Tentacle beasts and Alan Moore's beard

Exposition [ek-spuh-zish-uh n]
1. a large-scale public exhibition or show, as of art or manufactured products: an exposition of 19th-century paintings; an automobile exposition.
2. the act of expounding, setting forth, or explaining: the exposition of a point of view.
3. the bane of my existence for the past month

So I made this world up inside my head. It’s this kind of high-speed collision between a combustion-based industrial revolution and Japanese feudal society, set against a backdrop of diminishing resources and exponentially aggregating pollutants. And I wrote a book about it. And some nice folks liked it, and agreed to print it, because they thought other people would like it too. But after the hangover wore off, I was sent these long and wonderfully detailed letters, that, in addition to a couple of other things said this:
“You know how this world works. And you are assuming your reader does too. But we don’t. Explain yourself, bastard.
Your Editors.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing on STORMDANCER recently. Lots and lots of explaining myself. Problem is, unless you’re smart enough to write your protag as an audience surrogate (I am not), you’re going to have to find lots of different ways to explain yourself over the course of your book. Because the last thing on earth you want in your novel are constant breaks in the narrative to make room for huge chunks of exposition. There’s a reason why they’re called info dumps after all. (You know. Because they’re crap… oh, you got it. Very good. Carry on, then.)
So here’s a few of the ways I’ve (hopefully) managed to explain myself without being crap. Maybe you can use them and we can alllll drink lemonaaaaaaade. THE END.

  1. Arguments. There’s little worse than reading two characters talk about a topic they already know inside out in order to let me in on the idea. Can you imagine two men talking to each other about how beer works? No. Because men already know how beer works, and men aren’t considerate enough to take the garbage out, let alone realize there might be some pan-dimensional being listening in on the conversation wondering what the fizzy urine-like substance they’re drinking is.
    But men will argue at the drop of a hat. Particularly men drinking beer. And they will even argue about stuff they already know everything about, because, you know, they know everything.
    So, have some characters get into an argument about the way something in your work works. A disagreement about the mechanics or the philosophy or the motivations behind this Thing Your Editors Told You To Explain. We all know somebody who argues for the sake of it. (Note: To people with Irish or Dutch friends, this scenario will ring particularly true.)
  2. Children. Kids don’t know jack. Ask your five year old if he understands why the sky is blue. Or when the Mongols ruled China. He’s got no idea, does he? No. Because he’s a kid. And kids don’t know jack.
    Kids are also precocious little bastards quite inquisitive as a general rule. If they see something they don’t understand, their instinctive reaction is to ask you about it. Right now. Despite the fact that you’ve been trying to kill the end boss in Prototype for 40 minutes straight, and all the joy has gone out of the deed, but by God, you’re going to kill it anyway.
    “How do the people fit inside the television set?”
    “What does “little whoreson” mean?”
    “Why are you choking me?”
    Kids are the ultimate audience surrogate. They know nothing. So when one asks how something works, it will ring true to your reader.
  3. The Red Shirt. Also known as the “The Pippin”. This guy is particularly useful in life-threatening/deadly situations.  You need to establish that the huge pointy spiky thing plugged into the glowing battery scrawled with glowing sigils and shrieking like the souls of the thrice-damned is bad? Have someone in the group touch it. Press the big red button and get eviscerated. Better yet, get someone else eviscerated. Then Sir Ian McKellen can be all like “Confound it all Billy Boyd, you’ve beheaded Sean Astin, who the bloody blue blazes is going to hold Elijah Wood’s hand in Mordor now?”
    I love Sir Ian McKellen. He is so awesome.
  4. Naturally Occurring Exposition. This was a technique Alan Moore used in Watchmen before he went completely bananas and started living like a hermit in the woods of Shropshire. Moore bookended chapters with excerpts from a minor character’s autobiography, newspaper clippings and media interviews with other characters, as well as reference materials (encyclopaedias, magazine articles). It gave his world a greater feeling of completeness to know that these objects existed within it, and simultaneously allowed us to learn more about the world by reading them.
    Douglas Adams named his first book after his exposition device. A book named after an info dumper. And the info dumps were hilarious. Genius, I tell you.
    Garth Nix bookended a few chapters in Shade’s Children with audio-taped dialogue recorded by characters within the story, explaining aspects of the dystopian world for the benefit of “future generations”. While they were essentially info dumps, I found them to be the most artfully written and enjoyable parts of the book, because the characters were talking to me.
    But yeah, overuse of this technique might see you ending your days living like a hermit in the woods of Shropshire. Or at the very least, growing an enormous crazy homeless person beard.
  5. Acknowledging the reader. Really only works  in first person PoV. The protag assumes you (the reader) don’t know anything, and his explanations seems less forced within that context, because he/she is already essentially “speaking to you” by telling the story in the first place. (note – I didn’t use this technique in STORMDANCER , it’s not a 1st person PoV narrative)
  6. Poetry. You can only pull this off in a fantasy. And it can’t be contemporary fantasy either. And anything over six lines, you’re coming off as a) A novelist who wishes they were really a poet, b) A complete tosser, c) Both.
    But hell, if Rothfuss can get away with it, you can too. #1 NYT bestseller, folks. He ain’t playin’.

Oh, additions I forgot I used. Thanks to Kate!

    1. Reminiscence. People get together and talk about the good/bad old days all the time. The older I get, the more I find myself having to resist the urge to yell about how music was better when I was a kid wtf is up with tv shows these days christ that kid looks ridiculous in the those drop-crotch jeans damn punks get off my lawn. In my experience, talking about how things “used to be better” is natural human instinct, so running your exposition through this device will ring true.
    2. Flashbacks.  Essentially, FBs are live action reminiscences. I’m a big fan of FBs. It’s a great way to quickly revisit pivotal moments in your character’s lives and give some quick insight into why these people are the way they are. Quick structural note – Jumping into an FB without introduction (as I often do) can be disorienting to your reader unless you give them a hint they’re no longer living in the main narrative. Italics are your friend.

