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By Emily Sinclair
For years, I have been haunted by “Time Passes,” the middle section of Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse.
Its subject is the aftermath of grief and loss—the deaths of Mrs. Ramsey and Prue and Andrew Ramsey—but that isn’t why “Time Passes” stays with me. It stays with me because Woolf managed, in 20 pages, to move through a 10-year span in which both everything and nothing changes. While characters die and a world war comes and goes, the summer home remains, still and silent, yet alive with “little airs.” It’s impossible to imagine “Time Passes” as a traditional literary section, although it contains scenes. Part of its magic comes from the fact that it’s written in summary and exposition, two kinds of passages that offer writers a kind of range and versatility that can be difficult to match by writing in scene.
A couple of years ago, I returned to “Time Passes” when I began my obsession with scene and summary in earnest. Back then, I was writing from the perspective of a teenage narrator. Of course, bad stuff was happening to her—she was my prize character, after all—but I began to feel as though her only means of addressing her troubles was firing up another cigarette and dyeing her hair even blacker. She was in scene, dammit, I was showing, and she had to act. And as I wrote on, the poor girl was forever getting in trouble, yelling at people, smoking, over-eating, and endlessly grooming. I was exhausted, she was running out of trouble to find. She was going to have to start robbing convenience stores by mid-book if I didn’t find a different way to tell her story, and that wouldn’t have done at all.
So I returned to “Time Passes” and other books in which the author has, to great effect, largely ignored that old chestnut of writing instruction: show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell is often interpreted to mean that writer should, as often as possible, choose to write in scene and to avoid exposition. Scene, common logic runs, is where the action is and permits the reader the pleasure of discovery. I write scenes, and I believe that they’re important. But to privilege them over exposition means giving up an awful lot of variety and opportunity in one’s writing. Plus, showing was wearing me out—all those settings, all that action! The question for me was, how to tell—to write in summary and exposition, and do so dramatically?
When I first began writing long expository passages, I got margin notes from readers that said, Where is she? Where are we in the story? Is she talking directly to the audience? What’s the fictional occasion? So, lesson one: exposition and summary are not chunks of filler in which the author offloads necessary information or all the fantastic sentences she’s cut from other sections. I was gravely disappointed by this, but pressed on, reading and taking apart the work of writers I admire. In time, I learned that summary and exposition are their own, unique elements of craft. Their structures, and the ways they are embedded in, and relate to, the larger narrative, are endlessly interesting and versatile. Summary and exposition allow writers to move through long periods of time, or to convey information. Summary gives writer and reader a pause, and perhaps glimpse of the interior life of a narrator and her imaginings. They set a mood. They move away from close-ups of the action and remind us of our story’s context. They allow us to be efficient storytellers.
But there is a subliminal message here, too, which is the importance—the manuscript-altering importance!—of close reading. It may feel, when we’re writing, as if we’re alone, but we’re not. So many have been there before us, and they’re on the shelf, waiting for us to learn from them.