammad brandishes an unloaded Spanish pistol, intending to show it to Mr. Deuel’s wife.  Mr. Deuel objects—“She hates guns”—and Mohammad shows her anyway, creating a little bit of tension.  The piece ends on that discordant tone.  Mohammad and the couple still regard each other highly, but they are both recognizing that cultural differences still keep us apart to some extent.

Pretend you’re writing a scene at a family reunion.  You have a big potential problem on your hands.  You need to tell the audience who is who, but family members don’t often give each other a lot of basic exposition.  Think about it—cousins don’t need to ask each other their names or what they do for a living, and so on.  You, the writer, need a way to get exposition across and to do it in an organic fashion.  Mr. Deuel introduces us to Mohammad in a felicitous manner.  He and his wife were (quite reluctantly) on their way into the desert.  Neither his wife nor the reader know much about Mohammad at this point, so Mr. Deuel wrote the following:

Aware that I had no idea how far we needed to go, I fought off a mounting feeling of dread by telling Kelly what I knew of our host.

After Mr. Deuel gives himself a good and logical excuse, he can simply tell the audience whatever he likes about Mohammad.

In this piece, Mr. Deuer is recounting the important parts of an encounter he had during a visit to his landlord’s home.  The piece is only a few pages long; Mr. Deuer consciously zips along to describe whatever moments he feels are most important.  I don’t know how many other people feel this way, but if I were writing this piece, I would feel pressure to put more of the story into actual scene, with dialogue and action and everything.  Instead, Mr. Deuer saves his most detailed scenemaking for the most important part of the narrative: the experience with the titular gun. Mr. Deuer asserts the prose writer’s prerogative, zipping through time with phrases such as “Soon we pulled up to the ruins” and “Back at the house.”

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ felicitous methods to release the exposition your audience needs.  It probably doesn’t make sense for a mother to introduce herself to a son and to describe what her life is like.  But a mother describing herself to a son’s new girlfriend?  That makes much more sense.
  • Fast-forward through the less-critical parts of your narrative.  The audience wants to read about the interesting and the significant, not the conventional and banal.