Monday, December 17, 2007

Psychic Distance, etc, Part VI: The First Annual Exposition Exposition

Back to Part V...Forward to Part VII

And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's...

...write exposition. (With apologies to Cole Porter, of course.)

I'm not sure who comes up with writing rules and passes them on, but a lot of writers end up like the narrator of Dylan's Maggie's Farm, with a headful of ideas...that have driven them insane. In the current rules, exposition is recognized as, like certain bodily functions, regrettably necessary; but one is expected to be discreet about it, dribbling in little bits of information here and there, misdirecting the reader so that they don't notice the unpleasant smell of the fact you just dropped.

As you might have noticed, I'm a little defensive on the topic of exposition. And if I'm defensive, it's with good reason. I've been clobbered once too many times. Exposition is so widely believed to be a bad thing in some parts that to say anything on its behalf in writing forums is akin to standing up at the Republican National Convention and suggesting that heroin ought to be legalized and distributed to schoolchildren.

You may get as far as citing a single example before you are shouted down. If your example is a well-known literary writer, the room will burst into a chorus of protests that assert, sure, you can get away with that sort of thing in lit-fic, but not in a well-told page-turner. If you use an example from a popular genre-writer, the room will turn snobby, informing you that, yes, you may be able to get away with it with those sorts of audiences, but the better class of writer would never do such a thing.

The purpose of this Exposition Exposition is to show that all manner of authors write substantial chunks of expository prose, and actually do so with gusto. No one can prove anything about writing, so I can't prove that their books are better for these passages, or that their novels wouldn't have been improved if this information were sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the text; but I have the feeling that most of these folks know what they are doing in their respective arenas. In this post and the next, I'll toss down some expository moments from Richard Adams, Stephen King, Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Amis, Michael Crichton, Francine Prose, and William Faulkner. (Is that an odd list, or what?) The next time people whine that exposition just isn't the done thing, wave these passages under their snooty upturned noses.

1. Richard Adams, Watership Down

Writing a dramatic novel about an imaginary rabbit civilization requires more than a bit of background and explication. Fortunately, Adams isn't shy about exposition or description. Here's a sample:

Fu Inle means “after moonrise.” Rabbits, of course, have no idea of precise time or punctuality. In this respect they are much the same as primitive people, who often take several days over assembling for some purpose, and then several more to get started. Before such people can act together, a kind of telepathic feeling has to flow through them and ripen to the point where they all know they are ready to begin. Anyone who has seen the martins and swallows in September, assembling on the telephone wires, twittering, making short flights singly and in groups over the open, stubbly fields, returning to form longer and even longer lines…

(I broke off at that point because we had entered one of the longest sentences in fiction; for those who want to check it out, the paragraph above opens Chapter 4, and the sentence is great fun.)

2. Stephen King, The Shining

At one point in The Shining, Jack looks thorough old magazines and clippings relevant to the history of the creepy Overlook Hotel. One lengthy passage, of which this is just a part, recounts the building of the Horace Derwent fortune:

In the late twenties and early thirties, Derwent turned to aviation. He bought out a bankrupt cropdusting company, turned it into an airmail service, and prospered. More patents followed: a new monoplane wing design, a bomb carriage used on the Flying Fortresses that had rained fire on Hamburg and Dresden and Berlin, a machine gun that was cooled by alcohol, a prototype of the ejection seat later used in United States jets.

And along the line the accountant who lived in the same skin as the inventor kept piling up the investments. A piddling string of munition factories in New York and New Jersey. Five textile mills in New England. Chemical factories in the bankrupt and groaning South. At the end of the Depression, his wealth had been nothing but a handful of controlling interests, bought at abysmally low prices, saleable only at lower prices still. At one point Derwent boasted that he could liquidate completely and realize the price of a three-year-old Chevrolet.

Expository and informative? Unashamedly. But I think it does its work without boring the reader. It tells a story, it is generous with details that ground it in reality, and "the bankrupt and groaning South" is a nice turn of phrase. For me, though, the line that sells it is the last one; there's something vivid and believable about that statement, even in narrative summary.

Okay, maybe you're a little bit sniffy about King. After all, he's not a literary writer, is he? Well, try this one on for size:

3. Ian McEwan, Atonement.

Morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home—barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances, and by a writer of the modern school as “charmless to a fault.” An Adam-style house had stood here until destroyed by fire in the late 1880s. What remained was the artificial lake and island with its two stone bridges supporting the driveway, and, by the water’s edge, a crumbling stuccoed temple. Cecelia’s grandfather, who grew up over an ironmonger’s shop and made the family fortune with a series of patents on padlocks, bolts, latches, and hasps, had imposed on the house his taste for all things solid, secure, and functional. Still, if one turned one’s back to the front entrance and glanced down the drive, ignoring the Friesians already congregating in the shade of the widely spaced trees, the view was fine enough, giving an impression of timeless, unchanging calm which made her more certain than ever that she must soon be moving on.

Notice the sleight-of-hand dodge at the end, where he anchors us back in POV (in this case, Cecelia's POV). And it works well enough to make me happy, though it is quite doubtful that McEwan really wants us to believe that Cecelia is thinking about architectural reviews or even about her grandfather. Instead, the reanchoring of POV smooths the transition from McEwan's high-flying exposition so we can enter the upcoming paragraph already eased into Cecelia's mind.

I do admire the details about the grandfather's patents. Saying he made his fortune in locks would have been good authenticating detail; getting down to the level of hasps makes it seem factual. Ah, yes, the Tallis Hasp--in the same pantheon as the celebrated Rabson Lock. (The Rabson Lock is an almost-unpickable lock. There is no such thing outside of the Nero Wolfe novels--and Lawrence Block's Burglar novels, where he adopted the lock as an homage.)

Next post: More of the same...

Back to Part V...Forward to Part VII


Wendy C. Allen a.k.a. EelKat said...

what a great post. I too hate being told what I should or should not do with my writing.

David Isaak said...

Hi, eelkat--

Thanks! Good to see you here.

You know, I wouldn't mind being told what to do nearly so much if the people telling me knew what they were talking about...

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