Writing Description and Exposition: Combo

Last week,I showed an example based on the principle that A descriptive passage is the story of a particular character’s encounter with a person, place or thing. I noted that things would be completely different if I wrote a description of the same thing but from a different person’s viewpoint. So today, let me do that.

It was the second time I’d ever been in a lawyer’s office.

The first time was in a flea-bitten fire-trap in a neighborhood where even the rats carried switchblades. The lawyer was a guy who smelled like he washed his clothes in cheap whisky…but to be fair, I smelled the same way at the time. (It was not a good period in my life.) But surprise, surprise, my “legal eagle” knew his way around a courtroom. Or maybe he just got lucky. Either way, he kept me for going down on a bogus count of B&E, manufactured by a cop who lost his temper because he couldn’t get me on thirty-some real B&E’s I’d committed around the city.

But my first lawyer died the very night he got me set free. I took him out for a celebration drink and he keeled over right beside me in a dirty little bar. It scared the piss out of me. Also the alcohol. I got into a program and came out embarrassingly sober.

Mind you, I didn’t give up being a thief—I just stopped stealing while drunk. Which is why I went for years without being caught, and why (when my luck finally had a hiccup) I could afford to hire the incomparable Bethany Pruitt.

Her office resembled the kind of place I now used my talents to burgle: up-scale, chic, but not matchy-matchy. I particularly liked the two paintings on the wall in the reception room. Both were dreamscapes full of stylized figures of naked people. I walked up to the receptionist and before she could even put on a professional smile, I said, “Those paintings are lovely. May I ask who’s the artist?”

“Nellie Chang,” the woman answered immediately. “She shows with a gallery just down the block. Ms. Pruitt greatly admires Nellie’s work.”

Useful information. I made a mental note to visit the gallery after hours and pilfer a few canvases. Art can be hard to fence, but I knew several buyers who’d be happy to acquire the work of an up-and-comer in the early stages of her career. Good investments, and all that.

The receptionist and I had a nice little chat about who I was and whether I had booked an appointment. I’d taken the liberty of hacking into the company’s computers to place myself on their appointment calendar, but apparently that didn’t count. To my astonishment, the office still operated on paper, and I wasn’t written down in the official appointment book. The situation took several minutes to sort out, after which I was escorted down to a room with an even greater quantity of paper shelved on the walls in the form of law books. It all seemed so twentieth century! Still, it’s harder to change words on paper than in The Cloud, so for all I knew, Bethany Pruitt ran the most secure legal firm in Manhattan.

Now notice all the things going on here. The first few paragraphs provide exposition in the form of a story: how the narrator nearly went to jail. We get a sense of the character’s voice, attitude, and profession. Then we return to the present to get on with the business at hand. We don’t know exactly what the narrator has done, but we can guess that (s)he stole something and got caught. The specifics will no doubt emerge in conversation with Pruitt.

By the way, the artist Nellie Chang should play some role in the ensuing story. I have nothing in mind—I’m just making this stuff up as I go along—but if Chang gets this much attention on Page 1 of a story, readers will expect to see more of her. The first few pages of a story always create expectations in the reader’s mind; you have to recognize that and deal with it. (You don’t have to fulfill reader expectations, but you have to address them. You can have Chang appear in all kinds of ways, some more predictable than others…but you have to use her somehow or readers will wonder why you mentioned her at all.)

I hope this helps illustrate some principles about description and exposition. If you have any questions about description or exposition, feel free to submit a comment!

[Photo of paint brushes by terri_bateman [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Writing Exposition: Anecdotes

This is the fourth in a series of posts about exposition. My purpose is to demonstrate ways that writers can make passages of exposition more engaging, so that readers want to read them rather than skipping past or skimming.

The technique today is one that gets used so often in journalism, it’s become formulaic: turn things into anecdotes. In the hands of mediocre journalists, this annoys the heck out of me—for example, every profile about an interesting person seems to start with some anecdote that supposedly symbolizes that person’s character or work. Often, such anecdotes strike me as mere random incidents that the journalist happened to see during the course of an interview, then tried to inflate into something profoundly meaningful. Harumph. But in fiction, you’re allowed to make stuff up, so you can devise anecdotes that are truly useful.

In particular, you can invent little stories that add life to background information. Let’s look at an example.

“This house,” said Maria, “was built over a hundred years ago by a right old bastard that everyone called Black John. He was famous in his day for…well, just about any crime you can name. Robbery, murder, rape, smuggling—there were folk who’d swear on a bible that they watched with their own two eyes while Black John did it. Then with all his ill-gotten gains, Black John built this huge mansion miles away from anywhere. Built the walls good and thick, in case one of his enemies showed up with a cannon. Concealed at least three secret hiding-places upstairs and down, plus maybe more that we’ve never discovered. And if ever worse came to worst, he dug an escape tunnel in the basement: it leads down into caves that’ll take you into the woods or down to the ocean.”

Billy asked, “How did you get the house, grandma?”

Maria smiled. “Black John may have been famous for being the county’s greatest criminal, but he was shamefully bad at poker.”

This simple story sets up that the house has secret hiding-places and an escape tunnel, all of which will likely get used eventually. I could have embellished the anecdote with more details if I thought more was needed, but this was enough.

Notice that Maria could have just said, “This house has hiding-places and an escape tunnel,” but that’s pretty bland and forgettable. By explaining the house’s features with a little story, I make things a bit more interesting.

