LambentTyto

Exposition?

15 posts in this topic

I can't help but feel I'm getting bad advise. Though, I could be wrong, which is why I'm making this post.

 

This is for you writers out there.

 

Other writers keep telling me to show, don't tell whenever I use exposition to explain small facts about the characters or story world, even when they don't have any direct bearing on plot. If I had to show everything, I'd end up with a ten thousand page book.

 

What is it with writers and their obsession with "show don't tell"?

 

Orson Scott Card, in his Uncle Orson's Writing class questions and answers calls them "morons."

 

I don't know. Am I getting bad advice do you think?

This is one of the reasons I don't want alpha readers (author writers who critque your work) for my work. In my opinion, writers, especially non published writers or small time published writers, tend to be arrogant. And of course, every writer does thigs their own way. I think alphas hurt my work more than help because often what they tell me to do is totalled opposite of what established writers say to do in books they've written on writing, including what Brandon Sanderson says in his lectures. So this is why I'm thinking they're wrong.

Any thoughts?

Thanks

Edited by LambentTyto
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I don't know, and honestly, it has a lot to do with your readers. Correct me if I'm wrong:

I'm going to convey the idea, "Bob is angry" in two ways. One show, one tell.

 

1. Show

Bob glared at me, eyes twitching.

 

2. Tell.

Bob was angry.

 

See what I mean? If you're trying to communicate backstory or setting, you can do it in different ways. For backstory, depending on the significance of the character, I'd recommend flashbacks. If their smaller, then you can relate it by them in dialogue, or just a quick note from the narrator. For setting, slowing down and telling kind of slows down the work. So here's an example for setting.

I'm going to convey the idea that religious practice ends at 4:30 with a final prayer.

 

1. Show

A deep hum resonated throughout the monastery. The warm light of the sun, three fourths of it's way through the summer sky, bathed the sacred halls with a rich light. Slowly, their prayers finished, the monks filed out of their quarters and spread apart, each man going his own way.

 

2. Tell

The monks finished their prayers at 4:30

 

Now, these examples are both different, and depending on your prose and what you want to communicate, either is fine. And honestly: Finish your work first, and then give it to them. You might have a different voice that they don't realize that you're using. It's fine. Writing is all about artistic expression. Now, go forth and wright!

 

PS: Any writing advice you want is on Writing Excuses, Brandon Sanderson's podcast about writing. I'd look it up if I were you; it's fantastic. :)

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PS: Any writing advice you want is on Writing Excuses, Brandon Sanderson's podcast about writing. I'd look it up if I were you; it's fantastic. :)

Follow this advice. It may just be the best thing you ever do for your writing. :)

 

Edit: Just saw you already do. They have plenty episodes on exposition, maybe go back and find them again, see if that helps?

 

The thing about 'Show don't tell' as I understand it -

 

1) You generally get your impressions about the world by what you see and hear, not from an internal monologue narrating things to you. If you imitate reality in your writing, it's more realistic. So if you say, e.g.

'the palace was beautiful', the reader's like, okay, so it looks nice. If you say

"Grand spires soared into the air, the delicate glass refracting patterns of coloured light. The mahogany front doors stood polished and magnificent in the early morning light." then the reader sees the reason you're describing it as beautiful, and can come to the conclusion themselves from the words you're using.This way though, they have a much more vivid picture in their mind, and can also feel that sense of awe at the beauty.

I've seen the opposite happen as well - in the first few chapters of a book I was reading, one character was telling off another, and I was perfectly ready to hate the guy. Then the narrator thinks "He was so wonderful, he could always say just the right thing, he's the best person ever". So the author showed that he was a bad person, but told me I was supposed to like him. That was the point I put the book down. So if you are going to tell, you have to be careful about what you're saying, and the reader won't always necessarily believe you.

.

 

2) If you're 'showing not telling', you can show multiple things in one sentence.

E.g. Instead of "She was happy to be home"

you can say

"The warm smell of cookies and laundry washed over her the moment she stepped through the door. She smiled, breathing in deeply as she stepped over the creaky floorboard and into the kitchen."

You can tell (I hope) that she's happy, and you also know a little bit about her house, what it looks like, that it's old or broken enough to have a creaky floorboard, that the washing is done in the house. Which in turn tells you that your character isn't rich enough to have all their clothes sent to a dry cleaner, or to fix the floor. It takes more words, but it makes the story more interesting.

Or if you want one line saying something like "I didn't like the beggar", you say that, but you put personality into the line so that it reflects on the character. e.g. "It wasn't the smell that bothered me really, or the fact that he was homeless. It was the way he rattled his collecting can in my ear every day that drove me mad."

 

That being said - if the details aren't relevant to your story - why in particular do you want to mention them? You can have something influence the character without knowing the exact details - e.g at the moment in the Stormlight Archive,

we know that Shallan has had some kind of horrific childhood that affects (to an extent) how she thinks and what she does.

We don't know the exact details, but we don't need to in order to understand the story being told. So I'd seriously consider if that detail is important enough to slip in somewhere.

 

I hope I'm making sense here. Good luck with your writing!

