Saturday, December 29, 2007

And, Just for Fun...Expostion Part VIII (and final)

Back to Part VII

Oh, Lord, not more exposition?

Yep. Just to round off this discussion, I thought I'd throw in a few passages from people you might happen to know. These passages have been carefully and scientifically selected by the sophisticated process of flipping rapidly through a few books I happen to have nearby.

1. Aliya Whiteley, Mean Mode Median

Since Aliya noted in the Comment trail that it only made sense to use exposition in some situations, especially in first person ("The reader is aware it's a book, not a film, for Gawd's sake!"), I thought it only fitting to give an example of first person exposition from her own writing--a passage that illuminates the entire novella when you read further. (Before you read this out of context, let me emphasize that this novella is neither science fiction nor fantasy.)

So Ed and I told our mother and father we were normal, and they did not bother to look deeper.

By my ninth birthday we were both ardent readers. The books that really captured our attention were science fiction and fantasy--long epics of books that explored the fragile balances of power in created lands and futures. When we found the the Dune series by Frank Herbert we were both smitten. We read each book in turn, watched the cut-to-ribbons movie over and over again, and played out the parts with each other, aware of the subtle shifts in character that could move a universe onto a different course entirely, destroying it or redeeming it. Heady stuff.

Was it harmless, our game play? Or did it alter us profoundly? I'm not sure. One moment we were clever children with a secret toy, and the next we were more than human, with, to steal a phrase, an exterminating angel hanging over us, touching those we chose to let it affect...

This goes on for a few paragraphs, tightening the screws, and only gets better. And when you first encounter it, about 20 pages into the book, it seems like backstory flavored to make it more interesting. In fact, what appears to be a diversion is in dead earnest, and is crucial to the book. It would take twenty pages of flashback to "show" what she manages in about a page; and, since it is in first person, the exposition illuminates character at the same time.

2. Michael Stephen Fuchs, Pandora's Sisters

In Pandora's Sisters, MSF sets himself a whole host of expository challenges. He has to explain genetics, including DNA coding and transcription; he has to explain modulo mathematics; he has to explain video encoding of grayscale pixels; he has to explain the worldviews of a number of religious sects; he has to explain various aspects of existentialist philosophy. Sometimes this comes out in the actions, and sometimes it comes out in discussion, and sometimes--as in the passage below, where he is preparing the reader for the idea that systems other than species can evolve (as in the the computer-programming techniques called genetic algorithms)--well, sometimes he just tells us:

Most people think that evolution is something that only happens with species, through their genes. But, prior to Mendel--and Crick and Watson--no one had ever heard of genes. Darwin wouldn't have recognized a gene if it had crawled up his trouser leg and gnawed his privates off. He only know how the process had to work--even if he had no knowledge of the medium in which it did so.

So, if you don't need genes, exactly, what do you need? Three things: replication, mutation, and differential survival. You've got to have something that makes copies of itself (replication); the copies have to occasionally be not quite exact (mutation); and a given copy has to survive more or less well, in its given environment, depending on how it mutates (differential survival). If those three things go on, what you'll see is the best mutations spreading and dominating--because they are the best at surviving and copying themselves in that environment...

(A fun read, by the way. MSF has invented a new voice for himself in this novel, and it's smart and addictive.)

3. Brian McGilloway, Borderlands

The whole nature and theme of Brian's book (indeed, the title itself) requires background. A lesser writer would have stuffed this information into the As-You-Know-Bob dialogue of the characters. But Brian faces the problem head-on and early on--these are the opening paragraphs of the novel:

It was not beyond reason that Angela Cashell's final resting place should straddle the border. Presumably, neither those who dumped her corpse, nor, indeed, those who had created the border between the North and South of Ireland in 1920, could understand the vagaries that meant her body lay half in one country and half in another, in an area known as the borderlands.

The peculiarities of the Irish border are famous. Eighty years ago it was drawn through fields, farms and rivers by civil servants who knew little more about the area than that which they'd learnt from a map. Now, people live with the consequences, owning houses where TV licences are bought in the North and the electricity to run them is paid for in the South.

One more paragraph of exposition follows, but at the bottom of the first page he yanks us into the protagonist's point of view with some sharp details, and we're off:

Consequently then, I stood with my colleagues from An Garda facing our northern counterparts through the snow-heavy wind which came running up the river. The sky above us, bruised purple and yellow in the dying sun, promised no reprieve.

Now that's an authorial voice.

4. Jonathan Drapes, Never Admit to Beige

And, of course, all's fair in comedy. John Gardner remarked that the only rule for comic writing was to out it on paper and see if people smile when they read it.

