What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part Two)

What to do about exposition?

In the last post, I effectively took the three most popular devices for handling backstory, locked them in a stocks and pillory, and proceeded to throw tomatoes. Obviously, we can never ever ever use those tools again.

Seriously, though, we can’t simply leave the backstory out and expect the reader to keep up. For one thing, some amount of explanation is absolutely necessary to tell an intelligible story to another person. As Brandon Sanderson explains in this video, every book, especially fantasy, has a particular “learning curve” that the reader has to overcome before they can fully understand the story. The reader has to become somewhat familiar with an entirely new world with histories, laws, and magic systems of its own, as well as meet new characters and understand their individual goals and personalities. Any author will have a hard task to explain all this information and still hold the reader’s attention. And therein lies the problem.

Take your pick.

Back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when books were so rare and expensive, people liked to take their time and savor the few books that they had available. Therefore, books written in those centuries tend to be slow and meandering, feeding you all the information gently and then starting the real story several chapters later. Les Miserables and Ben-Hur are good examples.

In our age, though, with countless books and e-readers at our fingertips, our stories need to grab the reader’s attention and hold it fast; otherwise, there is always another Stephen King thriller that will get to the point more quickly, and our books are forgotten. Most modern readers have no time to sit around and read about Bishop Myriel and how he got himself a carriage. We want to read about Jean Valjean and Fantine, and we want to read it now!

Let’s start by addressing the prologue problem. If you go to the blog or website of a good author you like and find any advice on writing a prologue, you’ll probably read a post about deleting it. Deleting the prologue. And as harsh as that sounds, it makes sense. Many prologues, no matter how interesting they are to me as the writer, aren’t going to make a whit of sense to a reader who just picked up the book, even in the story’s context.

03_PR

Interested yet? And the real story hasn’t even started.

Then again, my prologue might make sense and add to the story. For example, in the Les Miserables concert by Schonberg and Boublil, the entire backstory with Bishop Myriel is gone. The concert still begins well before Fantine dreams a dream, but we’re hooked with the song “Look Down”. A bunch of men in prison? One is going on parole? He has enemies? “Look Down” sets up the rest of the story, makes logical sense, and grabs our attention. If my prologue fits those three criteria- setup, logic, and attention- keep it. (And maybe call it Chapter 1?)

Next comes the infodump, which might be a little bit harder to handle. If you read The Lord of the Rings (props to you!), think back to the chapter “The Shadow of the Past.” For those of you who only watched the movie or don’t know the story, this is when the wizard Gandalf sits down and explains all about the Ring’s complicated history to Frodo.

Notice that I haven’t said anything bad about what Tolkien did here, and that’s because I have nothing bad to say. Tolkien explained the backstory in a compelling and, at that time, non-cliche fashion. (Again, that “slower” culture comes into play; people had time to sit down and read things.) He did it so artfully that all other fantasy writers after him copied what they thought he did.

Unfortunately, when we copy others, we lose our own style and thus end up with a huge infodump that sounds like every other fantasy ever written. We hush our inborn originality and put off our thinking caps. The solution? Make it your own! My favorite writers are those who work in the backstory bit by bit, revealing only as much as needed, using it to build the plot and make the reader curious for more.

The Horse and His Boy, our latest family readaloud, is a good example. C.S. Lewis had a lot of exposition to work into such a short book, but he does it piecemeal, only as needed. We don’t know anything about Shasta’s history until a nobleman drags the truth out of his foster-father, and we hear nothing about Aravis’ troubles until she turns up at the river.

Finally we come to the villain’s monologue. Since it almost never makes sense for the villain to reveal his grand scheme to his mortal enemy, we have to find some other way of explaining the method to his madness. Our first impulse may be to keep what we have already written and simply put it into a logical framework. For example, some writers might have the villains expound their plan to their evil halfwitted minions. Remember The Emperor’s New Groove, that stupid yet hysterically funny movie that we writers are all obsessed with? It worked for that one.

The main problems with both approaches vary between points of view. In limited third-person POV, the protagonist isn’t usually around to overhear a scene like this. And why does he need to hear it at all? Instead, if the good guy is really smart enough to defeat the antagonist, he is smart enough to figure out the evil plot by himself. Again, if I’m telling in third-person omniscient, why explain the plan at all? I should tell the plan from the villain’s perspective as it happens and skip the exposition altogether. It’s the old show-don’t-tell rule.

