Exposition - The Thing Everyone Who Writes About Writing Loves to Hate

The best-known example of exposition - the Star Wars crawl - here spoofed in Spaceballs.

I share my drafts with my driver, bodyguard, and factotum, Red Death, who is also my lawfully wedded wife. Sometimes it is frustrating. She puts up with it, though, as she does with all of my idiosyncrasies, and is a good sport about cleaning up my crime scenes.

Or...

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The clatter of the typewriter stopped. Home was uncovered by the silence.

There was a pot of soup on the stove. The dog warned of someone walking past the house, putting all six pounds of terrier into it. He could hear his wife singing a tune he did not recognize; she sang only to herself.

He rubbed his eyes. Loss of signal. He remembered the tension when, as a child watching the end of a space mission on television, mission control would announce 'loss of signal' during reentry. Minutes passed, then at last the voice would come from the Gemini capsule, or the Apollo.

They were back. They went places in those days, before it was routine, before it was forgotten until everyone learned what o-rings were.

Reentry. Houston, Alan Wilcox is returning to earth.

He went down the stairs. The drogue chute of consciousness fluttered in reality, tugged at the main parachutes, then-  the jerk. We have three chutes deployed.

He descended into the dining room. Splashdown!

"I'm sorry, but I'm out of paper. I'm low on carbon paper, too. I'm sorry to bother you, but I do need a ride into town. That's pretty."

His wife was at her loom, eyes soft, mind somewhere else, the trace of a smile on her lips. She sighed, and her soft eyes closed, but the smile remained. When she opened her eyes, she, too, had returned.

"Sure. We need another case of bleach, anyway. Do you remember where you put your hat?"

"Mally has my hat, I think. I'm not sure, though."

He was caught in the evening sunlight playing on her red hair through the window. After so many years, it still filled him with wonder. The eye of the beholder was kind. He wanted to say something, but could not see the old Underwood hammering out the words: black ink transferred from mind to keys to ribbon to pure white paper.

She disappeared for a moment, but not before the simple cotton dress revealed her actual figure as he was greeted by frogmen, smiled and waved for the cameras, and was winched up into the helicopter and bright sunlight that was golden, not red. Recovery. His feet were on the deck, legs a bit wobbly perhaps, but-

She returned with the hat. It was a dressy black straw hat with a narrow brim, a gray band, and a piece of aluminum foil peeking out.

"Mally's a character in your story. Your hat was on the gun cabinet again. You can find your own shoes." She was still smiling, almost, and her tone was not scolding or tired.

Where is she? he wondered. Resignation? Pity? Amusement?

"Fondness," he announced.

"Fond," she answered. "That's a nice word. You don't hear it much now. I think that's a shame. Are you ready?"

"Loyal," he added.

"Trustworthy, kind, brave, clean, and reverent," she recited.

He put on the hat and presented himself for inspection. She looked up and fussed with it for a moment. "There. Just a hat. So, what was Mally doing with your hat, anyway?"

"He finds it in the Praesidium. He's -"

"What's the Praesidium?"

"You don't need to know that yet. It's like 'bunny snuggler.' I don't always explain everything right away. Sometimes things are just part of a world and evoke a mood even if they aren't explained."

"The light's green," he told his wife. Mally was waiting in the office of the Reservation Police chief now. He was telling it all to her as she drove. Need to know. Later. It's not important. "It's just part of the setting. It tells the reader she's not in this world."

"I think if you bring it up, you ought to explain it," she said.

"Good. See, you're curious. You'll turn the page."

"I don't know. I might just get frustrated."

"Maybe other people will be more patient. It'll read better than it sounds."

He went on, painting the scene, telling the story. It's better on paper. By the time they pulled into the Staples lot, the only sound for many minutes had been the dull noise of traffic through the windows and over the fan of the air conditioning. There was no sunlight at all inside the car, although the eye was satisfied by whatever was left that filled and warmed the space around them.

"Don't forget the carbon paper."

"They don't sell carbon paper anymore, remember?'

"No. Sorry."

"Don't worry. I order it online. We have carbon paper at home, okay?"

"Thanks. Hey. Be careful in there."

"Mally needs to be careful. Can you remember bleach and scrub brushes? The shovel's disappeared. I guess Mally has that, too. We'll need to buy another one. Write it down in your notebook. This won't take long. On second thought, don't write any of that down. We all need to be careful."

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The reader needs to know the character is a nutty writer who is old enough to remember the early days of spaceflight. His wife is fond of him, and used to compensating for his lack of grounding in reality. There are dark hints that a character might be intruding into their lives in a very unwelcome manner.

Heh, good thing this is only fiction, right?

The reader does not need to know why he uses a manual typewriter instead of a computer, or puts aluminum foil in his hat, or does not drive. Maybe later, or maybe some things will just be left to the imagination as we get down to telling the story.

But, we already are telling the story. It is all exposition, but revealing without telling. Metaphoric interior dialogue is used extensively, repeated imagery ties it together, punctuated by real observations and actual dialogue. It is almost a short story in itself.

Exposition is especially tricky when you are creating an original world. The reader of a traditional fantasy is equipped for the expedition. Swords, sorcery, brave kings, weaselly nobles, all in a medieval European setting. Urban fantasy, however, often throws the reader into a world without map or gear.

I feel reluctant to use my own work as an example. Think, instead, of American Gods by Neil Gaiman. You are learning about a new world along with a character. It evolves in complexity and maybe you get all of it right away and maybe you don't. The trick is, he skillfully weaves an original world that overlaps and threatens to invade our own into the story. In fact, Clive Barker's "Weaveworld" is another good example of an original urban fantasy world.

