Saturday, December 8, 2007

Psychic Distance, Exposition, and Information, Part IV

Back to Part III ... Forward to Part V

Tip 3. In exposition, be swift, bold, and fearless

In other words, if you're gonna do it, do it. Marshal your martial virtues. Here is where we separate the men from the boys. (With a crowbar.)

It’s tough to write flat-out, unapologetic expository prose these days. There’s a pernicious theory stalking the land that anything expository in fiction is a kind of failing—everything ought to be implied, or woven into drama or dialogue, else it runs the risk of being an example of the dreaded (gasp) infodump. And expository prose is by definition telling rather than showing, and “show, don’t tell” is the cardinal rule of our times.

Well, screw that. Some of the best fiction ever written, from Austen to Dickens to Melville to Faulkner to O’Brian right on down to Ian McEwan, contains exposition and narrative summary. Call me a moron, but I’m willing to assert that perhaps there isn’t something wrong with those writers, but rather something wrong with the rules.

If you care for an academic treatise on the topic, check out Wayne C Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. He analyzes a number of classic texts and concludes that they are more powerful and effective because they skillfully combine showing and telling, and that they would be impoverished without their expository narrative voices.

Long expository passages do run risks—of breaking the fictive dream, of becoming didactic, of being just plain boring. Or worst of all, exposition threatens to replace scenes that demand to be dramatized, and a reader won’t forgive that. (This, in my opinion, is the origin of the "show, don't tell" rule. Newbie writers often dodge the most important--and therefore difficult--scenes, or try to explain their way out of complex situations when imagination fails.)

And few readers today want that full-up omniscient voice pausing to tell them, “Had Rodney only known what events his actions would precipitate…” Exposition’s risky. So's driving. So what?

Emerson noted, “When on thin ice, our safety lies in our speed,” and I think that’s a good rule with exposition—don’t dwell on it, keep it interesting, and keep it moving. If you do all that, it won’t seem like an infodump.

The connection between the words “authority” and “author” are obvious, but your authority is never more needed than in exposition. Other times you have drama and the voices of the characters to carry you through. Exposition requires authority. Most teachers and pundits today would have you cast down your gaze and tug your forelock for jumping into your full authorial voice and saying something outside of tight character POV. They've got it backwards. If the narrative voice is going to speak unfiltered by a character, it should do so unapologetically.

Sometimes the quickest way round is straight through. And sometimes ‘slipping’ information into the story does nothing but slow down the pace, make for awkward dialogue, and make you seem like a self-conscious little weasel.

And we may in fact be self-conscious little weasels. But there's no reason to let the reader know that.

Back to Part III ... Forward to Part V


Janet said...

Three cheers for David! I'm getting a little tired of the show-don't-tell rule, although it is often a good one. Often is the operative word. Not always.

I've developed my own version of it: If telling is tedious, show. If showing is tedious, tell.

And I too have read some fine expository passages, although none are obliging enough to spring to mind right now. When done properly, it's good stuff.

Aliya Whiteley said...

I absolutely agree. I think it's the tendency of the new writer to slip into exposition at odd moments, thus the rule. But it's also a fault with writers to go to the other extreme to avoid simply passing info. Particularly if you're writing first person, or from a number of POVs, why avoid it like the plague? The reader is aware its a book, not a film, for Gawd's sake!

David Isaak said...

"If telling is tedious, show. If showing is tedious, tell."

Good rule! (And if both are tedious reconsider altogether.)

David Isaak said...

Bravo, Aliya!

(For those reading the Comment trail, I should add that Aliya writes masterly exposition. I'll probably quote some of it in a subsequent post.)

Sam Taylor said...

I'm pretty sure I have a grasp on how these things work in a short story. But I'm a little shaky on how they translate to my novel.

Every time I switch POVs within a group of characters, I feel like I have to zoom in a little again. Like, by default, switching POVs zooms out.

When I switch to a different group of characters on a different plot strand, I feel like I automatically zoom-out much higher. Like I'm almost starting a new story.

Are these instincts accurate?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

I think you instincts are very sensible, although not entirely accurate. When you make big POV breaks it's a kind of jump cut from one place to another, so it often feels right to spend a bot of time establishing the new scene before zooming in.

I have a tendency to do this myself, but I moderated it after someone told me all my chapter openings in a multi-POV novel were too similar. I looked at it, and they were right. You can start in the midst of action, dialogue, or thought, and interweave the scene-setting--the equivalent of starting in close.

To a great extent, though, if you start in very close you will often have to back out establish who/what/where. One of my friends started her novel with an untagged thought. Very effective but disorienting, and the next few paragraphs had to draw back to show the setting and the thinker.

Nowadays I try to vary how I start major jumps in POV--but starting at some distance and then zoomng in is a very natural instinct. It shows that you're conscious of what a reader needs to know to not be dangling in the void.