CHAPTER 4: “Shut Up!” He Explained – Handling Exposition

AT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR STORY, you’re going to have to decide how to convey necessary background facts. That’s exposition.

Exposition involves breaking away from the ongoing action to give information – for a paragraph, or for a page or more. It’s the author telling the reader something – telling, rather than showing.

As I explained earlier, telling is much less effective than showing. It follows that exposition is less dramatic and less vivid than a scene – generally, a lot less.

So, as with all major components of narrative, you’ll need to recognize the nature of the problem and find effective, appropriate ways of compensating.

WHY EXPLAIN?

You may be asking, reasonably enough, if exposition is so dull, why not stick to scenes? Well, you can, if you want to and your story will allow it.  A good many short stories are one single scene with no more than a phrase or two of exposition or description in any one place.  Hemingway’s stories are almost all sparse like that.  Some novels, like Jack Shaefer’s classic western Shane, can be all present-time, all surface, and yet be powerful in a stark kind of way.

But doing without exposition can be a problem too. Not all writers want to sound like Hemingway, and not all stories can be limited to immediate, direct action with no past, no context, no overview.

Scenes are, of their nature, close-focus. Having nothing but scenes would be like a movie all in close-up, with no establishing shots, no panning across the landscape to reveal eventual figures far away.  That can feel pretty claustrophobic and nearsighted, after a while.

Well-handled exposition gives perspective, dimension, and needed context that help events in the foreground make sense. Watching only scenes, in long or complex fiction, would be like trying to follow a baseball game through the wrong end of the binoculars.  You’d have a lot of motion, all right – but the larger motions of the game would be extremely hard to follow.

In fiction, doing completely without explanations would mean you couldn’t describe a person or place for more than a phrase or two. You couldn’t skip over periods of time when nothing of importance is happening, not without a jarring break in the narrative.  You couldn’t take a confusing, close-focus series of events, draw back, and give the reader an overview of what it all means.  You couldn’t tell about any of the characters’ background or previous experience.

Worst of all, maybe, you’d find it very hard to begin in medias res, in the middle of things – you couldn’t pull back after the initial scene and say how things got that way.  That would be a real handicap.

Even scenes, wonderful scenes, have their trade-offs, their problems that require compensation. Even high drama needs relief and context and overview.  And that’s the special job nothing can supply but the more distant, less immediate, more thoughtful kind of storytelling: exposition.

So in practice, fiction is a balance between scene and explanation – 70% / 30% or maybe even 80% / 20%.

There may not be much explanation, but nothing else can do its work so economically or so well.

There also is nothing else that can kill a story quicker than explanation taking over, exposition badly handled.

Like viewpoint shifts, it needs to be treated with utmost respect, care, and narrative craft.

BURIED IN FOOTNOTES

I knew a writer who had nightmares about tons of exposition slithering down on her like a landslide.  It can feel like that to a reader, too: smothering deluges of fact that prevent any motion at all.  Ever read a text book with lots of footnotes?  Remember how you tended to skip or ignore the footnotes?  Now, those of you who’ve read Moby Dick: how many of you actually read every word of the cetology Chapters telling the folklore, anatomy, and habits of whales?

(Being a thorough-going nature nut, I personally enjoy the cetology Chapters. Just like a nice National Geographic special.  But I know a lot of folk who feel otherwise.)

Exposition is the curse of several of the popular genres, including science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. There are all those facts to be explained: maybe a whole new universe to be accounted for, the languages and customs of the Elven races, not to mention all those suspects and alibis!  Westerns and historical fiction, necessarily built on a bedrock of research, are perhaps even more prone to this problem.  If these facts, research, and outright invention aren’t controlled and subordinated to the plot’s needs, they can take over and literally bury a story in footnotes masquerading as narration.

WORLD-BUILDERS’ DISEASE

For a writer, constructing the background material can be so much fun that it’s mistaken for writing. Fantasy writers have a penchant for working up histories of imaginary empires that can run to hundreds of pages, full of maps and chronologies and genealogical trees a yard long.  It’s a common phenomenon: C.S. Lewis, in childhood, chronicles of the doings of “Animal Land”; as adolescents, the Brontes produced long histories of an imaginary kingdom called “Angria.” The whole of The Silmirillion and those long, long appendices are background information Tolkien wisely excluded from his huge trilogy, The Lord of the Rings – and certainly not for lack of space.

