Writing Exposition: Introduction

In writing fiction, exposition means giving the reader background information.

The need for exposition is universal—at the start of Hamlet, for example, the audience needs to be told that Hamlet is a prince, that his father, the king, recently died, and that his mother married his uncle soon thereafter. Since these events happened before the start of the play, Shakespeare didn’t want to show them on stage. Instead, he had to convey the information in some other way.

As I just said, every piece of fiction needs exposition. There’s always a lot of things that the audience needs to know in order to understand what’s going on, and it’s just not practical (or even possible) to present those things as a direct part of the action.

The problem can be even worse in fantasy/science fiction. F&SF often deal with “facts” that don’t exist on our own world—fictional places, for example. If I’m writing about our own world, I can set a story in Toronto and take it for granted that readers will have a general picture of the city. (Of course, I’ll have to explain specific background details that non-Torontonians aren’t likely to know.)

If, on the other hand, I set a story in a fictional city on a fictional world, I can’t take anything for granted. I have to explain history, culture, environment, etc. starting at Square One.

Small details are easy to toss in during the action: My mother lived in Cabbagetown, one of the worst parts of the city. That’s enough to give readers a first impression of the mother’s neighborhood. Later on, you can go into the specifics of what makes it so bad.

But sometimes, you need to give more information than just a thrown-in phrase. For example, if you’re writing about a war, you (usually) have to tell what the war is about. Depending on the needs of your story, this may involve a deep dive into the relevant history, economics, cultural perceptions, and so on.

How do you provide this information without putting readers to sleep? I summarize the basic principle like this:

A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

Think of all those things we wish that school teachers would do: take us on field trips…use visual aids…make active presentations…tell anecdotes…turn parts of the lesson into games. As writers, we have to do the same sorts of things.

Lectures have their place, but they’re dry. Next time, I’ll talk about how to use more colorful ways to convey information in the course of a story.

Patreon Posts

I just sent out my first post to Patreon patrons. It’s taken me a while to figure out what special thing I can add to these posts, but I think I’ve finally come up with something good.

I have a great concept for a story titled Miracles & Wonders. The story is comprised of small sections, each of which is relatively self-contained. There’s just one problem: I, uhh, haven’t figured out how to end the story yet.

So I’ve decided to send out one section a month, in the hope that by the time I exhaust all the sections I’ve planned and/or written, I’ll come up with a suitable ending. If not…well, okay, my Patreon peeps will at least find out that stories don’t always work out.

So by signing up for my Patreon, you get to watch a story in progress. I hope you find the process interesting.

Sharing: June 29, 2018

More links…

Eye Candy: National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year pictures
In the spirit of my recent post about Eye Candy, the National Geographic just released a whole bunch of gorgeous photographs. Well worth clicking through them all.
Book: Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri
A police procedural thriller set in Italy. The sleuths are both suffering from serious cases of PTSD, making them flawed but sympathetic. Lots of action, but with realistic consequences—whenever there’s a fight, one or both heroes usually end up in the hospital. I’m reading the sequel now, and it’s good too.
Awards: The Aurora Awards
If you’re Canadian citizen or landed immigrant, why not sign up to vote in the Aurora awards? It costs $10 (Canadian) but if you sign up now, you get a substantial voter’s package containing lots of great stories and book excerpts. And (cough cough), you can also vote for my stuff if you feel so inclined.

Eye Candy

Everybody listens to music…

Well okay, I don’t do listen much, because I get way too distracted. I can’t listen to music and do anything else at the same time. But anyhoo…

Everybody listens to music. Everybody seeks out music. And everybody can find music because there are a zillion sources from iTunes to Spotify to Bandcamp.

But many of us don’t seek out visual stimulation. The number of people who go to art galleries is tiny compared to the number of people who go to music venues.

Of course, there are plenty of visual sources besides galleries: Instagram, Pinterest, Deviant Art, to name a few. There are also infinite quantities of cute animal pictures out in the world…for which we must be grateful on days when almost everything else in life sucks.

But if you’re a writer, you should be constantly filling your eyes with visual input. Geography, for example. What can a desert look like? We’ve all seen picturesque sand dunes, but what other possibilities are there? What do desert-dwelling people look like? What do desert settlements look like? Desert animals? Desert rocks? You never know when you might need to write a scene that takes place in a desert. Filling your eyes and brain with desert images ahead of time gives you resources to draw on if you need them.