Edited by Delightful
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Thanks for the posts, but I know the difference between show and tell, but these writers seem to think "everything" has to be shown, like exposition is some evil thing that should never be used.

 

In fact, I have an excerpt from the novel hellhole that I was looking at, if you're interested in looking?

Edited by LambentTyto
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I think always showing is a little excessive, but it should be used on all of the important details. Which really are all of the details that should be in the book. Exposition is great, but you have to be careful with it. Too much and the book gets ridiculously boring. In the end, it all comes down to your prose and what you want your voice to be.

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Oh, I see what you're saying. I apologise for misunderstanding.

 

Well, one thing I've heard a lot about writing is that there's no one way to do it (as you said) and no "rules" are absolute. I guess it would depend how you were doing the exposition then, how often etc.
And if your previous alpha readers are, as you say, "arrogant writers or small-time authors", possibly they're so stuck learning the rules that anything that's a bit different they see as wrong? Because it's a style thing, it's kinda hard to say, and also depends a fair amount on personal taste.

(and BTW I totally fit into the unpublished writer category, so I don't know if what I have to say is any use to you anyway. But I'll try. :P)

Do you want to post some of the exposition you're looking at then? Maybe we can work out why it works when it's supposed to be such an *evil*?

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Okay, here's that excerpt of Hellhole I was talking about. I made sure not to make it very long, so Its only 1K words.

 

Anyways, in my attempts to understand the finer points of fiction I've tried to identify the various tools (action, dialogue, sensory description, interior monologue, interior emotion, narrative summery, "exposition", and statistic description,) within this excerpt. I'm not entirely sure I have identified them correctly, though I was told I was by two people.

This novel was written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. When I read Anderson novels I noticed they are slower paced than most I read, I was never quite sure why this was until I did this exercise, and what I've noticed is that he uses more exposition than most authors in order to slow down his chapters.

 

I admit, Anderson uses a lot of exposition, so don't make the mistake in thinking I use as much as he does. I probably use about a 3rd or 4rth of what he does in this excerpt.

 

Here's the excerpt:
 

Though it was the territorial capital of eleven Deep Zone colonies, Ridgetop was required to pay tribute to the Constellation just like any other world. Governor Carlson Goler had to encourage the production of useful items from all the planets he supervised under authority from the Diadem. It was his job, though he did not relish it.—[paragraph is exposition]

*

The fledgling DZ settlements struggled to stand on their own feet, even though they still received regular supply shipments from the Crown Jewels. The colonists planted crops to feed themselves, established mining and fabrication industries to meet their own urgent needs and support their own people. They didn’t have surplus resources or luxury items to please the Constellation’s noble families.—[paragraph is exposition]

*

On each of his eleven planets, Territorial Governor Goler had to act as if the Diadem’s priorities were more important than the colonists’.—[exposition] No wonder the individual planetary administrators didn’t like him.—[interior monologue] How could he sound credible when he didn’t necessarily agree with the idea himself?—[interior monologue] He had done his best, trying to soften the blow from the Constellation behemoth, even though he could never deflect it.—[exposition] And he had to be careful so that his efforts weren’t obvious, which meant the people didn’t realize how hard he was trying.—[exposition]

*

Goler sighed . . . then sneezed.—[action] The pollens in Ridgetop’s air often irritated him. He was a lanky, dark-skinned man with a quiet voice and a soft demeanor. Many of his fellow territorial governors considered him innocuous; others simply found him invisible.—[the rest of this paragraph is exposition]

*

With the next stringline hauler due to arrive in three days, Ridgetop’s required tribute had to be prepped.—[exposition] Goler went out to the steep hillsides to watch heavy machinery clear another swath of spindly but beautiful goldenwood trees.—[action, and sensory description] Dirt roads had been carved onto the steep slopes, zigzagging through razed areas where overworked loggers clearcut the tall forest, leaving only stumps and trampled, weedy vegetation.—[sensory description]

*

Because the goldenwood groves were so gorgeous and serene, such hillside scars offended Goler’s sensibilities, but the logging was necessary; he knew of no other way to meet the tribute. Fortunately, after being severely shocked by cutting, the trees’ root systems responded with an outburst of growth and would cover the hillsides again in a decade.—[paragraph is exposition]

*

Goldenwood lumber shimmered in the sunlight like veins of precious metal, making it a much prized building material.—[sensory description and exposition] Once processed, the boards were packed into reinforced upboxes and launched into orbit, where they would be retrieved by the stringline hauler, and rushed to Sonjeera for distribution.—[exposition]

*

Down in the cutting zone, humming lifters grasped smooth trunks, while trimmers sliced off feathery leaf clusters that looked like strips of metal foil.—[sensory description and action] Scooping up armfuls of sheared-off leaves, male and female lumber workers packed them in crates.—[action] In a flash of inspiration, Goler had actually convinced the Constellation that goldenwood leaves were valuable and could be processed into exotic materials and coatings, and they had become moderately popular among nobles on the Crown Jewel world.—[exposition] By contrast, no one on Ridgetop saw much use in the leaves, but the settlers were happy to include them as part of the tribute to the Diadem.—[exposition] It eased their burden a little bit.—[exposition]

