Thursday, 13 October 2011

Exposition Ninja

You have information you need the reader to have. Problem is the characters already know, or aren’t interested, or have no idea. Just putting the information (backstory, exposition, general background details) into the text, while simple and effective, is clunky. So how do you go about imparting this info without being obvious about it?

You may not want to put information in a certain scene, you may choose not to, but you should be able to if you have to. Everyone says exposition should be invisible, integrated into the narrative, delivered without being noticed, but nobody tells you how to do it. So how do you do it?

If your character works in a widget factory and you need the reader to understand what he does and how he does it because it’s relevant to the plot at some point down the road, how do you convey that information to the reader?

You could have the narration go: John arrived at the widget factory at eight in the morning and changed into his protective rubber suit... and go through the whole process step by step, but how interesting is that going to be? It just feels clunky.

Or you could have the foreman approach John and say: John, this is Bill, he’s starting today. I want you to show him the ropes. And then John explains the job to Bill (who acts as a surrogate for the reader). Again, very clunky (although this method does work if the thing being explained is extremely interesting. In fact interesting always trumps technique. For example, when I was 12 I killed my father and framed my mother so well even she believes she did it. In fact anyone can use my method to get away with murder. What I did was... pure backstory, but framed in such a way that the reader won’t care—as long as the story lives up to billing).

The key to good exposition is to make sure the structure is elegant. In this context elegant doesn’t mean pretty words and lyrical sentences. Someone buying furniture may see elegance in nice curves and pretty woodwork, to a carpenter elegance is not being able to see the joins. Craftsmanship. And as a writer you want to have the craft to slip in information without being obvious about it.

Let’s say Mike gets a phone call from his brother Dave. How do we know who is on the phone and what relationship he has to Mike?  The guy on the phone could say: Hi Mike, it’s me, Dave, your brother.

Clang. You can almost hear the gears grinding together. Of course, in real life someone may say that exact thing, but in real life people are obvious, and clumsy and not worth reading about.

When you’re trying to work in information you have to be prepared to be flexible. Settings, characters, context should all be open to change. You may think this scene has to be here at this time with these people. Chances are it doesn’t.

The phone was ringing. Margo got up to answer it.
“If that’s my brother,” said Mike, “I’m not here.”
“Hello?” Margo said into the phone. “Hi, Dave. No, he’s not here at the moment.”

It’s the misdirect that covers the exposition. By creating a goal that needs to be achieved, rather than just responding to events in the most direct way (phone rings, answer the phone, talk on the phone) you distract from minor details. But what if you then wanted Dave and Mike to have an actual conversation?

The handset hovered below Margo’s chin. “Hey, Mike,” she said. “Dave wants to know when you’ll be back.”
Mike snatched the phone out of her hand. “Gimme that.”

Ignoring the very old gag I used as an example, you can always find a way to direct the scene where you need it to go. Chances are you’ll make it a more interesting scene by having to work out how.

The other thing to remember is that straight ahead is boring. If the information ends up going exactly where you think it’s going, the reader will get there before you and then wonder why you’re telling them something so redundant. If you say: I’m going to the bedroom to go to sleep the reader will wonder, yeah and? If you say: I’m going to the bedroom to get my gun, the reader’s ears will prick up.

The unusual and unexpected is a very useful way to camouflage exposition.

So, John working in the widget factory, how would you get across the details of his job without making it feel like reading a text book on operating machinery? First you need to know why it’s important for the reader to know, doesn’t matter what the reason is, you just have to know what it is. In this case let’s say the climax of the story happens in the factory and John uses the machine to defeat the bad guy.  He overheats it and this causes scalding hot steam to shoot out of a valve.

So, now you don’t have to explain how the machine works, you just have to show what happens when it overheats. And you have to do it in manner that doesn’t seem to be for no reason, because it isn’t elegant, and because it will seem obvious you’re planting information for later.

For example, let’s say John has an argument with a girl who works in the factory office. Later she comes down to the shop floor. John lets his machine overheat. His co-worker gets freaked out he’s going to blow a gasket, but before the gauge gets in the red, John releases a valve and blasts steam up the girl’s skirt sending it flying across the factory. Ha ha, she’s mad, he gets a reprimand, we see what a wise guy he is, and establishes his relationship with this woman etc., etc., but all that is a smokescreen for getting the info across to the reader, and when later he lets the machine overheat well into the red and then blasts the baddie holding the girl hostage in the face, we already know what the machine is capable of doing.

If anyone has info they need to work into a story but don’t know how to do it in under the radar, feel free to mention it in the comments and might be fun to thrash something out.

