1. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why do I struggle with exposition so much?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by OurJud, May 21, 2009.

    A story has to have a background, right? And that background needs explaining, but when it comes to writing exposition I'm terrible, and find that I very quickly grow bored, frustrated and dispondant. This results, inevitably, with me giving up in a sulk. I'm the same when I'm reading it too. I find it very labourious and heavy, and can't wait for the action and/or dialogue to start. Only then can I really get into the plot.

    But at some point in my story, whether that be a short or my umpteeth novel attempt (one day I'll get beyond 25, 000 words) I'll have to write passages of exposition.

    Any tips or help on getting through this element of fiction writing?
     
  2. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I guess if you don't like writing (which is insane, btw, its the best part!!!!! :p) just plan out what you need to reveal in that passage in detail, get a really clear image of it, and right it as quickly as you can. As long as you have an image in mind of what you need to "expose" to the reader, you should at least be able to slam down a description or basic linear passage of exposition. Although I have a feeling that in the kinds of fiction you write/read, there isn't a huge amount of importance placed on the exposition, so don't feel that you have to include it just for the sake of having it. If your story works with non-stop action, roll with it.
     
  3. TheNewGuy
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    TheNewGuy Senior Member

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    I'm not sure what your style is but maybe if you had a more realistic setting you wouldn't need as much exposition.

    For the more fictionous tales, I suggest spreading the exposition through character dialogue (far spaced enough to allow for action, cause that's important!).

    A short prologue can get you enough exposition to start your story on; simple actions can also imply a lot about society in the novel, as well.
     
  4. BillyxRansom
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    BillyxRansom Active Member

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    I'll make you a deal: I'll give you tips on writing exposition if you give me tips on how to write action and all that, with description and the whole bit. Deal? ;)
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Make the reader wait for the background info. Provide it in bite sized morsels throughout the story - dialogue, oblique references, an occasional correlation with something currently traking place.

    Always leave the reader hungry. And let the reader's imagination fill in what you don't serve by the spoonful.
     
  6. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Thanks for the replies, people.

    No deal, BillyxRansom. I can write action and dialogue fairly comfortably, explaining how, to someone else is a whole different bottle of chips. Which I suppose is exactly what I've asked dothers to do regarding my own weak points. And yes, BillyxRansom, I do know that this was the point you were making :p

    I feel a bit better now, knowing that lots of highly detailed exposition isn't necessary.

    As for what I write, for those that made the reference in their posts, I suppose it's horror, although I don't like the term as it usually conjures up images of werewolfs battling vampires, which is the kind of horror that leaves me cold... and not in a good way. That's not to suggest my writing is in any way superior, just that it's not my bag. My horror deals with the more authentic horrors of life and human nature. If anyone's read any Stephen Gregory (The Cormorant, The Woodwitch, Blood of Angels, Perils and Dangers of This Night) then they know the style I'm aiming at.
     
  7. TheNewGuy
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    TheNewGuy Senior Member

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    Sounds like my kind of book...

    I'm decidedly morbid. Writing stuff like that comes naturally, but I'm never satisfied so I never publicize it. Can't wait
     
  8. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can't recommend Gregory enough, TheNewGuy. The Woodwitch has an almost hypnotic power... it did over me, at least. Having said that, I recommended it to a guy from a horror forum I frequent and he said he hated it, said it was like wading through treacle :confused:

    Horses for courses, I suppose.
     
  9. bluebell80
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    bluebell80 Contributing Member

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    I totally agree that exposition is the most boring part of reading in general. When I watch a movie I am getting images of the current setting and the characters involved in that setting within the first three minutes of the movie. In a book, I want to be right in the middle of the action from the first page.

    I hate books that start out with long drawn out descriptions of the world the author has created. Like Cog said, I like it sprinkled in to the action and dialog, rather than large info dumps.

    I write, pretty much the same way I like to read, and the best thing is I can write it how I like it. I can read a great story, one with characters I can't stand to leave, a setting so real it felt like I was there, and a plot so grand that I couldn't put the book down...and I will still come across things I wouldn't do if I were writing the story.

    I got into watching True Blood on HBO, so when I finished watching the last show, I went out and bought the first few books that the show was based on. Needless to say, I find the show much better than the books. While I do think Harris is a good writer, she does some things that annoy me in the books. She is definitely one for telling the reader exactly what to think, how they should perceive something, and how to feel. I don't like that. I don't want to be told someone said something "admittedly" or giving way to much description about something. I like to be able to use my imagination when I read and I feel like I am being denied this when the author spells every little thing out for me like a retarded monkey.

    I think the moral to this is: Less is more. Give us action, dialog, characters internal thoughts, their motives for being who they are, and leave out the info dumps and obnoxious over detailing.

    :)
     
  10. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    What is important in a horror story is atmosphere. However you produce it is fine, but it must be there.

    Have you tried doing it with action and dialog?

    By exposition I think you are mainly talking about description of the scene, world right? Or are you also talking about background information on characters?

    Here is an example of writing description using action.

