Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Exposition contains tenderness; dramatized scenes prove emotional experience. Say what?!

All right, I need your help. You got some ‘splaining to do. Please. Especially if you’re a writer, teach writing, study it, edit it or review it. The name of this exercise is “WHAT’D HE SAY??? WHAT’D HE MEAN???”

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about Akhil Sharma’s award-winning novel, FAMILY LIFE.

In “A Conversation Between Akhil Sharma and Mohsin Hamid,” included in the back of the book, Sharma says something that I didn’t understand. I read it
several times and thought about it off and on for a few days. Then I sent out the following email to a half-dozen writers and teachers:

I have just finished reading Akhil Sharma’s FAMILY LIFE. There is a ‘conversation’ with the author at the back of the book. In it, Sharma says:

“One technical difference between FAMILY LIFE and AN OBEDIENT FATHER is that I use much more exposition in FAMILY LIFE. To me exposition always contains tenderness. While a dramatized scene is a way of proving and guaranteeing an emotional experience for the reader, exposition assumes that the reader is sophisticated and can see the universal. Exposition suggests a great trust in the reader, and this expression of trust makes a book feel tender.”

I don’t understand what exposition means in this context or why it “always contains tenderness.” I don’t know what to make of this paragraph and yet it feels crucial to understanding the novel.

Can you shed any light on it for me???

I got a number of responses. The first to arrive was from a published poet/short story writer, who said:

I don’t know – but my interpretation is a 'dramatized scene' in writing is more showing: allowing the reader to enter a scene, to feel what the character is feeling. It is close and personal. 'Exposition' is more telling. Telling would be more gentle because it creates distance between the reader and the characters. I’m interested in what others think...

Next to arrive was from a teacher of poetry who had read the first response:

Ditto. Exposition, as said, seems to be telling, not showing. But in the sense of ‘expose’ or ‘exposure,’ if vulnerabilities are established then tender could be part of it. I wonder. Of course all this stuff is very idiosyncratic – that’s the nice thing about language. You can make it mean anything you want it to. (At least that’s what we learned from Alice in W.)

From a creative writing teacher with two published books under her belt:

Well, it doesn’t quite make sense to me either, but maybe he’s getting at the depth of pov voice, which is reader access to the depths of human consciousness. I guess there’s something tender about that connection. ?????

From another published author and editor:

That tenderness bit throws me. Exposition is generally used for context or back story. Maybe he is including reflection on people and events while avoiding judgment of them. That could require sophistication and tenderness. What do you think?

From a writer in my critique group:

Sorry to take so long to respond but here is my two cents worth: I am assuming from the title of the book that exposition, for the author, carries more explanation of the characters’ emotions so that the reader empathizes more easily, possibly with remembered experiences. Dialog is usually more to the point and may possibly omit nuances of feeling. I think most characters today do not discourse at length about the depth of their feelings. Hope that helps a bit.

And, finally, from a professor of English literature with two published novels:

I think it is bullshit and perhaps I only say that because I don’t understand what the f**k he is talking about. Perhaps my mind is muddled because I had to get up too early for Easter Sunrise service. Or maybe I am f**king old and my mind is fried. Frankly, I don’t get it. I have no idea what exposition has to do with tenderness or lack thereof. Or how it affects the reader’s perception emotionally.

So, now it’s your turn. Do you agree with any of the above? If not, what do you think Sharma meant? I really would like to understand.

And if by chance you know him, would you please ask for me? Inquiring minds…

Thank you.


  1. i have a thought on your question which i love...Here's a go...

    when I think of exposition (in this context), I think that he may approach those scenes more indirectly. It is not always necessary to say someone has been hit or molested or damaged. Some say it well with the turn of the weather, the shut of a door, a look on a character's face--building and layering in a complex and powerful way (this does require a sensitive, alert, and receptive kind of reader)

    the dramatic scenes -- they guarantee that bang... they are heart wrenching, door slamming-- they are clear cut, leaving no ambiguity in the readers' minds...drama bangers that deliver in an entirely different way.

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