It’s virtually unavoidable, this one. Seriously, virtually unavoidable, just like the old show/tell chestnut. It takes a mountain of diligence, discipline, and work for me to avoid it. And in the end, if I am successful in removing its stain from my story, the result might not be any better. So, as with that old “Show, don’t tell” adage, this one is largely a matter of degree. Too much, and my prose is comical. Too little, and…what’s that? You don’t know what I’m talking about? You mean I didn’t explain something to you?
And there’s the rub. If you haven’t from the title or the above gleaned my drift, let me spell it out for you. I’m talking about the dreaded expository block. Yes, that clunk-fest where the author steps right into the story, takes you (poor Reader) in hand, and gently explains to you what’s really going on. It’s that section which, when put into the mouth of a character, usually starts with a phrase like, “As you know, Bob…” It’s when Steven Spielberg paints a little girl’s coat red in an otherwise black-and-white film, just to make sure that you and he are on the same page.
But exposition is often necessary. My readers aren’t psychic, and just as I can’t “show” every last detail and nuance, neither should I take my story back to the beginning of, well, Everything, in order to expose my reader to all the backstory and context that imbues my heartbreaking work of utter genius. So, it’s another balancing act, another vague artist’s equation wherein phrases like a lot and too much prominently figure.
Some examples after the jump:
In fantasy novels, expository blocks often fill us in on past events. (“What Has Gone Before,” is the usual annotation, when it appears in the preface to such a book.) In science fiction, expo-blocks give us data on the more complicated aspects of futuristic worlds. (You can’t watch a minute of “Plan 9 from Outer Space” without being assaulted by a sentence like “This could only happen because the electrode ray is off.” Thrilling dialogue, n’est-ce pas?) In police procedurals, they explain…well, procedure, and in medical thrillers, they give us the whole rundown of why the patient can’t be suffering from thingamosis and must definitely be a victim of a doohickalotomy.
From “Intaglio” (I seem to pick on the same stories, but they’re earlier works, written when I was still learning much of what I’m complaining of):
Gavin Price-George. Commander of the 054th Tac-Battalion. He had left Pelion twenty-four years earlier, having overseen a five-year occupation—having done it well, in Central’s eyes—ruthlessly crushing Thessalon’s bitter rebellion against Central’s distant rule.
Granted, this isn’t a big expository block, but it’s a small example of what I’m talking about. In these two sentences I’ve given you a ton of information—information that is crucial to your understanding of the characters in the story. In its current form, it’s just a chunk of dry, uninspiring facts. Are the facts necessary to the story? For the reader? Yes, they are. But have I presented these facts in as palatable form as possible? No, I have not.
Unfortunately, some writers take the “band-aid removal” approach, and think that it’s better to get all the exposition out there in one big chunk. But the thing about exposition is that you only really notice it when it’s all crammed into a block; hence the phrase. On the other hand, if it’s doled out in dribs and drabs, you might not notice it at all. Let’s see if I can rewrite those two lines and make them better.
Gavin Price-George. Rea hadn’t heard that name in decades, hadn’t thought of the man in years. Commander of the 054th Tac-Battalion, he’d been an ominous figure during Pelion’s occupation. If she closed her eyes, she could see him still, just as he was thirty years ago: tall, lean, dark-haired and hawk-eyed, standing on the courthouse steps, his uniform crisp, his baton of command extended as he brought down heavy punishments on the insurgents, crushing Thessalon’s five-year rebellion against Central’s distant rule.
Better? I think so, though it could be better still, with work. But even so, all the same facts are there, just as before, only now they’re tucked in amongst some description and a little action. Instead of a cold recitation of What Has Gone Before, I give you a snapshot of Rea closing her eyes to recollect, and a video clip of Gavin as occupying commander. The facts are not the point of this paragraph now; they merely support it.
If I find two sentences of exposition, it’s too much, even in a novel but especially in a short story. And my recent reading has turned up paragraphs of the stuff. It’s enough to make me cry out for mercy. The facts may be necessary, but allowing them to clump up like that is just plain laziness.
Next time: Like a What, Now?