Similarly, science fiction writers can fall in love with their hardware and want to show it off, like a neighbour’s interminable discussion of the gastric workings of his new car. George Lucas has commented that some sf movies are particularly guilty of this – their directors figure they’ve spent so much on a special effect that they use vital screen (storytelling) time giving a boring guided tour of some particularly elaborate model, relegating plot and character to the background shadows.  Seen Star Trek: the Movie, with its seemingly interminable shots of the Enterprise?  Writers can do precisely the same thing on paper.

Or sometimes sf writers can become so immersed in the sociology of the alien race they’ve invented that they offer glossaries translating native terms, folklore, sayings, and histories stretching back for millennia, in place of a story. Seen any of Ursula Le Guin’s recent work, particularly Always Coming Home, which comes complete with an audio tape of folk songs?

Mystery writers can spend so much time working out alibis, with lists of suspects, timetables, maps with calculations on how long it would take to go by foot, bicycle, car or even helicopter to the scene of the crime, and the other logistics of detection, that they can’t resist reusing these working notes in their stories.  Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Five Red Herrings is (among many excellent things) an exercise in timetable management; so is her Have His Carcase.

I call this phenomenon “World-Builders’ disease.” In its more extreme forms, it’s narrative cancer: the unchecked and malignant growth of something that was harmless, even beneficial and necessary, it itself.  In all genres, it involves becoming infatuated with the process of invention for its own sake.  Exposition, essentially static and undramatic, isn’t subordinated to plot and takes over.  The story stops dead.

Pymalion and Frankenstein

Every writer is Pygmalion, falling in love with his handiwork and wanting it to come alive. And sometimes, that love can be blind, as in the case of Pygmalion’s dark counterpart, Dr. Frankenstein.

Writers blinded by the delights of concocting elaborate background material can forget that their primary job is to tell a story, not merely to invent.

Inventing is relatively easy – you take your expertise, whatever it may be, and project it on the universe. Tolkien, a medieval scholar and linguist, invented elaborate languages for dwarves, two races of elves, and several races of men.  One of the human languages bore a striking resemblance to Old English, Tolkien’s particular area of expertise.  A plumber could invent a world full of plumbing, complete with detailed discussions of conduits, fittings, gravity-feed, and so on.  A surgeon… no, that doesn’t even bear thinking on.

As any bored spouse of a card player or a dedicated jogger knows, what’s fun for one person to do isn’t necessarily fun for another person to watch.  Short of a tournament, chess just isn’t a good spectator sport.  Neither is working out exposition.  Don’t rent a stadium and expect crowds to flock in.

Don’t assume your enjoyment in doing the invention is automatically going to mean the reader is going to enjoy the final product.  Inventing is easy – it’s storytelling that’s hard.  And it’s storytelling the reader has a right to expect.

Give Your Reader a Piece of Your Mind – Not All of It

Rightly used, working background notes – what’s sometimes called “doing your homework” – is the iceberg, and the story is the proverbial tip.  The story is supported, sustained, given solidity and substance by a great mass of information the writer needs to know but the reader doesn’t – and shouldn’t.

The character charts some writing books advise you to make, calling for everything from a character’s childhood nickname to his/her taste in furniture, can be useful. They can flesh out characters for you and let you start getting to know them preparatory to writing about them.  Such charts are getting ready exercises, not the race itself.  A character in a story should be a character in action, not a walking mass of background data.  Don’t give in to the temptation to include in your story such working notes, however long, elaborate, and inventive they may be.  The iceberg should stay out of sight to anchor the whole, not be on view to weight it down.

Keeping Exposition Under Control: Tolkien and Adams

To stop the story for long-winded explanations or descriptions is deadly, particularly at the beginning and most especially in the popular genres, where a strong, direct plot that moves alone fairly briskly is an absolute necessity.

Follow Tolkien’s example. He included the romance of Aragorn and Arwen Evenstar only as an appendix.  That’s because Tolkien was a storyteller to his very bones.  He knew it didn’t belong and would, however charming a tale in itself, have been a distraction, an impediment to the ongoing narrative.

Or follow Richard Adam’s example. In Watership Down, the epic adventures of a group of rabbits setting out to found a new nation, Adams includes several tales of the rabbit folk hero, Elahrairah.  But he compensates.  He gets his story well underway first tale.  He makes sure each tale is brief, fairly simple (as folk tales generally are), and full of action, so it’s dramatic rather than static.  And he only departs from the main plot at a quiet moment, a lull between crises.

