The tyranny of exposition

by M.J. Hearle

Right, I know in the previous blog I promised I’d be discussing my path to publication in more detail. Consider, this a minor digression; a fun little pit stop along the way to our eventual destination. On Friday (or Monday depending on my work load) I’ll be posting about snagging a literary agent (all the aspiring writer’s ears just pricked up) but for now I’d like to discuss exposition.

I’m sure most of the people who read this blog are intelligent, well-informed souls that already know what exposition is and how it relates to writing. However, just in case you’re a little hazy on the term, here is a helpful definition I found on Google: exposition: a comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory.

Actually, that’s not all that helpful. A bit too dry and academic for my tastes. Let’s see if I can simplify it: when I discuss exposition, I’m referring to the background information that supports the story. It’s all those details the reader needs to know to understand who the characters are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing.

The problem with exposition is, if it’s delivered clumsily it brings the plot to a screeching halt. You don’t want your readers swept up in the momentum of the story only to bore them senseless with an ill-timed information dump. Show, don’t tell is the old maxim, and it’s worth bearing in mind.

When I was writing Winter’s Shadow I was constantly trying to figure out ways to insert exposition without ruining the narrative’s pace. Here was the challenge: I had to introduce an entirely new supernatural mythology except I’d structured the novel from Winter’s point of view. How was I supposed to explain my intricate, carefully thought out mythology if my lead character didn’t know anything about it?

The only way I could figure out how to do this was by having one character sit down and explain everything to Winter in a long, boring exposition scene. Not only once – but twice! Two separate long, boring sit downs (maybe I’m being a bit too self-critical – the scenes weren’t necessarily boring but they certainly weren’t exciting). One of these talky scenes even took place in a coffee shop – a story trope that has been used so frequently a phrase has been coined – Exposition Cafe.

Here’s a helpful hint, if you find yourself in an Exposition Cafe – GET OUT!

Many times I cursed myself for not just writing about vampires, or werewolves, or some other pre-existing monster ( I think it’s time someone wrote a YA Mummy novel. Bandages are just as sexy as fur and fangs.) If I’d done this, I could have limited my exposition to one sentence – ‘There’s something I need to tell you, Winter. I have a dark secret. I am a (INSERT MONSTER NAME HERE)’ and the reader would have instantly understood what was going on. (READER: Oh, he’s a vampire. So that’s why he only comes out at night and couldn’t eat that slice of garlic pizza.)

So, how did I solve my tricky narrative problem? (and I’m not sure I solved it entirely, but that’s for the critics to decide) The answer came from a surprising source: the DVD special features of James Cameron’s The Terminator. In the retrospective segment, Mr Cameron admits to having had trouble figuring out the best way to deliver his exposition. The heroic character of Reece has to explain to Sarah Connor that he’s been sent back from the future to protect her from the Terminator, a murderous cyborg, who wants to kill her before she can give birth to a son, John Connor, who will help defeat the robots that have taken over the world in the future. Oh yeah, it was her unborn son who sent Reece back in time to begin with. Phew! It’s exhausting just typing that.

Can you imagine how silly it would have seemed if Reece had just come up to Sarah in a coffee shop and explained the situation to her over a couple of lattes? The way Cameron solved this problem was by putting the exposition smack bang in the middle of tense action scene: Reece delivers it to a terrified Sarah Connor while they’re being chased by the Terminator through a carpark. He was able to convey paragraphs of information without sacrificing the narrative’s momentum.

All I had to do was rejig my story a little bit so that Winter was put in a position where she was being chased (it wasn’t too much rejigging luckily as the beginning of this chase scene was already written – I just had to extend it) and suddenly I had the perfect opportunity to clear up some narrative ambiguity while still keeping up the breakneck pace I’d nurtured. Obviously, I’m not suggesting you whack a chase scene arbitrarily into your Jane Austen pastiche (then again somebody inserted zombies recently into Pride & Prejudice, so what do I know?) but its a pretty useful trick if you want to avoid the dreaded Exposition Cafe.

M. J.