    She entered the elephants' graveyard. Tall rib bones curved over her head. She walked around the bones of the beasts that protruded from dry, cracked earth. Nothing but the scraps of Death remained in that place. The deep cuts in the dirt beneath her feet were like spider webs, splintering between the rotted bones of elephants. She stared down at a large skull, sitting on its side, half buried, and one of its tusks pointed at her as if inviting her to step further into the place of the dead.

    I rewrote this just now based on a descriptive paragraph I wrote in the Word Games section.

    Tall rib bones curved toward the dead, gray sky. They rose four to five feet up. The bones of the great beasts protruded from the large patch of dry, cracked earth like a body of water once thrived there, but now only the scraps of death's work remain. The deep cuts in the dirt are like spider webs, splintering between the stained bones of elephants. A large skull sits on its side, half buried, and one of its tusks pointed at a girl.

    The little girl entered the graveyard, rib bones curving over her head.
     
  11. Nervous1st
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    Nervous1st Senior Member

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    I am the complete opposite. I love description... I love reading it and I love writing it. I can't stand novels that start in the middle of an all in war and you have no idea whats going on. I feel completely left out and I feel like the author has gone on without me.

    Novels that a too fast paced are also a punish. My life is in constant fast forward, I am forever rushing here and rushing there. At the end of the day, I enjoy reading a story which keeps me interested but at the same time doesn't require too much work.
     
  12. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, I'm talking about background information, which I thought is what exposition meant. Maybe I'm getting my terminology wrong.

    I'm comfortable with action, dialogue and scene setting (which is NOT to suggest I write these elements well) but background info is a real pain for me.

    Anyway, as others have said, if I can just manage to sprinkle a little of this about the place, or even do it through dialogue as another poster suggested, then I should find my future writing projects far more pleasurable.

    Thanks again.
     
  13. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Quck question, Ourjud. Do you know what their background information is? If you have already done the thinking on working up a background for a character, why wouldn't you want to share that with the readers? I would think you would want to share it after putting all that hard work into thinking up a past for a character.

    Most of the time, authors have the opposite problem; they want to share every little bit of the character's past they invented.

    I think Dean Koontz handles background information well. He sprinkles it throughout dialog and narration.

    Here is an example from Fear Nothing. He weaves backstory between the telling of the story beautifully.

    From the closet shelf, I snatched a navy-blue, billed cap and pulled it on, tugging it low on my head. Across the front, above the visor, in ruby-red embroidered letters, were the words Mystery Train.

    One night during the previous autumn, I had found the cap in Fort Wyvern, the abandoned military base inland from Moonlight Bay. It had been the only object in a cool, dry, concrete-walled room three stories underground.

    Although I had no idea to what the embroidered words might refer, I had kept the cap because it intrigued me.

    As I turned toward the front door, Orson whined beseechingly.

    Maybe writing it like that, you will find that you enjoy writing it more.



     
  14. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's a very good point, architectus. I'm beginning to sound like a right old moaning sod who doesn't deserve any help, but I also hate groundwork. Preperation for a novel (I don't do any for short stories) is not something I relish. Consequently I usually begin any novel attempts with little to no history for the characters.

    :rolleyes: Maybe this is why I find it difficult to write.
     
  15. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    See, now you know the problem. I suspect it might be the case that you didn't do a good background for the character.

    I usually only think up background information that I know makes the character who the character is in that story. I don't bothing thinking up what high school they attended, unless it is necessary. But often how they were treated in school does make them who they are today. So I do imagine how they were treated in school. Just basic stuff. Like if they were bullied, a loney, a nerd, a jock and so forth.

    Before you begin a novel think up a quick back story, and I bet you enjoy the process a whole lot more. Although, you still have to think up a back story, and that's not always fun.

    I like to get all the crappy work out of the way first, so I can enjoy the writing process as much as possible. It's like doing my homework before I get to party. Damn it, even us adults have homework.
     
  16. Dcoin
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    Dcoin Contributing Member

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    Seems like you’re trying to dump all this information on the reader, just to get it in the open. You said it yourself, it’s boring.

    Why not dish it out as the story unravels (Cog's original point)?

    This has two purposes...

    1. The information is presented at a relevant time to the reader, therefore making the connection to the back story clear and sharp.

    2. It doesn't frustrate you as a writer doing something that might not be your strong point.
     
  17. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, Dcoin, I think this is the way forward for me.
     
  18. stubeard
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    stubeard Active Member

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    I've been thinking about exposition a lot recently, and it's driving me mad.

    I have a love/hate relationship with lectured exposition. I try my best to avoid it at all costs, letting the situations and dialogue show what I want to tell, but I find so many other successful authors using it to get their story cracking.

    The I find about exposition is that "telling" is a lot quicker than "showing". It allows the story to move on quickly, although it certainly leaves me feeling a bit hollow.

    For example, saying (something like): "he was a moral man, who disliked prostitutes" is a lot quicker than taking the time to show a scene in which this is displayed, yet there's no connection with the character - just a lecture.

    The trouble is I've seen so many authors do it. A good example is Bernard Cornwell's Harlequin. His 30-page prologue is full of exposition, sprinkled with bits of conversation to highlight certain points. How he decided which bits of the story he would "tell" and which he would "show" I don't know. And yet this book is incredibly successful and critically-acclaimed.

