My Friend EDNA

I was introduced to EDNA the first time I ever read my work aloud to a critique group.  Despite my shaking hands and voice, the other writers received my first effort well. (I still belong to this group because its attitude is that 1. any writer willing to learn deserves respect, and 2. all writers can learn more about the craft.) Of course I made awful mistakes — passive verbs, telling instead of showing, and…the dreaded Info Dump. Instead of starting out with a good hook, I detailed the background of each character. I now know that readers do want background info, just not in great whacking chunks at the book’s beginning.

At the end of the evening, the group’s moderator took me aside and pressed a page of handwritten notes into my hand.  “Read these,” she ordered quietly. “They’ll help you balance your writing.”  The moderator is now my friend and mentor, Sally J. Walker, and the piece of paper introduced me to EDNA: Exposition, Description, Narration and Action/Dialogue.  These are four types of fiction and each helps pull a reader into the story.  It was the first writing lesson I ever learned and remains one of the most valuable.

I could go on for pages about each mode  — in fact, Sally teaches an entire course about them, but here they are in a nutshell, with definitions from my trusty Merriam-Webster.

Exposition: One of the definitions of the word is “discourse designed to convey information”.  When writing, exposition provides information the reader must have in order to make sense of the rest of the book.  It can be information about a character’s background, or about a situation unfamiliar to readers. In an example of the latter, the heroine of my first book reflects on how the laws of her day prevent her from claiming her inheritance

Description: “…an account that presents a picture to a person who reads or hears it.”  Or a sound, smell, taste or touch.  Description tells the reader what a character observes with his or her physical senses.  Good description draws readers in so they can visualize characters and imagine themselves inside the story.  Words like “click”, “clash”, “stench”, “fragrance”, “vinegary”, “sticky”, “tickle”, and “sting” conjure up concrete sensations.

Narration: Probably the least used mode, because its purpose is to summarize the passage of time or an event.  It is still necessary! Narration allows a writer to skip over days or weeks when no action occurs that affects the story.  Here is a masterful example from “The Hobbit“: “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. They stayed long in that house, fourteen days at least, and they found it hard to leave…Yet there is little to tell about their stay.”

Action/Dialogue: Yes, action is when characters are doing stuff and dialogue is when they’re talking.  The point is that the characters are actively doing something in the story to move it forward, which is why action and dialogue are linked.  “To talk” is a verb, just like “to run” or “to carry”. Or “to think”, “to ponder” and “to plot”. Mental activity is still doing something.  Actions and conversations show  the characters’ personalities and motivations and advance the story, so as long as there aren’t pages and pages of it, the reader is interested and again, drawn into the book.

The key is balance.  Long passages of any one type of prose will numb the reader’s mind, even if it’s a complicated action sequence.  Even a single sentence of description or exposition can give the reader a break from a kaleidoscope of action and refresh them enough to go on.  Similarly, passages of description need to be broken up with action or dialogue, or telescoped with narrative before the reader gets bored.

I still have Sally’s notes, although I’ve had to transpose them because I wore out the original page she gave me.  And yes, I still check my pages to be sure they have at least three of the four kinds of prose on each page.  It’s never wise to ignore EDNA.

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