If you found this post mildly useful please consider giving it a retweet. Cheers. 


Beverly Diehl said...

Excellent tips here - and you can be sure I'll retweet ;-).

One of my pet peeves is exposition naked in bad dialogue, "As you know, Bob, you've been my father since I was born." For some movies, I think we should make it a drinking game.

Anonymous said...

This was a dynamite post! Very clearly stated and most helful. Retweeted.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Rubbing my hands together to see if I've got some exposition that needs hiding. Retweeting for sure!

PT Dilloway said...

Unless your story is about his job at the factory that seems like a lot of effort and contriving for little gain.

Weaver said...

Love the tips, Moody.

"If the information ends up going exactly where you think it’s going, the reader will get there before you and then wonder why you’re telling them something so redundant."

Can't assume our readers are stupid.

Mary Mary said...

Good subject to tackle! I agree that it's all craftsmanship. As a writer, you have to learn how to make this kind of info flow seamlessly in the scene. But, yeah, it's tricky!

Jamie Gibbs said...

Awesome tips. Exposition is something I have a little difficult in achieving without being too info-dumpy.

Sarah Tokeley said...

A timely post as I'm about to start chipping away at the mountain of info dumping in my first draft next week :-)

Ted Cross said...

Yep, it's gotten to the point in books, and especially in movies, where if I see them spend any time at all on something seemingly irrelevant then I assume it will be needed for the plot later.

mooderino said...

@Beverly-cheers. Amzing how often you still hear that sort of dialogue, especially in movies.

@Bryce-thanks very much.

@angela-I believe rubbing hands together is part of ninja training.

@Rogue-since my example climaxes at the factory I would assume it is a key part of the story. Mind you, I am making it up as i go along so who knows?

@Donna-well, not all of them...

@Mary Mary-and so it should be. What kind of craftsman finds teh work easy?

@Jamie-fantasy is especially problematic as you have to explain stuff that would be already known in a more contemprary setting.

@Sarah-good luck!

@Ted-I think the audience is too savvy to be able to use the more clunky devicdes of yester year.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Great post! This part hit home for me -

"The other thing to remember is that straight ahead is boring. If the information ends up going exactly where you think it’s going, the reader will get there before you and then wonder why you’re telling them something so redundant."

I stopped reading a book recently because it kept hammering - loudly, clumsily - a point over and over - it was too much. There's something to be said for subtlety.

Angela said...

It helps if you can do it with humor. Easier said than done, I know. When I figure out exactly how to do it, I'll let you know.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent advice - as always. I like using dialogue to insert snippets of backstory. Used that a lot in my second book.

Christa Desir said...

Good advice. I can handle exposition pretty well, but I have a harder time describing complicated settings in a way that don't lose the reader. I can see it all in my head, but how do I not be so cumbersome about saying that the storage garage is across the alley from the back of the store and has two padlocks on the left side and one of those doors that you have to lift up by yourself....

Er, is this a tangent? Perhaps this is a blog post for another day.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

When you finally get around to publishing your book...I shall expect you to scoop the Pulitzer or the Nobel (I can't remember if I've said this in an earlier comment). But you are right on target with the exposition thing (as with all of your writing advice). How come you aren't doing the "Pay It Forward" blog hop?

LD Masterson said...

Yup, this one's going in my 'tips worth hanging on to' folder. Thanks.

mooderino said...

@Madeline-makes the writer look insecure, like a liar trying too hard to be convincing.

@Angela-I agree, and I'll be awaiting your call.

@Alex-as chief ninja I expect you to know all about this stuff already.

@Christa-why is it those sorts of doors never open smoothly? There's always a knack to it.

@Michael-you have put my name forward before, as yet still no official nomination. I believe they have some ridiculous stipulation about being published (pah!)

Actually I had no idea about Alex's blogfest until today when all these poses started appearing in my reader. I've been buried in my wip of late (yes, I do occasionally write fiction too).

@LD-you are most welcome.

Laoch of Chicago said...

Well said.

Ciara said...

I found you via Michael's post. I'm a new follower. This blog hop is such a great idea. :)

Laura Pauling said...

I think the best writing is when we don't notice narrative and think 'oh that must be important later'. I love when something is woven so intricately that later in the book I say, 'aha.'

mooderino said...

@Laoch-thanks very much

@Ciara-hello. Haven't we been following each other's blogs for many months?

@Laura-Yes, aha writing is pretty much what we all want, that perfect moment of pulling the reader all the way in.

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