Moreover, each tale is connected by theme, mood, or actual content with the developments of the main plot. For instance, in one of the stories, El-ahrairah imitates the voice of a dog and, by guile, persuades a hostile animal to become his accomplice in stealing food.  That’s what gives the novel’s protagonist, Hazel, the inspiration to lure a dog, as a dangerous but crucial ally, into a battle with invading rabbits, resolving the book’s final crisis.

These folk tales are always kept carefully subordinate to the main plot and are never allowed to take over. Handling such an alternation is tricky in the extreme, but Adams brings it off successfully.

(You can see signs of impending world-builders’ disease, though, in the fact that Adams includes, as an appendix, a glossary of rabbit language. A glossary, put afterward, when you’ve already struggled through the book without it, is always a dead give-away that the temptation to worse was there, even though successfully resisted.)

If you can’t utterly put away your working notes, make them appendices – or wait until you’re dead to issue them in book form, as is the case with The Silmirillion.  Or keep the interruptions brief and full of action, and build in strong connections with the story proper to compensate.

Put your charts, glossaries, maps, and period newspapers in your sockdrawer. Put them anywhere – except, undigested and unsubordinated, into your story.

The Story Comes First: Everything Else Is a Slow Second

The first, most important part of handling exposition is realizing that it’s going to need handling.  Once you’re aware of that, you won’t be easily tempted to break off in the middle of an opening or a crisis to treat the reader to a completely unnecessary lecture on how the protagonist was frightened by a big dog in childhood or on the history of the building where the murder happened to take place.

Second, readers are only interested in explanation after their curiosity has already been aroused by something in need of explaining.  In the beginning of a story, in particular, drop the people out of the plane and then say how they got there in the first place.  Introduce your character, let him act and show himself and engage the reader’s sympathies and curiosity. Then tell his background, if you need to.

In the middle of a story, exposition can serve as preparation for something that won’t happen until later. But in its immediate context, it should seem called for by what’s happened just before that point in the story.  Otherwise, the exposition will just seem like a digression with no present relevance, or even like heavy-handed foreshadowing: nudging the reader and hinting obviously about what’s coming, which none of the characters know – only the author.  That’s one form of authorial intrusion and something to be avoided, as I’ll discuss further in a few minutes.  Don’t join the “Little did he/she know” school of writers.  Make your hints fit in, inconspicuously, so they’ll stay hints, not offensive authorial nudges.

Don’t assume your responsibility as a writer automatically includes detailing every trauma, illness, or relationship a character had since birth. Neither does it require you to spell out every detail of sociology of the characters’ social milieu or the history of the setting.  Only important things important to understand this story, right now, should be explained.

Important things. Not everything!

Be tough with exposition. Make each piece justify its inclusion – at all, and at that particular point of the story.  It shouldn’t be any longer than it has to do its essential work.  Then get back to the plot again, as soon as possible.

PRESENTING EXPOSITION

So. You’ve decided what background material is really necessary in your story, and you’ve been careful to get your story up and running before breaking away for more than a paragraph or so to commit a stretch of exposition.

Now the question arises of how to present it.

Build It into the Scene

If you can, build it right into the scene. If it’s important that the protagonist has been married before, invent some prop (a belated birthday card from ex-spouse?  A final divorce decree in the mailbox?) or a bit of dialogue (“Mommy, is Daddy going to visit me this weekend?”) that shows the fact without your having to say a word directly.  Try to make each of your scenes multi-purpose: introducing or developing characters, moving the plot, and establishing immediately needed background, all at once.

Put It Between Scenes

If it’s not just a fact or two but a mini-essay that’s needed, it would be too confusing and cumbersome to try building it into the scene. In that case, the simplest way is just to tell it between scenes, with strong transitional connections to what goes before and what follows.  Use objective narration: you’re the all-seeing, all-knowing (but impersonal and invisible) narrator, and you just put in the information the reader is interested (you hope) in learning at that point in the story.  That’s the obvious choice for longer stretches of exposition, the one you’ll probably use most often.

Let a Character Explain

The other choice is to have your characters give the necessary facts: one asks a question, and the other tells. Or one doesn’t ask a question, but the other tells anyway.  Or parts of the exposition can come out, a little at a time, in a discussion among several characters, maybe spread across several scenes.  All these can work sometimes, if the exposition involved is brief and has other work to do at the same time, like revealing something about the characters involved.  If, in other words, it serves a plot or characterization purpose as well as a strictly expositional one.

