Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exposition? Like Climbing Everest? That Kind Of Exposition?

By Jay Stringer

It seems like it's advice week here at DSD, so I thought I'd wade in with something that's playing on my mind this week. Not that anybody should listen to my advice. Hell, I was the guy telling Warner Brothers to hire Will Ferrell to make the new Superman film. Instead they went with some dude who made a film about watching men, and some other film about naked men fighting in grease.

So if Warners' don't listen to me, there's no reason that you should.

But I'm here today to talk about one of the greatest villains of our time. A character so vile that he appeared in all three Austin Powers movies. Yes, him. Mr Basil Exposition.

The dude is evil, I'm tellin' ya.

No sooner are you sat at your writing station typing away, feeling good about writing the great American word, then Mr Exposition comes and craps all over the page. Prose that should be singing started to stink. Words that should be clean start to mumble. The chapter starts to sink, and it drags the whole start of the book with it.

In no time, you're left with the smoking wreckage of what used to be a laptop and the cracked plaster of what used to be a wall. You are somewhere in the corner, with your pants over your head, trying to turn your internal monologue into internal dialogue.

So how to fix these problems? No, really, tell me, how? I know a few tricks that work for me, but afterwards I'll be interested to hear what works for you.

These tricks work for me and I tentatively suggest there may be something in here that works for you. I also suggest that I will be stating the obvious, because that's what good writing advice always boils down to; shit that you probably already know, if you cut yourself a break and take the pants off your head.

So let me start with the step I have to take before I can slay exposition.

Embrace Exposition.

If you listen to the right kind of advice, they will suggest to you that putting exposition on a page is akin to putting barbecue sauce on a baby. But writing advice always comes down to one thing. It's always about writing well. Sure, Elmore Leonards '10 Rules Of Writing' are great rules. I stick by them as much as I can. But buried away in those rules is the simple idea; "If you can do something well, then to hell with the rules." Lets look at another rule. Never use voiceover in a movie. Hell, has nobody ever seen Goodfellas??

So first and foremost, if you got it, flaunt it. If you can do chunks exposition on a page like nobody else, then go for it. Exposition is not the enemy. Bad writing is the enemy.

We need it during a first draft. That first pass is not the book that the world will see. Hell, it's probably not even the draft that your agent or editor will see. It's the draft that your brain needs to see. That process of throwing 80,000 words onto a page so that you can then go back and turn them into a novel. The plot is not quite formed, the characters are not yet at their devious best. So if you need to throw leaden exposition onto the page to get from A to B, then have at it, and sing while you work, because you is writing. And exposition is important.

Why is exposition so important? Well, Wikipedia, the all-father, has this to say; "The purpose of exposition is to provide some background and inform the readers about the plot, character, setting, and theme.." So, you know, it's that whole story telling thing. It's really just the knack of telling the reader what they need to know, and learning to leave out everything else. So like writers block, the trick is to embrace exposition. To tackle it head on and figure out how to make it work for you.

Dialogue, Dialogue, Dialogue.

All writers have their own crutches. Mine is dialogue. I can do it. Not always very well, and it's all to easy to fall into the trap of writing something that's snappy for the sake of being snappy. Yes, Tarantino, I'm looking at you. If the audience knows it's good dialogue, then it's not good dialogue. Anyway. Point is, if I'm in a whole I know I can use dialogue to get me out of it.

And its true that a lot of exposition anxiety can be resolved through dialogue. You've got your characters at your disposal, you might as well use them. Look at McFet, or Leonard. Look at the Fletch books, which were a huge influence on me for awhile. Characters explain stuff to each other. They debate and discuss. The author is there in the background, somewhere.

But here lies a trap. You have to hold yourself to realism when it comes to dialogue. Two characters who both know something are very unlikely to bring it up in conversation simply for the sake of it. You need to either find a natural way for the information to seep into the dialogue, or find a different way altogether. I love The West Wing as much as the next bod, but Josh was only there for exposition. It was his job to wander through the script telling Donna (the audience) what was going on. If you're Aaron Sorkin, then you can maybe pull it off. If you're anyone else, find another way.

Here are the two things I'm finding key to my writing process at the moment; Honesty and Movement.


Writers need to be damn hard on themselves. It's tempting to treasure every word that you put onto the page. It's your art. It's your jelly baby. It's your rosebud. It's also potentially your enemy. I walk away every now and then, have a drink or a shower, and then come back to the page on a mission to beat the crap out of what I just wrote. Strip away at it, question every word, make everything that's on the page have to earn its place.