No, I don't always explain everything when I introduce it. Yes, exposition is different from the story, and eats up my precious word count. If you write, though, you're going to use exposition whether you like it or not. It is not a dirty word. I try to make it do double duty. The words build the world slowly even as they reveal character, perhaps, or provide some local color, or humor after a heavy scene.

Okay, I will use some of my own work as an example, but only because it's handy. NOTE: A DRAFT. I can already see some changes I will be making. Both the above and below are illustrations of how to slip exposition into your writing like a big sneak who is pulling one over on readers. They are not held up as finished masterpieces.

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“Ronald Reagan was president. I remember the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina. Crazy thing over a rock in the south Atlantic nobody had ever heard of. Britain was on the ropes until a nuclear sub finally showed up. Atomic-powered.”

“I know what ‘nuclear’ means,” she said indignantly, then smiled. “Did you know someone once told me I was 14 billion years old? Funny, I’m not sure I remember all that.”

“You don’t look a day over 25.”

“And I never will. And you don’t look a day over 35. And you never will.”

He sang the line again, as if it troubled him. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and groped across the nightstand, unable to take his eyes off the vision in black and white that had been out of his bed no longer than it took for the sweat to dry. Now she was pulling up a short black skirt that was tight across the rear, but had pleats to allow freedom of movement. He did not know if the wriggle was necessary or for his benefit.

“Cigarette?” he offered.

She put on a white blouse and stepped before the mirror to knot a red silk tie, then buttoned up a tight black jacket that left just a bit of white collar and a splash of red visible at her throat. Even that she covered by a brass throat piece hanging from two chains and bearing a red disk with a single word in gold: OPTIMAE. The best.

He took note of the lines of ribbons surmounted by her silver jump wings. There were three tiny gold stars on one plain white ribbon. His mood was not improved by noticing them.

She tugged at the bottom of her jacket, ran her fingers through red hair whose loose curls defeated the damp, and turned to face him with her hands on her hips. “How do I look?” Her long eyelashes dropped and she nodded at his silver cigarette case on the nightstand.

He flipped the lid of a Zippo, thumbed a flame and lit two. It made a louder, hollow click when he closed it. “Bad habit I picked up here. I should quit. I need to get back in shape,” he said as he handed her one.

“There’s no such thing as a bad habit here, baby. Just repeating a mistake.” The words came shaped with smoke from full red lips. She never wore any makeup as far as he knew, yet her cheek had just the right amount of blush and her lips were red and glossy. “Your shape is fine. Although in all seriousness, you do need to train with your weapon. You have a way of making an enemy for every friend.”

“And every one of my friends is worth a hundred enemies. They’re just jealous.”

 “Connor, I’m serious. And technically it’s ‘envy’ and do not underestimate it. We don’t. Now answer my question.”

“What question?”

She bent down and gave him a lingering kiss; now she tasted like smoke. “How do I look?”

“You look great, of course. And like a Nazi.”

She stood up straight. “Don’t be insulting. I fought Nazis. Here’s my World War II Victory ribbon. This, you may recognize as the Purple Heart ribbon. Silver Star. Shall I go on? Your airplane fell apart over Romania, wasn’t it? That was the way you told it last time you were drunk.”

“I seem to remember a few North Vietnamese MiGs before that, but what the Hell, right? I might have had a silver star. Sorry, but I doubt my ex kept my awards as cherished mementos of husband number three. So you win the gong show. Want a drink?”

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Some dialogue between two lovers, is all.

And yet, it reveals a man caught between memories of one world and a new life in a similar, but very strange world.

First, here is about as close as we get to straight exposition: "She never wore any makeup as far as he knew, yet her cheek had just the right amount of blush and her lips were red and glossy."

Yet even that is couched as something being noticed by a character in the moment.

When did he arrive? (Evidently the '80s.) What does the military uniform say about the culture, the place of women? What are the implications of a 25 year old (or is it 14 billion year old?) woman with WWII ribbons on her uniform talking to a Vietnam War veteran pilot?

Is Connor satisfied with his place here? What do you make out of the pedantic distinction between jealousy and the sin of envy and who is the "we" who take it seriously? Are the two lovers on the same wavelength? Do you sense happiness in their future or trouble? Does a "splash of red at her throat" forebode danger or sound like just a smart accessory?

The full scene is peppered with anachronisms: (the Zippo lighter; heck, even the traditional post-coital cigarette looks pretty odd these days); a phonograph playing LPs; "fully fashioned lingerie;" a casual comment on paleness.

"I think white is beautiful," she says. That jars on the modern ear, and speaks volumes about the differences between this world and our own. Not so much outright white supremacy as culpable insensitivity. Where would that be dropped in polite conversation nowadays?

I am doing all sorts of things, but it is almost all exposition disguised as an off-kilter dialogue revealing underlying tensions and unveiling an alternate history setting filled with ageless people, some of whom are not natives.

The thing I don't want is for some smart reader to say, "Hey, that's exposition. According to the internet, this guy's a lousy writer."

EDIT: Next: The Importance of Careful Proofreading (Eh, what can I say? My blogs tend to be a proofreading-free zone. I'm not good at it and I do have another novel to finish. So laugh, if you must, at the writer who posts typo-ridden posts about writing. As Cormac McCarthy said, "Typos are the hobgoblin of little minds." Or Emerson. I always get those two confused.)

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