1. Drunkugly
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    Drunkugly Member

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    Starting a story with exposition

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Drunkugly, Jun 18, 2013.

    One of the things that I find hard to deal with is delivering information to a reader in a way that isn't just like reading a text book or stereo instructions. If it's medical or scientific, it sometimes comes across as bland and almost always takes the reader out of the story for a bit. It's hard to integrate into dialogue without it feeling forced. You can use a narrator, but starting off a story with technical details seems like a sure way to turn people off. But what to do if some of those details are essential to understanding the main story? Anyone have any ideas? Maybe some examples from literature I could turn to? The current story I'm trying to finish starts off with exposition from an undisclosed narrator. Seems like there's got to be a better way.
     
  2. maskedhero
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    maskedhero Active Member

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    You could jump into the action, and drip feed details through that action. Readers can use their imagination to slowly piece together the completed picture, and if they get it wrong, each drip will adjust the image in their head, until it comes together. As a short example:

    Mallory ran up the stairs, feeling heavier with every step. She needed to reach the top quickly. She was running out of time. Her feet were lead, and she soon collapsed in agony. She looked up at Paul, his grey face struck through with fear. She kept pushing onward, crawling with her hands and knees. She cut her fingers on the sharp edge of a step, and grey blood oozed out.

    Finally, she reached the platform. There, in a small cylinder, was a bit of crimson, purple, orange, green, yellow and a few other colors, circling, waving, and moving about. She tried to stand, to march towards the color, but she had lost the will. Finally seeing it had been too much. She was overwhelmed, and unable to cope with it. Her eyes were mesmerized, and though she heard the machine's gears spinning, starting, and the chugging sound beginning, she couldn't move forward. She sat there and watched the colors, the last colors, fade, as the machine erased them from being.



    Universe- A world where everyone, and almost everything has been rendered colorless, and the last bit of color has been collected in a small vat. Some process, in its last run through, is about to take away the color. There will only ever be the grey.

    May be a bit of a rushed example, but it used action (and you could have thrown in dialogue too, perhaps between the two people, yelling about saving color), some narrative, and it drove the events forward. That's what matters.

    Granted, you'd need to do it on a bigger scale, but please feel free to run with the idea.
     
  3. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    First, what do you mean by undisclosed narrator? Do you mean omniscient third person? What POV are you using?
     
  4. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    It sounds so much like you need to show not tell. Explore how to do that and you'll have your answer, maybe, if I'm reading you right.

    A sample example would be helpful, something short, not a piece you want a critique on. For a critique of a longer piece see the forum rules.
     
  5. mbinks89
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    mbinks89 Active Member

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    I don't like it when there's exposition, or when a narrator breaks the "fourth wall" so to speak and talks to us to explain things to us directly. It's telling, not showing, and much more boring in my opinion. Give us the action, and let us piece it together ourselves. There's no need for dialogue to feel forced either. For example:

    Tim ran up the stairs, wheezing. His eyes bulged and his skin was pale and with every step he got slower . . . slower . . . until at the last step he collapsed.

    "Where's the antidote?" Rachel screamed at the foot of the stairs to Richard, who was running towards her.

    "Oh God oh God it's stage four already!?"

    vs.

    In the year 2045 United States military scientists created a virus capable of making people die when they tried to run up the stairs. It was a pretty pointless toxin, but . . .


    The first is better than the latter (even ignoring the fact the latter is ridiculous). :)
     
  6. blackstar21595
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    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

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    Depends on what the exposition is. Is the exposition details about the characters or details about the story? Because Chekhov always uses exposition for characterization.
     
  7. Justin Rocket 2
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    Justin Rocket 2 Contributing Member

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    It is perfectly fine to tell rather than show if showing means slowing down the pace and you are at a point in your story where you want to keep the pace moving quickly. However, fast pace only works if it is happening to characters we care about. It is hard, if not impossible, to care about characters in the intro. Showing is better in the intro because it can help us care about the characters.
    It is often a good idea to start a story, particularly a long story, with a second story which foreshadows the main plot/theme/character flaw. This second story is often a mystery of some sort. You can introduce critical points (such as critical features of the background) in this second story.
     
  8. GingerCoffee
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    Your "foreshadowing second story" is describing a prologue, Justin. That's one option. As for slowing down the pace using exposition, not a technique I'd use.

    The problem the OP asks is, how to convey a lot of backstory without just explaining it to the reader?