That has the advantage of keeping the story rolling while the exposition is going on. It’s not as severe an interruption as it would have been if it were cast as objective narration, the disembodied author/narrator telling the reader directly.

But if the exposition is long or detailed, or if it’s something the characters all know perfectly well, that form of presentation can be ridiculous and unconvincing. (“As you know, Harvey, our world was attacked by the eight-armed Arcturans seventy-six years ago and since then, we’ve all lived in these caves.”)  Don’t ever put into a character’s mouth anything that’s strictly and obviously for the reader’s consumption.  Readers aren’t fooled, and you’ve turned your characters into unconvincing puppets, dummies making silly speeches at each other.

Make It a Character’s Interior Monologue

Finally, you can have the exposition as one character’s reflections or thoughts – the fiction writer’s version of a soliloquy. Your character can think about something, or recollect something, and thereby let the reader know what you want to convey.  But be careful with this too.  It stops the story; it’s subject to the same abuses as exposition in dialogue; and if it’s overdone, it can make your viewpoint character seem like a self-important pedant who just can’t wait to lecture the reader.

There’s a character like that in R.L. Stevenson’s uncompleted story “The Wrong Box”: a Victorian gentleman others flee because his favourite topics of conversation are things like how many times the word “whip” is mentioned in the Bible.  In other words, he’s a crashing and voluble bore.  Don’t let any of your characters turn into information-packed bores.  You’ve undoubtedly met some in life.  Why should anybody want to meet one in fiction – unless, like Stevenson’s encyclopedic old Mr. Finsbury, they’re also very funny?

THE DREADED AUTHORIAL FINSBURY

This brings me to a related matter: writers turning into Finsbury’s – lecturers droning on about some esoteric speciality – or into True Believers who see fiction primarily as a soapbox from which to promote some doctrine or belief, whether political, social, ethical, religious, ecological, or whatever.

Partly, this is related to the tradition of the omniscient author, which I discussed in the last Chapter. Authorial intrusions – the story stopping dead while the author rambles on about whatever happens to interest him – used to be commonplace, a hundred and a half years ago.  (Need I again mention Melville’s cetology Chapters?)

Now, though, they’re much disliked.

Although a story is of course nothing from first to last but an author’s ideas anyway, we forget that, while we’re reading. We treat the story as real, the characters as people we care and are concerned about.  We imagine our way into it and don’t want to be reminded it’s an elaborate lie, a made thing, a puppet show in which some author is yanking the strings.   To the degree that we’re conscious of the puppeteer, that awareness keeps us from holding on to our conviction that words on a page can be worth our tears, our laughter, or our love.

Probably, any lecturing author is showing more than a few signs of world-builders’ disease, too.

Don’t become a Finsbury or a True Believer.

No matter how worthy your doctrine or how important or insightful your inside knowledge of the territorial battles of Siamese fighting fish, neither is storytelling. A storytelling is the primary business of fiction.  Everything else comes second.  It has to.

Does that mean I’m contending you shouldn’t ever try to cast your convictions or your expert knowledge in the form of fiction? Of course not.  Since the very beginnings of fiction, there have been wonderful, moving stories demonstrating some evil, social or personal.  Think of Dickens and his attacks on Chancery, cruel schooling, the condition of the urban poor, and the “businesslike” barbarities exemplified by such characters as Scrooge, Mr. Dombey, and the elder Mr. Nickleby.  Think of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  Think of Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Shirley Jackson’s classic fable, “The Lottery.” It’s not hard to think of a dozen stories frankly embodying their authors’ views on some social or moral issue.

Likewise, specialist information, carefully subordinated and sparingly doled out with a minimum of jargon, has given conviction, believability , and a unique slant to everything from stories about art-critic/detectives to fiction set on exotic plantations or in astronomical observatories,or featuring a protagonist who’s a leper. Specialist detail comes under the heading, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” with just the recognition that flaunting doesn’t involve letting it bury the story in footnotes.

If you want to include informational or polemical exposition, treat it as you would any problem element. Subordinate it, and compensate with all the narrative craft you’ve got.

Build it into the story, wherever the story will stand it.

Make it come alive so the reader can see it happening and mattering rather than being lectured by an author, either directly or by proxy, through some character.

Integrate it so thoroughly into the fabric of your story and your characters that it becomes part of their rightful structure and substance, bone and flesh, not just a series of labels, speeches, or footnotes.

