On Exposition

This is from a book on screenwriting by Robert McKee, but applies also to picturebooks. I’m surprised at how much it sounds like that terrible dating book written for women The Rules. (I saw the authors on Oprah years ago.)


  • Parse out exposition bit by bit though the entire story.
  • You can reveal exposition well into the climax of the last ‘act’.
  • Never include anything the reader can reasonably and easily assume has happened.
  • Only tell the reader things that would only cause confusion if left out.
  • You keep a reader’s interest not by offering them information but by withholding it.
  • Don’t write ‘California Scenes’. California scenes are when two characters who’ve just met each other sit down and talk everything through. If you’re familiar with the stereotypical Californian modern film (e.g. The Kids Are All Right) then you’ll know that Californians are renowned for talking everything through.
  • Don’t write ‘table dusting’ scenes. In old plays, exposition was often handled by two maids dusting, while one maid told the other about the master of the house. These days, telling without motivation or conflict isn’t accepted by an audience (though we still sometimes see it).
  • Don’t bring in a flashback until you’ve created in the audience a need and a desire to know.
  • There’s only one good reason for voice over narration: counterpoint. Woody Allen is the master of counterpoint narration. (And in picturebooks, if the words simply describe the pictures, then you’re in trouble.)
  • Respect the intelligence and sensitivity of your audience.


A Kind Of Literary Amnesia

IDEAS: You went back and reread children’s books from throughout history for your research. Did those books become more violent and realistic over time?

ABATE: It’s actually the opposite of that. I was also surprised by the level of specificity and by the sensational nature of what I was reading. We tend to think of today’s young adult books as being more realistic. But the earlier books were incredibly graphic and violent. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes,” which was first released as a magazine serial in 1912, is a great example. There are tons of killings—people killing people, people killing animals, animals killing people. All of them are really gruesome and gory. The same thing’s true of “Alice in Wonderland” and a bunch of other classics, books that would never be challenged today. These examples are all conveniently forgotten when there’s a public outcry about a particular book for being so graphic and so violent. It’s almost a kind of literary amnesia.

– from Murder For Young Readers

Writing Activity: Disgusting Meal

Task: Think of a disgusting meal you have had — real, imagined or a mixture of both — and make it sound as unappealing as you possibly can. As a further challenge, take a meal you have really enjoyed and make that sound as disgusting as possible. Or vice versa.

Here’s an example from a popular travel memoir. Notice how Bryson makes the food sound all the more disgusting by contrasting the general fervour with which those around him are scarfing it down.

The food was just plain terrible, and yet everybody in the room was shoveling it away as if there were no tomorrow. I picked at it for a while – bristly fried chicken, lettuce with blackened veins, French fries that had the appearance and appeal of albino slugs – and gave up, despondent. I pushed the plate away and wished that I still smoked. The waitress, seeing how much I had left, asked me if I wanted a doggie bag.

‘No thank you,’ I said through a thin smile, ‘I don’t believe I could find a dog that would eat it.’

On reflection, I can think of one eating experience even more dispiriting than dining at that cafe and that was the lunch-room at Callanan Junior High School in Des Moines. The lunch-room at Callanan was like something out of a prison movie. You would shuffle forward in a long, silent line and have lumpen, shapeless food dolloped on to your tray by lumpen, shapeless women – women who looked as if they were on day release from a mental institution, possibly for having poisoned food in public places. The food wasn’t merely unappealing, it was unidentifiable. Adding to the displeasure was the principal, Mr Snoyd, who was always stalking around behind you, ready to grab you by the neck and march you off to his office if you made gagging noises or were overheard inquiring of the person across from you, ‘Say, what is this shit?’ Eating at Callanan was like having your stomach pumped in reverse.

– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent



1. What is the adjective Bryson has used to describe the fried chicken? Why did he choose that particular word?

2. Lettuce is described as having ‘blackened veins’. What does the colour black often symbolise? What else has veins?

3. One way of making food sound disgusting is by comparing it to bugs and insects. Where does Bryson do that?

4. The cafe at Bryson’s junior high school is compared to a prison. He first tells, then describes. He makes use of hyperbole (exaggeration). What are the parts which are slightly exaggerated, do you think?

Three Ways Of Looking At Character

There are many ways of looking at character: flat vs rounded, static vs dynamic and stylized versus natural. These distinctions are explained below.



Is this character more ‘flat’ or more ’rounded’?

This distinction was first made by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, who said that a round character is one who is capable of surprise.

In any work of literature there is a place for characters of both orientations.

  • Are by nature 2D and without colour
  • Typically have one stand-out trait or none at all
  • Are often either ‘good’ or ‘evil’
  • Actions are predictable
  • Common in formulaic fiction
  • The characters in Winnie the Pooh are all flat, but collectively make up parts of a single character (Christopher Robin), who is not flat
  • But a flat character is not necessarily artistically worse than a rounded one — whatever serves the story is good.
  • Respond in predictable, mechanical ways. This makes flat characters very useful in comedy or in suspense stories (e.g. horror and thriller).


  • More closely approximates a real person
  • Possess a number of traits
  • We can’t predict their behaviour
  • Protagonists aren’t necessarily rounded, though are more likely to be so
  • Secondary characters aren’t necessarily flat, though are more likely to be so
  • In children’s literature, the rounded characters are generally less complex than they would be in real life, for simplicity’s sake





Dynamic characters change over the course of the story.

Static characters remain the same.

What about the characters in the books you’ve published so far? Here are mine:

Asaf of The Artifacts changes. Therefore he is of ‘dynamic orientation’. He stops collecting material items to make himself happy and begins to broaden his mind with experiences.

Roya of Midnight Feast changes a little, but ultimately chooses to ignore the realities right outside her window. She is closer to the ‘static’ end of the continuum.

Hilda of Hilda Bewildered undergoes an entire character arc from overwhelmed to able to cope.

Allegra of Diary Of A Goth Girl also undergoes an entire character arc, from prickly and mean to loving.

  • Both main characters and supporting characters can be static or dynamic.
  • Old didactic (moralistic) children’s literature is more likely to have static characters.
  • But static characters aren’t necessarily worse  than dynamic characters — it depends on the story.
  • Contemporary children’s literature commonly depicts inner growth, and therefore needs a dynamic main character.
  • Rounded characters can be either dynamic or static — these are two different continua
  • There’s kind of a rule of kidlit that a good kid can’t turn evil, but the opposite often happens, even if the ending is left ‘open’, and we’re encouraged to assume redemption
  • Oftentimes, if a character were to change too much we’d be disappointed. We’d be disappointed if Anne of Green Gables lost her optimistic attitude, for example.




This distinction is important in children’s fiction.

  • Stylisation is a commonly used didactic device. (Stylised characters are used to teach the reader something.)
  • A stereotype is a kind of stylisation (as well as tropes and stock characters)
  • Contemporary psychological novels tend to feature natural characterization


Header photo by Basil Samuel Lade.