The same goes for other environments. Also for things: castles and railways and factories and alleys and parks and crustaceans and whatever exists in the world. And people: people of all ages, types, cultures, past and present.

Make a point of seeking web sites and other sources of diverse visuals. Do it every day. Make bookmarks for images that interest you. Cover your writing desk with pictures that get your juices flowing.

These days, it’s a cliche to ask, “What music do you have on your phone?” But I remember a Robertson Davies novel where a character asks, “What pictures does he have on his walls?” That really got me thinking. And I started figuring out what visuals might put me in the mood to write.

Writers should have pictures. A lot of them. And writers should make a point of seeing new things every day.

[Candy cane picture from gallery.yopriceville.com]

Sharing: Tor.com Novellas

A novella is shorter than a novel and longer than a novelette. Definitions vary, but the Tor.com line of Novellas uses a word count of 20,000-40,000 words. (For comparison, an average novel is about 100,000 words.)

Tor.com novellas offer a great cross-section of modern science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Because the line emphasizes diversity, you’re apt to find books full of fresh ideas seldom seen in other SF work. At the same time, you can also find great examples of “cozy” old mainstream SF (like the Murderbot stories by Martha Wells that I mentioned last week).

What’s so great about novellas? It’s been said that the novella is the “natural” length for SF: long enough to develop an idea in detail, but not so long as to wear out their welcome. Also, let’s be honest, novellas are cheaper and faster to read than full-length novels. In addition, novellas cost less to print, so the publisher can take risks on stories that may be more cutting-edge than conventional tales.

One way or another, I’ve enjoyed all the Tor.com novellas I’ve read. In addition to the Murderbot stories, here are some of my favorites:

 

To be honest, I didn’t realize how many Tor.com novellas I’d read until I started making the above list…and that’s not counting a number of books that I have on my Kindle waiting to be read.

So by all means, check out the line. All the novellas are available digitally as well as in trade paperback; many (or maybe all) are also available as audiobooks.

And if you don’t usually read science fiction/fantasy/horror, these novellas are a great place to start.

Sharing: June 17, 2018

More stuff I like:

Book: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
This made me laugh a lot: wry and honest cartoons about being an well-meaning misfit.
App: Feedly
Feedly is an RSS subscription reader…and if you don’t know what that is, you should. RSS is method of summarizing and syndicating blog posts. Almost every site you care about creates its own RSS information; software like Feedly can look up that information and tell you about any articles posted since the last time you checked. In other words, RSS readers let you follow blogs and quickly find out what’s new. I use Feedly as a fast way of checking many different web sites, so that I’m always up to date. (And by the way, you can use Feedly to follow this web site too, i.e. jamesalangardner.com. Never miss a posting!
Web Site: Reductress
Reductress is The Onion but with articles slanted toward women. Some of the articles are only titles…but the titles are so great, adding content would only spoil them. So yes, I just read Reductress for the headlines; it is a wonderful use of my time.

Sharing: June 15, 2018

More items of interest:

Book: All Systems Red by Martha Wells
The first novella in the “Murderbot” series. Murderbot is a part-mechanical part-organic security unit who has managed to disable its control module. Surprisingly, this doesn’t lead to a killing spree—Murderbot just wants to watch soap operas while doing the minimum amount of work required to keep up the pretense that it’s still under human control. Murderbot is utterly charming, so I’m glad there are several more books to come in the series.
Web site: Quartz (qz.com)
One of my favorite sites for news. Quartz covers the same sort of topics you see on many news sites, but from an international perspective. I believe it’s based out of India, although it hires writers from around the world. It also deals with items of interest from places other than North America and Europe—always with good explanations and first-rate graphics.
Web comic: Questionable Content
I feel embarrassed mentioning this, since anyone reading this blog probably reads Questionable Content already. But if you don’t, you should. I might note that the series has been running since 2003, so there’s a lot of backlog available to read. It’s evolved quite a bit since the early days, but I still think the comic is worth reading from the very first strip. (You won’t know how truly lovable Bubbles and Hannelore are unless you have years worth of context.)