    It's clearly not the case that telling=bad and showing=good, but I wonder if it's advisable to have a large chunk of exposition, just to get the story cracking along, rather than taking lots of pages to set up the characters.


    EDIT: Little tip - never think about strategy when tired and hungry. I am worrying about the length of my introductory chapters, but I just looked at a paperback and saw how slim 46 pages was out of 340. I think it'll be ok.
     
  19. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Quicker and easier (for the writer) is not necessarily best.

    While you are getting the exposition out of the way, the reader is often reading "blah blah blah Sauron blah blah One Ring blah blah blah Mordor blablah blahh," and waiting for the story to begin or resume.

    Keep the story moving. That should be your prime directive. Exposition is an interruption to the story. Moreover, you want the reader asking questions, not sitting there with a bunch of answers to questions not yet raised.

    Keep the reader wondering how it all relates, and give out the occasional bite-sized treat as the story proceeds. It's not even a matter of showing vs telling (at least, not necessarily), it's about holding back information until the reader is aching for it.
     
  20. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    You completely nailed my first impression of LOTR! :D
     
  21. Cecil
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    I think I understand what you're saying here, but if this statement is misinterpreted it may encourage the kind of writing that makes the reader feel cheated. Like when the writer tries to build suspense with "I then went into my lab to pick up something" without telling the reader what he picked up (even though the POV character obviously knows), only to have it revealed at the climax of the story that, surprise, the main character was just picking up his super plot device laser gun that had never been mentioned before. Building "suspense" by withholding relevant information from the reader is a bad idea.

    Making the reader ache to know more is a good thing, just make sure that everything the POV character knows is revealed if it's relevant and when it's relevant.
     
  22. John Horace
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    When writing exposition, I make sure that the exposition adds something to the story. And by that I mean that it is either relevant to the plot or that it sets the mood or that it becomes a character itself. Think of the background information as if it itself were a character. Like a character, it itself can interact and play with the reader's emotions, or change the way things are done in future parts of the novel. For example:

    Their dad would always sit outside by the dried lake, clinging to the rotten carcass of the grass. It had long since withered away, even after the last miserable drops of life-giving water had spewed forth from the mouths of the clouds. His three sons would watch him from the log cabin, and dare each other to go call him in for breakfast. The sight of old leather-bones terrified them: Wouldn't someone who hadn't eaten for days need a meal, even if it was wormy cornbread?

    Now that's really short, and I mean really short exposition. And I involved characters in it. But in theory, you could extend the exposition over any length, and to any subject. Perhaps a tree, or a bottle of water? Even a hole in the ground, for crying out loud. If you notice, nobody called anybody a liar. Nobody punched anybody. No problems were solved. No problems were even brought up. It may not look it, but the paragraph was one hundred percent, exposition, and yet, DAMN it's scary.

    that's the kind of stuff that's exciting to read. And the kind of stuff that glues the reader's to the pages. Hope I helped. (No Really. I Hope I helped.)
     
  23. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    A quick and dirty trick to get past the exposition is to start writing some other part of the book first. Start in the middle, or in the end.

    You don't have to write the book in the order you what to tell it.
     
  24. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    One possibility could be to make that scene "earn its keep" in more than one way. It may demonstrate that he dislikes prostitutes, and introduce a new character, and get him into his first conflict with the man who's going to kill him later, and introduce the bartender who's going to be important later, and reveal the fact that he's allergic to peanuts... you don't necessarily need to make the scene into a pinata, but you can use it for multiple purposes.

    And you could also "half-show". Instead of "he was a moral man, who disliked prostitutes", you could throw in, "he passed the Drunken Parrot, always full of prostitutes and drug transactions on a Friday night, and made his way into the Leather Armchair, where the respectable luxury was more to his taste." (Lousy phrasing and really lousy name for a bar, but you see what I mean.)

    ChickenFreak
     
  25. stubeard
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    stubeard Active Member

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    Now you see even that is too much telling for me. In that same scenario I would maybe include another character to help show what he thinks. Maybe something like:



    Joe hurried on down the dark alleyway, desperate to avoid the eye of any locals, but he soon found a stout figure strolling beside him. She was stocky, yet still very attractive in her dark hair and olive skin, helped by the fact she was wearing considerably more confidence than clothes. Her bosom was heaving and desperate to escape the clutches of her ill-fitting, yet seductive dress.

    "Good evening handsome. How do you fancy a sleepless night?" she said with a wink.

    Joe cleared his throat. "Excuse me, but what do you take me for?" he replied. "I remember a time when decency and virtue ruled this town, before you and your type came back."

    The woman gasped in mock offence. "Now, now, honey. You're far too tense. Here, how about I give you a massage?" She leaned closer. "And if your purse is big enough, a whole lot more."

    "I'm sorry madam," Joe replied, his face set like stone and his hands held stiff by his side. "I shall have to bid you good day and be on my way. I pray our paths never cross again."



    Something like that anyway. It's a few more words but I, personally, much prefer to read that.
     

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