Monday, June 29, 2009

Exposition: How Much is too Much?

Petey Otterloop here, from Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac, obviously does not know that too much exposition is a bad thing. It's a trap I fall into myself often as I write, despite the drubbing I have Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson for it last week. I'm currently working on a novel and am into it ten chapters, and when I look at those chapters I can say most if not all are exposition. Sure, I rationalize to myself, I'm building up to something. There is so much in this compicated story, I tell myself, that has to be explained so the foreshadowing and backstory and all that good stuff is there right in front and . . . hey . . . where are you all going? I'm going to get to my point any minute now. Any minute now. Any minute now.

So, yeah, too much exposition is a bad thing. Got a lot of backstory? Maybe the best way to hadle it if you absolutely, positively cannot live without it is to pull at Tolkein and write an entire novel of exposition, such at the Silmarillion. But since it's not likely you or I are going to writea blockbuster trilogy like Lord of the Rings, we have to handle our exposition carefully. How to do that is the mystery. I'm still struggling with it myself. But I do read a lot and have noted certain authors handle exposition differently.

The Pratchett/Bradbury method: Exposition? It's in the readers' heads. The novels and short stories of Terry Partchett and Ray Bradbury are spare on the exposition. Pratchett especially assumes his readers are just familar enough with the world of fantasy that they can rely on their own collective memory to fill in some of the gaps that he'd otherwise have to fill in with prose. He does provide character exposition, but only what's necessary to move the story foreward. I read enough Rincewind books that I felt like I knew the guy well enough before I read the novel that explains how he got into his predicament in the first place. Bradbury, too, relies on light exposition, peppering his stories with just enough to keep things moving along.

The Clancy method: Tom Clancy, on the other hand, loves exposition. Just builds the forms and pours it all in. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Just depends on the mood I'm in.

Those are just a few examples, of course. But it goes to show that good writers ought to be good readers, just so we can figure out how others handle the same situations we find ourselves in.

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