Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Latest Dirty Word

Exposition!
Usually prefaced by "too much", which means, to some minds, "any."
An absolute negative.
A blanket thrown over a body.
Unless you manage to run the hero/ine through 3 international cities, pursued by assassins, thieves, vampires or men-in-black in those first 10 pages, without a hint, a smidgin of nasty, nasty exposition, some will suggest your novel is doomed to shaking-of-sandal-dust oblivion.
Of course, you may find, without character development that the reader is rooting for the said asssassins, vampires, etc.; and without setting or atmosphere, the reader has the impression this pursuit takes place in an exciting five-acre corn field, but you have bowed to the latest dictat and eliminated "exposition."
Perhaps fueled by minimalist fashion and excessive exposure to video advances, the latest critique fetish threatens to reduce all fiction to the level of the dime novel. Or a comic strip.
We all agree that too much exposition is bad. Yawning. Ho-hum. A common beginner's mistake.
In fact, if you are thought of as a beginner, some automatically conclude all your "exposition" , ie. non-action, is too much and Must Be Condemned.
The term seems applied quite often like a template. If opening scenes/chapters have exposition, therefore, absolutely, they are dull. Period. A sort of illogical, twisted a priori.
Sometimes, the exposition may be the only shining light in the middle of deadly dialogue and mindless action, but it's the "exposition" that gets the blame.
In fact, there seems to be a certain misunderstanding of the narrative process, and a relegation of anything that doesn't involve slam-bam action as "exposition."
Even forms of dialogue sometimes come under this ban.
The problem may arise from a lack of understanding and clarity regarding the term.
Not an uncommon situation. Not that long ago, an agent actually described usage of the verb "to be" ( is, am, are, was, were, etc.) as an example of passive tense. He was reproved. I doubt he was convinced. Even though he probably meant excessive usage of "wases" and "ises" contributed to a passive "voice," the error persists that "wases" and "ises" are passive tense.
Same with "exposition."
One guru described narrative as a blend of description, exposition, dialogue and action. A judicious balance that varies according to the type of novel. Internal monologue is not necessarily useless, verboten "exposition." Brief descriptions used to move the plot along or develop character are not always deletable "exposition."
Don't be in such a mad, whoring rush to eliminate it all.

18 comments:

Ric said...

Good post. A subject that needs attention - given all the 'help' we seem to be getting from anyone and everyone. Let's hope it draws some comments we can work with.

jason evans said...

You're right. The do's and don'ts of writing are often overdone. Yet, as you point out, exposition is a valid problem. A few brush strokes of setting, a few brush strokes of background is usually all that is necessary to get going. I try to weave more "exposition" into what the character is doing and dialog (for example, we learn about Arakis in Dune through Paul Atreides' interest in studying it). It's always a tough balance, though, and I mess it up as much as anyone.

MissWrite said...

In my opinion, exposition is always best done through the character's actions, attitudes, and dialogue. I think that's basically where the rule comes in, not so much that it's bad to let readers know who they are, just bad to straight out tell them. IE:

Jessie was a cold, hard woman too used for her twenty years.

or

Jessie drummed the fingers of a perfectly manicured hand on the solid oak bar. She tossed back a full shot of Jack, and sneered at the man who'd siddled up next to her. Her eyes scanned him in an instant, and pegged him. "Get lost, looser." In her chest, her heart threatened to unfreeze, just for a second, but she turned the thermostat down, and it remained frigid. "Who needs'em," she said as the bartender refilled her glass. To him she smiled. One might have even thought warmly...

Okay, going off on a full-length novel here, lmao. Actually showing character takes infinately more words, than exposing it by telling... but it's a helluva lot more fun to read, and more interesting too.

Just my 2cents.

Bernita said...

An excellent example of "showing, not telling", Miss Write. Thank you.
The problem seems to arise out of an extremely narrow deinition of just what constitutes "exposition."
If a character observes a scene, a person, reads a letter, their reactions/analysis are sometimes dismissed as "exposition," regardless of plot value, brevity of passage, or whether they drum their fingers during the same.
I think we can all recognize when there is too much - 3 1/2 pages of an irrelevant landscape or the tired "As you know, Vanessa, the love song of the Bulgarian tree frog..." type of dialogue.
"Action" is also sometimes as narrowly proscribed.