With this thought it all comes back to me like a flood--mud, silt, floating cows and all. Basically. I'm a cursed man. I'm out of luck. Not unlucky, but actually out of luck. My luck has been, for want of a better term, stolen. Stolen and traded on some illegal international luck market that I had no idea existed...

I guess it all started with the messy break up from Kelly three months ago and her tour of the South Pacific. We were due to go skiing in Chamonix, but when I shagged Camille from Kentish Town, I kind of forfeited my ticket. Kelly cashed it in and went to Fiji instead. Anyway, when she got back to London she sent me an exquisite Polynesian tribal figurine. That's Roger. Five inches of the most vindictive South Pacific hardwood ever known to man. Roger came with a note that read something along the lines of: "I hope it kills you, you sad bastard." That's when I noticed Roger's maniacal little grin.

After running through a chronology of diasters that occur following Roger's arrival, we then get the ultimate in expository summary-- a balance sheet:

...currently the ledger looks something like this:

aaaaStill aliveaaaaNo friends
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa No girlfriend
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa No job
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa No family (to all intents and purposes)
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Unintentional public nudity--twice
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Flat robbed--twice (before eviction)
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Still alive

I don't think I've yet put a list into a novel. But reading Jonathan makes me want to find an excuse to add one.

Back to Part VII


Jeremy James said...
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Jeremy James said...

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

This is probably the best ever series of blog posts ever written on pretty much any one topic.

I am very indebted to you for so graciously sharing all of this awesome knowledge on psychic distance and exposition (and it couldn't have come at a better time in my manuscript).

Wow. Simply, wow!

May said...

I am glad that you're back. I have been missing you.

David Isaak said...

Thanks, Jeremy. I can't wait to see what you do with this!

Hi, May! We had a wonderful break.

Tim Stretton said...

But who are these fine writers, David? All your readers will want to read everything they've written, as well as everything else produced by such discerning publishers...

This has been an enlightening series of posts. It's good to see a meticulously evidenced counterblast to the creative writing dogma that everything must be showed, and nothing told.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yes, I'm sure everyone will want to read everything by these folks. And it would seem to be fairly easy in three of the cases. MSF has two books on the table, Brian only one (though he has a couple in his hip pocket that will be appearing soon), and Jonathan Drapes only has Beige so far (Hello? Jonathan? Where have you gone? Some of us saved up all our lunch money for months waiting for your next one...)

You'll have a hard time reading all of Aliya, though. Not only does she have her MNW book and a second soon to appear, but she also has the novella I quoted from (available from Bluechrome Press), and any number of stories that she dashes off and scatters like leaves all across media-space. In multiple genres. And she co-writes with Neil Ayres, too, just to stay busy.

She makes me feel like such a slacker.

David Isaak said...
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Alis said...

Just to add my thanks for these posts on exposition - they really have been great! Happy New Year, David - I hope it's a really fruitful one for you!

David Isaak said...

And a fruitful New Year to you as well, Alis. You're off to a good start, certainly.

Now let's see how long it takes Amazon UK to get my copy of "Testament" over here. (I only received LC Tyler's book yesterday, but received Peter Anthony's at the same time. The ways of Amazon are mysterious indeed.)

Sam Taylor said...

I guess I'm just strange, but a lot of this doesn't really feel like "telling" to me. Because it has people and images attached to it, with peculiar details, it feels like a very zoomed-out scene, where the author is "showing" me back story.

So I'm not sure if this supports your attack on showing vs. telling in exposition.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

Exposition = Telling

Dramatization = Showing

My whole point is that exposition can be done in a manner that is vibrant and appealing--and can sometimes convey information both more economically and more entertainingly than dramatization.

These passages may "feel" like showing rather than telling. But they aren't. They are telling. Brilliant telling.

Jeremy James said...

At risk of confusing something David has graciously shared, here's another way to distinguish Exposition & Telling from Dramatization & Showing:


Is the material taking place in "real-time" with respect to the POV?

If 'yes,' then we have a case of dramatization.

If 'no,' then we *probably* have a case of exposition, or telling.

To clarify what I mean by "real-time," imagine every story having a clock, analogous to the game-clocks used in American Football. When a play is run, and players are in actual conflict on the field, the clock is ticking. In between plays (or during commercial breaks), the clock stops. But the commentators will still have plenty to share about the game with the audience, even when the clock isn't ticking. Think of this "in between plays" commentary as exposition, and think of the action on the field as dramatization.

Am I making any sense?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jeremy--

I think that's a good way of looking at it (if we allow for the idea that "real time" can jump around for things like flashbacks).

Jake Jesson said...

"So Ed and I told our mother and father we were normal, and they did not bother to look deeper."

One of my new Favoritest Lines Ever.

('Course, it'd sound pretentious in a Work of Speculative Fiction.)