Hmm. That’s all I’ve got. Of course, there are going to be points in your book where you simply have to spill. During some big crisis point, you can’t have Billy the precocious six year old urchin pipe up and ask why the Tentacle Beast seems in any way attracted to the Japanese Schoolgirl , given they are different fucking species and all. At which point you just have to write your ass off and try your best to make it interesting and brief.
PS: Any explanation about tentacle beasts and Japanese schoolgirls can never be the former, and should always be the latter.

19 Responses to “Tentacle beasts and Alan Moore's beard”

  1. Good points, sir! While in the State of Waiting (you’ve been there), I’m trying to keep busy (a.k.a keeping myself from going insane) by writing another novel. This time around, it’s in the third person. And I’m grappling with exposition like a two-headed (insert your metaphor here). It’s almost like a dance that tests your creativity. I especially like the Red Shirt idea. Maybe…might try it.

    • Red Shirts are good. Even better when a major character turns out to be wearing a Red Shirt underneath his spunky sidekick/comedy relief/gruff loner shirt. Nobody sees that coming.

  2. P.S.
    What about Reminiscence as a type of exposition? Think it would work?

    • You mean two characters sitting and talking about the good/bad/shoggoth old days? Sure, that can totally work. I used the device of characters sitting and contemplating past events once (shoulda put it on the list), and I also used Flashbacks (hmm, shoulda put them on the list too), which are essentially “live action” reminiscences. And FBs worked pretty well for me, I used about four or five. Having a lone character sitting and thinking about stuff that’s happened before works too, in theory, since we do stuff like that all the time. But when I tried to write scenes like that, I had to keep them really brief or they came off as info dumpy.

      • I guess, for it not to be a total information dump, exposition really does need to be brief. Peppering the novel with as many variations as possible is the way to go. Reading The Maze Runner, and the way James Dashner does it reminds me of an RPG. You have the main character discovering the world by asking other characters about it and connecting the dots as he goes.

        • Agree 100%. Brief is the way to go. How brief depends on the technique you’re using imo. You can get away with more exposition if it’s phrased as a conversation/arguement, for example. But if it’s unavoidable info-dump time, one paragraph is your limit, and you shouldn’t do it too often.
          The Dashner technique only works if your protag is a n00b (ie, he has a legitimate reason to be walking around asking “wtf is that?”). If the protag is an audience surrogate, you can get away with so much more dumpage. If the protag is already established and native to the setting, he/she has no reason to walk up to a random NPC and ask “hey what the fuck is up with the sky being red btw?” So you have to be a bit tricksier.

  3. Girl Friday says:

    Amazingly useful post, thank you! And I laughed very hard over the ‘men arguing over anything, because they know everything’ bit 😀

  4. Question: Ever thought of writing a post about choreographing a fight scene? I’m in the middle of one and it’s never the easiest thing to write.

    • Always looking for ideas about stuff to blog about. I’ll write one next week 🙂
      I actually really enjoy writing fight scenes. But I think that’s because I’m a boy. 😛

      • I enjoy them to. It’s the choreography that makes me stop and think for a moment. I have to have it play out first in my head before I can attempt to start describing it. I look forward to the post!

  5. Judd says:

    I’ve been struggling mightily with setting it all up that I actually just threw most of it out and figured I’d wait to see if people really didn’t know what the fuck was going on, so we’ll see.
    I mean, SAM got it, but he’s a freak.
    I’ve read lists like this, but never with the argument one in there. That’s awesome. And my kids are so fkn retarded that there’s no way I’m trying that trick in a book. The protag would throw his hands up and get a beer before trying to explain anything to those fkn yardapes.

    • I chopped out a bunch of exposition in the MS I sent out to agents, simply for the sake of word count and brevity. It’s probably not a *bad* way to go, and you can always put it back in later, I guess.
      Given the choice, an agent would probably prefer “not enough” exposition over “too much”.
      But still, your reader needs to know wtf is going on. Don’t assume too much, as I seem to do.

  6. Jet says:

    A very useful and hilarious post. I snorted with laughter at the ‘if you have Dutch or Irish friends you’ll understand.’ Because I do and yeah, wow.
    And the Red Shirts. A genius plot-forwarding mechanic. Is it too obvious if you make them wear red? Does everyone think ‘well that guy’s going to die’?

  7. Sadhbh says:

    We all know somebody who argues for the sake of it. (Note: To people with Irish or Dutch friends, this scenario will ring particularly true.)
    Ah now, sometimes we don’t argue just for the sake of it. Sometimes we argue because we don’t like the person we are talking to and want to ruin their chances at snogging the hot thing they have had their eye on by making them look dense.
    Very much enjoying your blog. Lots of useful info, interesting methods and some things I look forward to arguing with you about when we’re up next.

  8. Great post Jay. This is something I am struggling with at the moment. My attempts are either exposing too much or not enough. Still figuring it out – perhaps journal form (although I fear this mode is possibly over-used) or introducing a second POV set in the past. Hmm.

    • It’s really hard – definitely the most challenging part of writing STORMDANCER for me. I had a bunch of info to impart, and each time had to try not to repeat myself. The most frustrating thing is that the very BEST writers seem to pull it off seamlessly, so it’s very hard to … erm, “homage” their technique 🙂
      I hope my list of tricks helped a little though!

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