Robyn said...

I am fully guilty of the infodump. Starting the scene with dialogue usually helps me out of it. I can see now that I'm being lazy; I want to set the scene so I don't have to tell you again.

But no scene-setting at all is frustrating for me as a reader.

"Okay. Joan is Jane's friend, but Bob just called Joan mom. And he's acting like Jane is his girlfriend. And this other guy is who, now?"

Unless it's a mystery, I want to know who everybody is. The layers that get peeled away should be, IMO, emotions and motivations and conflicts, not identities.

Sorry for ranting. I just read one like that. I spent two-thirds of it going, "Waidaminit. I thought you said you met her on the internet. Now you're saying she grew up down the hall from you. What?"

Bernita said...

Grumpy Old Bookman just referred to an article by Sam Sacks, called "The Fiction Machine" which has some bearing on all this monochromatic papal bull stuff.

I blame info dumps on "Once upon a time, a beautiful princessnamed... lived in a castle in the land of...Her father, King... arranged...she had long blonde hair and..."
Afraid that pattern is hard-wired into our brain.
And Robyn, you're welcome to rant all you want here.

I've a feeling this was a major character, no?
If a character is unimportant,merely a foil or an agent or part of the natural woodwork and unlikely to appear again, I don't give them names. For all intents and purposes, they are "the third footman", "the first guard," "the messenger."

M. G. Tarquini said...

Strange. I was thinking of posting on this topic. Maybe I will, the next bout of writer's block. Most people describe my writing as spare. That's because I've had the infodump walloped out of me. Writing is rhythm. The problem with 'was' is that it sounds mushy. One or two aren't a problem, but after a while, it screams.

Do you think poets have an easier time or a harder time of it?

jason evans said...

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the ghastly trees
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon the cloudy seas
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor
And the highwayman came riding, riding, riding
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door.

The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes, 18th Century

What's wrong with this passage from a modern viewpoint? Hint--the second half of Bernita's post addresses it.

Bernita said...

Cause: it limps; effect: it screams. Or droans.
I tend to think of "was/is/are" mathematically, as = signs. Not good. Useful in first draft though.
Many "wases" can be excised by turning the stupid sentence around and using an active verb.
"It was a dark and stormy night" - "The night stormed above them."
(See, I knew that)

Impossible question.
Like asking if quilting is harder than lace making. Both involve largely a repetition of a basic design.Depends on what value one applies to certain stages of the creation, the end result, etc.

M. G. Tarquini said...

The Highwayman reads like this:

BA DUM, BA DUM, BA DUM, duh
BA duh duh DUH, duh DUH duh DUM

BA DUM, BA DUM, BA DUM, duh
BA duh duh DUH, duh DUH duh DUM

BA DUM, BA DUM, BA DUM, duh
BA duh duh DUH, duh DUH duh DUM

BA DUM, BA DUM, BA DUM, duh
BA duh duh DUH, duh DUH duh DUM

la la LA la la la LAla LAla LAla
la LAla la LAla, la la la LA la la

By modern standards, it suffers in two areas, use of the passive and the sing song quality lent by the rhyme scheme and stress pattern.

It difficult to avoid that quality with rhymed poetry, hence, the reason I suspect it's fallen out of favor.

I like this poetry because I think the author grabs the spirit of the horse galloping across the moors. Reinterpreted today, this poem would benefit from use of assonance, and a rhyme scheme within the lines.

Sorry, I realize this is off topic. I'll put up something about rhythm and prose later on when the writer's block gets terminal.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Jason.
I cannot view "being" or "existence" as a passive act.
Noyes' use of "was" is an effective scenic ploy, like a painter,like a harper if it comes to that, and allows us to view the romantic/dramatic scene from a safe emotional distance while giving us the broad landscape backdrop.
Notably, it is also a folk ballad technique:
"There once WAS a maid
from the North countree,
who loved a lord
of high degree,
Sing sorrow,
sing sorrow...

