Monday, May 13, 2013

The Art of Exposition

It's all in the details

There's a trend that been going on lately in all sort of literary circles, appendices. Whether it's list of technical terms that demonstrate the level of research that went on into the story or a list of fantastical terms and names to show the level of depth and detail in a fantasy world. Details, that's the crux of it. The appendices are merely the symptom. With the advent of having the world at our fingertips, we writers can research the f%$%k out of something without having to even go to the library. This has it's advantages, but for those who have gotten drunk on the data, it's like their skull exploded on the page. And without the use of hyperlinks in a paper book, that research is shoved on the reader in massive infodumps. Thus, the Art of Exposition. The rub is that most writers are rarely exposed to good examples of exposition: 

  • In school, teachers spend more class time explaining the context of a classic story so the student can understand how history informed a piece. (That style has killed the passion for reading more than a million bad books.)
  • For literary writers, this is all new so quite a few are still wrapping their head around it.
  • Mysteries and Horror have exposition as key elements, but provides a plot structure that conveniently lets the writer slot it in an infodump.
  • For other genre writers (Historical drama, thriller, fantasy:) People keep passing around 50 year old classics that come from a time when skillful exposition wasn't a priority.
Even those people who love Lord of the Rings, joke about how it's "The dwarf took a step, now this particular dwarf was named Gimmialhill, the son of PointyHill, in the halls of ... (30 pages later) and then Gimmi took another step." While there is some truth the cliche of "geek" fans loving their detail, it's less true than you think. Roger Zelazny was probably the best at exposition, In a sleek 175 pages, Zelanzy takes Carl Corey from being a amnesiac handcuffed to a bed into a set up and a plot that that some writers could spend 10 times more page count explaining and detailing. Tolkien would have never finished that same story in his lifetime. Some other good writers to look into for expositions examples are :Dan Simmons (most of his novels), Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon and Frank Herbert's Dune.

Red flags. Re:Exposition vs Story.

Look to trim if it takes longer than a manuscript page to tell Following standard manuscript formats (1 in. margins, Courier New Font - 12 pt., and double spaced) you end up with something that's about 2/3 the size of a published page -- give or take.  
If you're almost spending a page explaining something that doesn't also move the story or illuminate a character, then it needs to go. If you feel that it has to stay to there educate the reader, you need to rethink your timing at the very least. Repeating the same detail to hammer home authenticity Mentioning the same 18th Century style banister when ever someone takes the stairs makes the reader expect you're planting evidence. something special might happen (Col. Mustard did it on mezzanine with a banister.)

Is the detail relevant: Going with the banister again ... It's mention could hint at the long history of the house or the wealth of the family. Are the banisters in tip-top shape from expert care from a DIY expert, are the worm eaten from neglect like the rest of the madman's house? Again, a spin on the detail that not only fills out the world, but adds insight to the story. 

How people react to the banister could show character as the young and reckless slide down the railing or the old and cautious grip it firmly. 
Using the Chorus:
Explaining the scene before it happens in one sentence (or more), and then going on for pages about those events. Either show us or tells us, doing both demonstrates that you're not sure which one is right for the scene.
Needless action to introduce dialogue or evidence: 
To avoid using "she said" at the end of of a quote, most writers have their characters do an action instead:
  1. So we avoid this ... "Watch out for that banister," Bob said.
  2. To get this sort of substitution ... Bob tied his shoe laces. "Watch out for that banister."
Or in the most egregious version I read once. A character was working at an instrument panel and then he pointed at nothing and no one so the writer could describe a weird blurry special effect. The character is working an instrument panel. He's moving his arms to flip switches and pop buttons, why does he have to point
Why is your detail different? 
And do you need to spend pages explaining how these banisters where made and how they got to the house? 

You can if it's critical to the plot. The great movie, The Red Violin goes on about the history of a certain violin, not only as a device to tell smaller stories in the narrative, but also to set up a big reveal at the end.

Even better. There's a saying in the horror field right now. You no longer have to explain what a zombie or a vampire is anymore, you just have to explain why your zombies and vampires -- and banisters -- are different.
Okay. That last bit with the banister. I made it up.

No comments:

Post a Comment