KEEP OUT OF THE PLOT’S WAY

However you decide to handle exposition, of whatever kind, remember: the plot is paramount. Plot is the engine drawing everything else along.  If you weigh it down with too much exposition, it’s going to grind to a wheezing halt.

Limit exposition to the absolute essentials. Introduce it the least conspicuous, most natural-seeming way.  Keep it as short as possible in any one place.  Spread it across different scenes, if you can, according to where it’s actually relevant and needed.  And always make sure the present, immediate story is running strongly before breaking away from it for more than a paragraph or so.  Leave your plot as unencumbered as possible.  Let it move.

Judging the Balances in Popular Fiction

It’s a question of proportion, of balance. The stronger, simpler, and more melodramatic your plot is, the more exposition it will stand (within reason) once the plot is rolling.  If there’s a murder on page one, readers will wait quite a few Chapters, while the detective investigates this or that possibility and interviews suspects, until the next major event.  That initial murder isn’t forgotten.  Once you’ve earned readers’ confidence by an economical, powerful opening, readers will trust you not to let them down.  They’ll have faith that the buildup wasn’t for nothing: something important is going to come of that first murder and there’ll be more exciting dirty work afoot in the very near future.

The more complex, strange, and actionless your story is, the more you’ll need to limit, digest, and subordinate your exposition, doling it out very sparingly indeed. That’s particularly true in the most exposition-prone genres: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction of all sorts.  If you’re working in any of these forms, you’re going to need to be particularly careful not to let subordinated exposition bog everything down.

With Literary Fiction, You Have to Make Your Best Judgment

Literary fiction is often complex, and isn’t normally characterized by slam-bang zippy melodramatic plots. Readers of literary works are a more tolerant audience in some respects than are readers of popular fiction, though they’re apt to be more exacting in others.  They’re remarkably patient with fairly long stretches where nothing much seems to be happening, provided they like the characters, or the writing style, or something about the story enough to keep reading.

There are folk like me who like the cetology Chapters in Moby Dick and the long, bizarre ruminations in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and folk who think of War and Peace or Finnegans Wake as a pleasant evening’s entertainment.  (All right, a weekend, then.)  Plot isn’t as crucial to such readers as it is to devotees of genre or popular fiction.  As will be discussed in Chapter 11, literary fiction occasionally substitutes some other kind of strong motivation or contrast for plot, so there may not even be a plot to subordinate the exposition to.

If, in your story, something else is substituting for plot – juxtaposition, contrast, collage, whatever – then keep all other elements out of its way.  If it serves plot’s purpose as the bones, the dynamic engine of your story, then it’s that which should be the basis of your choices of what to subordinate and what to leave clear, unencumbered, and dominant.  If your story is built on a nested series of flashbacks, then character and plot come second.  Exposition should be no more than a distant third in your narrative priorities.

Exposition is the thing in fiction most like thought, least like action. Decide how much thought your story will support, in proportion to its dominant element, and still remain compact, direct and readable.  Then write it however it seems to need to be written.

Add Emotion and Stir Vigorously

Here’s a tip based on a psychological quirk: we tend to remember best the information that comes to us surrounded by highly charged emotion. That’s why so many people can remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when they first learned of the assassination of President Kennedy and how they spent their very first date.

Applied to exposition, this means that otherwise undigestible chunks of explanation will move faster, and be absorbed more easily, if they’re put in a highly emotional context.

If you have some character really desperate for this information, the reader will tend to catch the infection and really want to know too. If you position the information in such a way that it has a strong and immediate emotional impact on somebody in the scene, it will become part of that scene’s framework – hardly exposition at all.  Or you can immerse your exposition in melodrama – whole situations which are emotionally charged – as I’ll explain more in Chapter 7.

So now you know all the basic rules of effective exposition-cookery: move it fast, don’t let it pile up too much in any one place, subordinate it to a strongly moving plot, and dip it in emotional whenever possible. Then, whenever you can, cut it out.

Become a Plot Surgeon

When you’ve got one whole draft in hand, one of your first chores in beginning your second draft should be going back and cutting every scrap of exposition you find you can possibly do without.

There’s an ancient joke that runs: Want to lose ten pounds of ugly fat? Cut off your head.  Well, don’t cut off your story’s head.  But in second draft, cut absolutely everything your story can do without – and that especially includes exposition.

 

©Dodgsons KingsWay Sanctuary, 1973.

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