Bernita said...

BTW, Jason, that should be "gusty trees".
An example, to me, of effective use of "wases'.

Bernita said...

M.G., doesn't the repetitive use of "o" and "i" in this sample constitute sufficient assonance?

Tsavo Leone said...

You might want to skip ahead to the next comment...

Exposition... a dirty word? Nah, I don't think so.

Consider the current climate for writers. We have to compete with video games, DVD, satellite and cable TV, 24 hour-a-day sport/movies/porn'. In this climate I can quite easily sit and watch the entire extended version of The Lord of The Rings in considerably less time than it takes to read it. So, consider then the people who make a living off of writers...

The hard-wired cynic in me says that all they're after is their next sale. That, in turn, leads me to conclude that in keeping with the current climate they will require as much bang for their buck as they can get. Therefore rhyme, reason, and the 'E' word will all be jettisoned in order to make the tale shorter, snappier, and less likely to take much out of the average Jo(ann)e's day, thus allowing it compete nicely with MTV, Red Hot & Dutch, and whatever HBO is showing next month.

Or, to put it another way: there's no point writing a story that's all being told in flashback, as it's all 'tell' and no 'show'... Guess that explains why fight club was so popular.

A guitarist in a relatively successful 1990's band (who also became the darling of the guitar press) summed it up best: learn all there is to learn; write it all down on a piece of paper; throw the piece of paper away; do what feels natural.

Or, to put it another way: Tolkien wouldn't get published in 2005/6.

Context is the key word. Write as much as you feel is necessary given whatever it is you feel you have to convey. Prune, trim, weed and water, then move on to the next scene. Go back to the scene a day/later and read it through. If it reads like a scene written by one of your favourites... job's a good 'un ("well done old bean"). Just don't try to give meaning to each thrust and parry of a sword fight in the same way...

Story-telling is a tradition, an art form if you will, and the types of stories that are told are many-fold. What works for one type of story may or may not work for others. Story-telling has existed for millennia whilst publishing has not. Publishing is about what sells and, unfortunately, what sells isn't always good. But, good story-tellers...

M. G. Tarquini said...

The assonance isn't purposeful enough, Bernita. Not for me. Not that my name is Maya Angelou. The 'o' sounds are different, as are the 'i's'. So to my ear, I'm not picking it up. For alliteration, I like ghastly, ghostly, galleon. The ending 'long e' sounds tip it into lyric land.

I like strong assonance, purposeful rhyme, especially in unexpected places. Alliteration holds a special place in my heart. I write a lot of rhyming poetry, which is why I keep it to myself. As good as The Highwayman is, I can see why it might not go over with today's audience. It has an epic feel to it, but is reminiscent of 'Listen my children and you shall hear...'

I just checked out the full text of the poem. I can see a modern day editor saying - 'Alfred, drop the first two stanzas. Get right to the landlord's daughter.'

He repeats the third stanza at the end, which makes me thinkg Noyes meant this piece to be sung over a tankard.

jason evans said...

OMG, sorry for the ghastly mistake! My own word preference infected my brain.

I am torn regarding The Highwayman. I love the imagery, but by modern standards, the verbs are terribly weak. "Was" and "came." Some editors are rabid about the subject-was-predicate adjective construct (e.g., the road was a ribbon...). One agent even posts on his website that if your novel begins "[something] was [something]," don't send it. Today, you would have to convey the power of the imagery with verbs and a careful sprinkling of adjectives.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Tsavo.No skipping.
We just have to keep on chording and picking.

Assonance includes related vowels sounds, by definition. Different ears, I guess.
The poem is still quite popular.
One thing that turns some youth off "poetry" is because their teachers do not make the connection between poetry and song.
Rigid compartmentalization - which brings us back, I suppose, to the subject of my rant.

Bernita said...

Jason, observe the rest of the poem. Proportionally, he uses very few "wases" and many great action verbs. Perfect illustration of my point, really.