Are you ready, fellow fantasy writers? I challenge us to delete our prologues and write our exposition the way Tolkien, Lewis, and Schonberg and Boublil did- with a dose of creativity from our famous fantastical imaginations.

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What’s the Problem With Exposition? (Part 1)

Let’s be honest, fellow fantasy writers. Plenty of authors have turned the word “exposition” almost into a curse word, and we’re the worst offenders.

Think about it. Epic plots, magic battles, worlds full of creatures unseen except in our imaginations… they make for a very long, very full, very expository sort of book. Telling rather than showing seems to be the way to go, even though we know that’s against the rule. Writers don’t like it, readers don’t like it. The mention of the “e” word makes all of us shudder, yet when readers pick up a new fantasy book, they almost expect us to throw a heap of backstory at them. And I too am guilty of writing unimaginative exposition.

Everything you ever needed to know.

But do we really want to settle for such low expectations? It’s time for us to break the chain and make our backstories interesting- and maybe exposition can help us do that if we do it right.

This week, I’m exploring the three biggest offenders in fantasy: prologues, infodumps, and villain monologues. Next week, I’ll share the ways that I avoid these three rascally problems. Ready? Here we go.

Starting with Act I, our first offender is the almost entirely dispensable prologue, and you could find it in almost any fantasy from The Lord of the Rings to Eragon. Now, in the rare event that your prologue actually is the perfect introduction to your book, most editors will tell you to make that your first chapter. However, the problem with most prologues is that they usually have very little to do with the rest of their respective books, except to summarize all the information we will need later (and then some).

While it might seem like the most efficient way to summarize a fascinating plot to a new reader, it is also the most yawn-worthy. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, many readers actually expect a boring prologue in a fantasy book; therefore, they will automatically skip the paragraphs under the heading “Prologue” and so miss any vital information that I might put in here. No way around it; people just don’t read prologues. Honestly, when was the last time you read the prologue?

The world is changed…

Secondly, the characters who get all the explaining done to them are quite likely to have heard it all before. Why would their mentor friend explain it over again? And for that matter, characters in a prologue are usually not so significant to the story that they deserve the first place in a book. Why not start with the main character in his or her daily life? The mentor and company can explain everything when they meet.

Our second troublemaker comes in the form of a big infodump, typically toward the beginning of Act I. This is in essence exactly the same as a prologue, only rewritten and placed in a new chapter. We overcome the temptation to write a prologue only to drop an encyclopaedia in another chapter. So there is of course a right way and a wrong way to do it; some books do explain huge chunks of history in such a way that keeps readers interested. But most new writers do it the wrong way by having the hero’s Mentor plunk down and explain the history of whatever fantasy world we have in our heads.

An infodump is simply too much, too fast. By definition, it dumps information on us all at once, devoid of elbow room or breathing space. Often this information isn’t even relevant to the plot. In an old draft of a story I never published, the hero is chosen for a quest (sound familiar? He even had a magical sword to go with it). But before he can go on that quest, he has to have the entire history of the world explained to him in a nice chunk of exposition. In one sitting. People just can’t read paragraphs like that. It’s not interesting to them, and they won’t need all this prior knowledge to enjoy the rest of the story.

If we can move past the prologue and infodumps, we might still end up throwing exposition at readers even in the third act of the story. I speak, of course, of the villain’s monologue. We have all seen this one before, especially in movies for kids. All the little kids watching Frozen (spoilers…?) just won’t understand why Hans wants to take over Arendelle- despite the fact that he already told Anna about his twelve elder brothers. When we encounter this illusion of a problem, we usually end up writing a scene in which the antagonist faces the protagonist in a moment of triumph and explains all the ins and outs of his or her complex plan- under the guise of “gloating”.

Frozen (2013)

Here’s the thing: some really despicable villains might be inclined to gloat, but most antagonists aren’t that foolish.  If you had your mortal enemy in your power and were just about to execute the final crushing move, would you reveal every part of your plan to them? Of course not. Hans, for example, has no reason to tell Anna that he deceived her- she knows that by now- or to explain that he’s going to kill Elsa.

And that, fellow writers, covers our three biggest enemies in exposition. Tune in next week for part two, and I’ll share a list of some techniques that might help work in the backstory.