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.
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.
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.