    There are ways, including a prologue. I'm using one that is equally frowned on by popular opinion, flashbacks. But for my story, it's working perfectly. I'm writing about young adults where the childhood was significant. But I don't want to start with a chronological structure because the story is not about children. It doesn't work. Having the characters revealing the backstory loses a lot of impact. Flashbacks work better, but it's a case by case decision.


    For "medical or scientific" a prologue can work, a scene in a lab or hospital that precedes the start of the story. I also like mbinks89's examples.
     
  9. Justin Rocket 2
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    Justin Rocket 2 Contributing Member

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    I've always understood a prologue as something separate from the main story, perhaps in its own chapter or even in a sort of "chapter 0". This is NOT what I'm talking about. I'm talking about a secondary story which is woven into the main body of the book, but reaches it's climax in the first act (usually with a -few- critical things unresolved until later, typically the denoument so as to bookend the main story, which is why it's typically a mystery).

    "As for slowing down the pace using exposition, not a technique I'd use" I meant that pace can be sped up using exposition - in the right place. I agree with you that slowing down the pace with exposition is a bad idea. I nearly clawed my eyes out when I attempted Tolkien.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Eschew early exposition, excruciating.
     
  11. B93
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    B93 Active Member

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    The info drip method is good if you can get the information to the reader by the time they need it.

    Another frequently used device is to have a character who would logically not know the information ask for explanations. But I really hate it when one character tells another something they would already know, in order to get that to the reader.
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Keep in mind that the reader rarely needs the information in advance. Better to leave the reader with questions, hungry for the answers, than full of answers he or she has no need for yet,

    And, "Why is the author telling me this?" is not an example of a good question to leave the reader pondering.
     
  13. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    The thing with exposition, beginnings and pretty much all of writing is that there are no hard rules, as long as you can make it work. If you can write it well and engagingly, you can start your story with "Once upon a time..." or "It was a dark and stormy night..." if you so wish. Try to concentrate on making your idea work, rather than finding a "working idea". If you know what I mean.
     
  14. Drunkugly
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    Drunkugly Member

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    Wow. So many good responses. Mainly I'm describing a medical condition that doesn't exist in the real world. For me it's interesting to know the underlining process. I'm wondering if its possible to make it interesting to the reader even though ultimately the story doesn't need it. I like the idea of a prologue. In a way I think I already did that to a certain extant with a string of single scenes with random characters showing how the disease progresses. Just adding another scene with the exposition in the form of dialogue would work. Contain it in a prologue. Neat. I'm going to read through the forums now. See if I can be as helpful for someone else. Thank to everyone.
     
  15. Justin Rocket 2
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    Drunkugly, one option in your case is to have multiple victims in different stages of the disease' progression (so, the disease is progressing in some people faster than in other people). This allows for more complex social relationships. For example, imagine a young couple who were planning to start their family, but now the husband is getting sick quickly. Does the wife tell him that she's pregnant (if she is or not) or that she isn't pregnant (if she is or not)? And what if the husband is in a bed next to the bed of an old widow for whom the disease is progressing much more slowly (the widow having no family still alive)?

    The husband may even die in the first act (and have a secondary story complete with first/second/third acts (about starting a family(?)) before the main story enters the second act - which means that nobody knows what's killing him, you've just got the symptoms to describe, but you do have all the symptoms and their sequence up to death, plus you've got autopsy drama). As he's going through his drama, the old widow bonds with the young couple and shows early symptoms herself (though perhaps she ignores/tries to hide her own symptoms so that she can help take care of the young man and his grieving widow).
     
  16. CheckeredFoxglove
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    CheckeredFoxglove Member

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    I might be a weirdo, but I love stories that start with interesting exposition. I think Dragonriders of Pern has a couple of paragraphs explaining the Thread very early on, and... well, all of Anne McCaffrey has a whole lot of exposition, actually. I love it to bits. Jane Yolen also exposits a lot, and Cards of Grief starts out with actual scientific reports. They're obviously setting the mood, and they're short, so even though they're not that interesting in themselves, they clearly herald something much more interesting later on, so you skim them and move on. As long as the exposition implies engaging character/story stuff, I've never had a problem with it. It might limit your audience to people like me, though.
     
  17. Drunkugly
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    Drunkugly Member

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    Actually Justin, I already had a sort of prologue with several unrelated scenes of the disease progressing from different people's perspective. Decided to put them altogether in a single introduction and expand it with a few other scenes including one that divulges some of the info about the mechanics of the illness .
     

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