You can make anecdotes about anything. For example, if you want to explain your starship’s faster-than-light drive, you can tell a little story about how FTL was discovered. If you want to explain why Country A is at war with Country B, you can tell the story of a character’s mother who experienced the outbreak of war first hand. By weaving a little story around the facts you want to convey, you can make them more engaging and memorable.

Writing Exposition: Visual Aids

In previous posts about exposition, I noted that before providing background information, you should try to make readers want that information. You should also present the information in an emotional context—instead of a dry recitation of facts, you should have one or more characters who view those facts with emotion. For example, if you’re going to give a history lesson, don’t have it given by a detached history professor. Have the lesson delivered by someone who loves or hates what happened, so they can inject some feeling into the facts.

Emotion is a big part of providing exposition with “sizzle”. Another part is arranging for an active presentation rather than a passive one. My mantra on this is, A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

At the low end of activeness, you can use visual aids. Let’s take a simple example.

Robin took me downstairs to a quiet room lit by a single candle. The walls were lost in shadow, but as I entered, I could see stray glints of metal all around me. Robin went to one wall and came back with a sword that he held for me to examine in the candlelight.

With a hushed and reverent voice, Robin said, “This sword belonged to my great-grandmother. She fought in the Ice Brigade during the First Mage War. See how the hilt is scorched? She slammed it into a Russian fire mage at the Battle of Berlin. She couldn’t stab the mage because all the enchantments on the blade had been exhausted in previous fighting. But she had a tiny bit of blessing left on the hilt: enough that she could hammer the mage in the head without getting the sword completely incinerated.

This passage packs in a lot of information. Since it mentions Russia and Berlin, the story clearly takes place on a version of our world. But it’s a world where magic exists, and where people with swords fight mages. Women can be part of military brigades. It’s possible for weapons to be enchanted, but those enchantments wear off.

Instead of just reciting these facts, I’ve created a scene where the facts arise in connection with showing off the sword. There isn’t a ton of drama in this scene, but even so, there’s some action. Characters are moving around, looking at things, and so on.

I could go on to have the narrator describe the sword in more detail, and I could use those details to reveal other facts about the world. I could also have Robin show the narrator other mementos from the room, perhaps dealing with later wars and other important events. In this way, I can convey a lot of background without much trouble.

Using objects is a simple way of turning exposition into an active scene rather mere passive statements. In future posts, I’ll look at other approaches.

[Sword diagrams from Nathan Robinson via the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Writing Exposition: Timing and Emotion

In the previous post about exposition, I talked about what exposition is and why it’s inescapable. I also mentioned my basic principle on exposition: A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

I’ll say more about that principle eventually. First, however, let’s look at an important question: When/where do you have exposition appear in a story?

Ideally, you provide exposition at a point where the reader wants it. If the reader really really wants to know about a subject, then the reader will eagerly read what you have to say about it.

This means it’s a good idea to create the conditions in which a reader is keen to find out background information. As an example, consider the beginning of Hamlet.

In the first scene of the play, a ghost appears on the battlements of the royal castle. This isn’t the first night the ghost has been seen, so the guards have called in a young scholar named Horatio to see what he thinks the ghost is up to. Horatio tries to get the ghost to talk, but doesn’t succeed. He does, however, observe that the ghost looks like the late King Hamlet. So Horatio decides to go to the king’s son, Prince Hamlet, and tell the prince about the ghost.

This scene contains some of its own exposition. “Hey, that ghost looks like the king who died a few weeks ago!” is a lovely example of quick exposition. But more importantly, the scene sets up a situation in which the audience wants to know more about the late king and his death.

After all, seeing a ghost is dramatic stuff. Something juicy must have happened when the king died. The audience will be eager for details. Therefore, the next scene is a great time to do exposition.

So what happens in the next scene? The royal court is in session, with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude sitting on their thrones. Various things happen to set up events later in the play, but exposition is provided by Prince Hamlet—throughout the proceedings, he keeps firing off side comments and emotional outbursts.

Hamlet is basically pissed off at the world. He’s pissed off that his Uncle Claudius is now sitting on Dad’s old throne; he’s pissed off at Mom, Queen Gertrude, for marrying Claudius two seconds after Dad was buried. (“Gee, Mom, great idea! We saved money by serving the leftovers from the funeral feast at the wedding banquet.”) Hamlet is also pissed off at various other characters, making snide comments on their personalities and generally acting like a sullen teenager.

During the process, we learn a lot of background details about everyone. His complaints also give us personal info on everybody he bitches about. Hamlet’s complaints are also snarky enough to be entertaining and emotional enough to show that he’s a powder keg. They show how angry he is with Claudius and Gertrude. And in the process, we find out that Claudius and Gertrude got married suspiciously fast after the old king’s death.

In other words, we get lots of exposition, but it’s delivered with sizzling emotion. Hamlet isn’t lecturing us, he’s chewing out everyone around him. We’re entertained by the emotional fireworks…and in the process, we learn a lot of background facts.

This example highlights two important principles of exposition.

  1. Before you provide major bits of exposition, set up conditions that make readers want to know the facts.
  2. Then when you deliver the facts, do so with emotion. Don’t just lecture, give a speech. There’s a difference.

That’s it for today. More to come!

[Poster for Hamlet from Wikimedia Commons]

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.