Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Exposition

It's the silent killer!
Better begin with what exposition is:

The introductory material which gives the setting, creates the tone, presents the characters, and presents other facts necessary to understanding the story.

Or, in other words, it's when we describe something or provide some information.

Permit me to conjure a metaphor:
Take a few moments to picture your favourite meal.
(Or use this one I prepared earlier :o)


Okay, you've got that in your head? You're not overly concerned about the plate are you?
Exposition is a plate.
Without it, the food slops onto the floor. But nobody cares much for that plate - they care for the food!
The weak writer will devote much time to decorating that plate. He'll embellish it with flourishes and gold leaf, and possibly stud the rim with little pearly beads.

So why is this such a problem to so many writers? Why is it so hard to understand this point and to put it into practise?
I can suggest a few reasons.

First, it's easy to mistake exposition for food. So let's take a look at what constitutes food:

* That man bursting into the burning building to rescue his daughter is a nice piece of tender lamb.
* That magical, long-anticipated kiss between Bob and Brenda is a beautiful fillet of fish.
* That daring, pulse-racing escape through the sewers is a delicious chicken madras.
* When Roger betrays his best friend, well that's a super, sizzling stir-fry.

However, that tie Roger wears is a flourish on a plate, and so is that weird-looking tree and that fluffy cloud shaped like a pair of maracas.

A second thing that encourages exposition is fear.
It's a difficult and emotional business writing Molly's death and John's cowardice and Sandra's affair. It's so much harder than describing that mossy rooftop.
When the stakes are low, there's little to be lost.
But when the stakes are high, it can be disturbing, distressing, difficult and dangerous. So the writer might noodle in his comfort zone, beating around the bush, forever holding the good but painful stuff at arm's length, afraid of untainted honesty and the truths it reveals.

Filling that plate with food is a challenge in itself.
It requires an inexhaustible imagination and a keen eye for composition.
It requires an understanding of the reader's heart - and of your own.
And hiding that exposition requires skill. Rather than stopping to dump a pile of info onto the reader's lap (telling), a strong writer is able to impart information through shows that blend imperceptibly into the forward momentum. You gotta be a smart cookie to pull it off; you gotta be looking at that scene, studying it, searching for places to subtly secrete that information or that detail.

Minimizing the need for exposition is a cool trick.
Here, we can see how the reuse of existing assets helps:
Set up Hogwarts once and you're sorted for seven novels.
And, if it's impossible to describe the movement of that beetle's legs efficiently and cheaply, then replace the beetle with a moth that flutters by. Go on - make your life easier!

Then we have another skill - that of succinct and effective writing! Minimize those adjectives and adverbs and maximize those strong nouns and perfect verbs! Squeeze the life out of all that necessary exposition and drizzle the concentrate upon your narrative.

Okay, I'm off to watch Cops With Cameras. Laters.

7 comments:

R1X said...

So, I'm a weak writer am I?

Hmm... for your information I've chased down the alleyway specifically to develop my ability to describe in a beautiful and literary fashion!

The fact that it doesn't work (well it does if only I segregated it in a sea of action, emotion and character) is secondary to the real problem. And, I'm not afraid to get in there with the characters and experience.

My problem is that my voice gets in the way of the narrator's voice... and something else... something I need to consider for longer.

solv said...

It's certainly something that has hit me, you and Esy over the years. Take TL: By moving location every chapter and introducing new characters pretty much all the way through the novel, I made my life really difficult. I did manage to rewrite the first two chapters, weaving the barest minimum of exposition into a relentless stream of emotional scenes ... and then I came undone. In order to progress, I would have needed to reinvent the plot and practically throw everything away and start again. And I might just do this one day :o)
I'd be as bold as to suggest that you have no problems with your descriptions. Your imaginative prose is up there with the best of them. I'd suggest - and only suggest - that for us guys to move on, we need to chase down a different alleyway and reassess our priorities. Time will reveal all!

R1X said...

I'm in agreement - I just need to convince my fingers to do it. But I'm fearful that without all my trickery my writing is nothing but he said/she said, he did/she did.

Ooh, sends shivers down my spine!

barb michelen said...

Hello I just entered before I have to leave to the airport, it's been very nice to meet you, if you want here is the site I told you about where I type some stuff and make good money (I work from home): here it is

esruel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
esruel said...

Beats me how I produced a prologue, first and third chapter full of exposition hidden in movement and dialogue, but a second chapter as static as that plate, but without any food on it. Why on earth did I place the hero in a quiet place, ruminating on his life, with barely a hint of an answer to his despairing questioning?
I should be shot!
Still, I recognised it - so did solvey. It's the remedy that is the problem: I'm in the village of the damned while I come up with a better link between the first and third chapters. Could take me a month to create something worthwhile and fitting. Has to be done, though.

solv said...

Esy, I did the same thing with The Commuters. I had lots and lots of tender chicken breasts and what did I do with them? I placed them on a plate the size of Manhattan. Oh, it was a tremendous plate! I screwed up. I was thinking about this recently and realized that I could reduce the first six chapters to a single chapter. By shrinking the plate, it would no longer detract from the chicken breasts.

Ricardo, we all know exactly what you mean: we've all experienced, and continue to experience, that fear! There is nothing wrong with an elaborate plate, but it needs to sit there, unassuming and unnoticed, beneath a mouth-watering feast. Those top chefs that you see on those food programmes go to great lengths to choose the right plate for the right meal. But they don't do this at the expense of the meal: the meal takes priority; it consumes the vast majority of their time and energy. Furthermore, compare the great chef who dumps his Michelin star-worthy meal onto a bland plate with the hopeless amateur who neatly presents his tasteless meal onto a beautiful bit of 1940's Dresden.

Barb, many thanks for dropping by. That's a super bit of selling going on there. You open with a polite tone, and quickly suggest that you are a professional (alleviating skepticism) through mention of the plane trip. You move into indifference ('if you want') and progress to greed ('make good money'), again using a courteous and informal tone, and conclude by hitting on our desire to work from home. The only bit that concerns me is the 'here is the site I told you about' which, to the best of my knowledge, is a fib and sets the alarm bells ringing. Regardless, humans, being the curious beasts they are, are more than likely to click on that link and check out your enterprise ...
On the subject of curiosity, do you have some automated search engine that picks out writerly words such as 'exposition'?
Relevantly, barb's comment demonstrates how we can hide a wealth of information within the prose, using subliminal exposition and shows! Good stuff.