The funny thing is, even once every word has justified it's place, the story can still suck. Because now that the words are right, the order might be wrong.


I'm cheating here. I see this as two different things, but I'm too lazy to come up with separate titles. The first element is editing. Moving the pieces of the puzzle around. Even after you've done everything else,the dialogue, editing and honesty, you still need to drop a chunk of exposition into the middle of a chapter. And you worry that the readers will spot it a mile off. They probably will, they're a clever bunch. But I find that if I keep moving all the pieces of the chapter around, eventually I find the right shape, and most of what's left falls into place.

And the second part of movement is my simplest, and my current favourite trick. If in doubt, if ever I'm stuck on a chapter with anything at all, I'll start with a movement. (Oi, Weddle, stop snickering.)

If I have to drop in one of those bits of exposition? I'll earn it first. And it can be simple. A character can walk into a room. He can park his car. He can lie on his bed. Any kind of movement, no matter how small, seems to work some magic trick with the readers brain. It gets the story moving.

And it's not just me. I've taken a look around at some other books.

First a couple from our favourite scary man, Allan Guthrie. The opening of his first book, Two Way Split, goes like this;

"Four months and twenty-two days after he stopped taking his medication, Robin Greaves dragged the chair out from under the desk and sat down opposite the private investigator."

Now, that's not the biggest opening ever. No cars were blown up. But it's an opening with a simple trick to it, and it's one that makes you want to read more. It has some fairly big bits of exposition wrapped up in it; it has medication, it has a time frame, it has two character introductions and it tells you roughly what genre of story we're dealing with. But what is the magic trick, if my theory holds any water here? It's the moving of the chair and the sitting down. A simple act of movement right at the top of a chapter (and the book.) By the time you've read this opening, you know a hell of a lot, and you're buying into a scene of two people talking, which will probably be full of exposition. Job done.

Here's another Guthrie, from Savage Night;

"When he opened his sitting room door, the last thing Fraser Savage expected to see was a corpse."

Now you might cry foul here. You might tell me it's the corpse that draws your attention. And yes, you're right. But what is it that eases you into that steady climb of reading the sentence? I'm sure it's the small, simple movement. Something active at the top of the page that gets our brain into gear. Something as simple as opening a door.

And it can get even simpler than that. Here's the opening line from (what I think could be) the best crime novel of the past five years, Drama City, by Pelecanos;

"Lorenzo Brown opened his eyes. He stared at a cracked plaster ceiling and cleared his head. Lorenzo was not in a cot but in a clean, full-size bed. In an apartment with doors that opened and shut when he wanted them too. A place where he could walk free."

Hey, did you see that? A guy opened his eyes. Nothing to it. But you sure read the rest of that paragraph without feeling it, right? And hidden in there is a ton of exposition. It doesn't tell you about his past, it tells you about his present. But that informs all that you need to know about where he's been. And by the end of that extract, you can feel the freedom in his movement. And that freedom will carry you through the rest of the chapter, laced with this kind of exposition. And once you've read that chapter? Hell, might as well read the book, right?

So those are my tricks. Dialogue, Honesty, and lots of little movements. That's how I get around the exposition trap. And I didn't end up at Drama City by accident. When I first started to think about this part of my writing, I re-read that opening and made it my bible. Just look again at how much Pelecanos tells us in that paragraph, and how easy it seems. I can only imagine the sweat that goes into an opening like that.

So, those are my ticks, and that is my gold standard.

What are yours?


John McFetridge said...

Two things help me:

1) read it out loud, and

2) always realize that the reader is smarter than I am and doesn't Ned everything explained.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

One of the things I try to do is give the exposition some context. Guy kills somebody? Maybe it gets him thinking about the first murder he committed. Or maybe his girlfriend who was murdered. Or whatever.

As much as possible I'll try to make sure that it's something I've already mentioned. Dropping the exposition bomb in the middle of a fast paced scene will bring it to a screeching halt.

So I'll mention something that's hopefully intriguing and then explain it later. It might be a while later, though.

Kind of like the short story scene structure of B/A/C. Start with the second thing that happened, show what led to it and then follow up with the aftermath.

And if I really have to get a chunk out of the way early I'll try to mix small bits in with action. Hopefully keep the pace of the scene going and still get it across.

Sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. A lot of experimentation goes on in the different drafts.

Alan Griffiths said...

Good post Jay – I’ll read through this again and keep for future reference. Very thought provoking and much appreciated! Cheers.