*

For eleven years now, Michella had been content enough with Goler’s leadership. When he was first assigned to this DZ planet, she told him that his utmost priority was to see that the new colonists caused no trouble.—[exposition] “Ridgetop has already given me enough difficulties, Mr Goler. Let’s not do that again.”—[dialogue]

*

Before his arrival, the Army of the Constellation had razed an old squatter colony and replaced all the unauthorized settlers with her own people. Over the years, under Goler’s administration, Ridgetop had become a model frontier colony.—[paragraph is exposition]

*

The numerous habitable planets in the Deep Zone had been known for centuries, peripherally mapped by probes and intrepid long-range explorers. But without any established stringline connections, those worlds were considered too distant and inconvenient to be worth a major settlement effort. The only way to reach them had been via old-style FTL transport, which required voyages that lasted months or years.—[paragraph is exposition]

*

Back then, the DZ planets attracted only the hardiest and most desperate colonists. Few were willing to leave the comforts of Crown Jewel civilization to risk the long and expensive voyage, unless they had nothing to lose. Anyone who decided to colonize those enigmatic worlds knew it would be a one-way trip, since old FTL ships had insufficient fuel for the return voyage and had no spacedock or manufacturing facilities on the other end. They were pioneers going off into the unknown.—[paragraph is exposition]

*

The newly extended stringline network changed all that. By dispatching her trailblazer vessels to lay down iperion paths to the frontier planets, Diadem Michella suddenly had fifty-four new worlds under her control. With her blessing, she invited ambitious people from the crowded Crown Jewels to go and make a new start.—[paragraph is exposition]

*

Not surprisingly, the original squatters who had ventured out to claim virgin territory years earlier were not pleased with the sudden influx of outsiders. They had left the Constellation behind long ago and had been surviving without help or interference from the old government. When Michella annexed the entire Deep Zone and subsequently imposed tariffs and taxes, the independents resisted violently. The Diadem was forced to dispatch her military to squash several uprisings, including one on Ridgetop before she brought in Carlson Goler to clean up the mess and start afresh.—[paragraph is exposition]

*

Even though he was Territorial Governor out here, the powerful noble families back in the Crown Jewels considered him little more than a trumped-up civil servant. But Goler did his work and paid attention to the way the wind was blowing. He had always been a realistic man, yet he had already achieved much more than he’d expected. Though fulfilling the Diadem’s regular tribute was a persistent thorn in his side, Goler chose not to rock the boat. The people understood that.—[paragraph is exposition, though the last sentence COULD be interior monologue, though it feels more like exposition].

 

I'm still reading Hellhole and am about 300 pages in, and most the chapters read like this, though there are areas that use more dialogue and action of course, but on average, this is what his chapters look like, and he's a big name author with lots of awards.

His scenes are surrounded by exposition, as if it were the glue that holds the whole chapter together. I'm enjoying the book, and its obvious others are too.

What do you think?

Edited by LambentTyto
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Hmmm... hard to say. I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, especially in literature. (Movies are fine). It FEELS really expositionaly to me, but that's mainly because it's sci-fi with the learning curve and all of that joy. So it's hard to say.

I guess the best thing to say would be if you would enjoy reading your writing, then you're golden.

 

*Of course, it would be best if editors enjoyed reading your writing, but that's another thing all together.

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I know exactly how you feel, LambentTyto. I don't really know exactly how to respond, so I'm just gonna talk about it.

 

I feel like sometimes amateur writers hear something over and over and they fixate on it to the point where it becomes limiting. The whole "Show Don't Tell" thing is a good rule of thumb when you're first starting out, but once you've honed your craft to a certain point, it stops applying.

 

The Dune series comes to mind. Talk about books that tell way more than they show, and yet that's part of what makes the books such fascinating page turners. If I had to watch Muad'dib do some of the things that are only referenced through "telling" (if you've read the books, you know which things I'm talking about) it would be a completely different reading experience and, I believe, something crucial would be lost.

Which brings me to myself and how I balance Show/Tell.

A lot of it has to do with narrative flow. For instance, sometimes a dialogue heavy scene starts getting bogged down with incidental dialogue that, for the sake of realism needs to exist, but let's face it isn't that interesting. Like when directions are being given, or events are being recounted for characters that weren't present during that scene. In cases like these, instead of doing five, ten lines of dialogue that would be redundant or boring, I just "tell" the reader in one line of narrative the important bits of what was said. This not only eliminates words (sometimes) but makes the actual dialogue around it feel stronger even if it isn't any different.

There's also the problem of pacing. If you're showing and not telling right from the beginning, when you get to the parts of your book that are supposed to be more exciting, it is much harder to portray the rise in action and pace. You're almost forced into a thriller pacing instead of having internal build.

 

Not only that, but unless you're telling sometimes, foreshadowing is much much harder, and therefore your climaxes don't pay off quite as much as they should because you're forced to drop telling into those climaxes when, if you had just told the reader this information sooner, you wouldn't have to be explaining now. Sometimes it's a lot like robbing Peter to pay Paul, but so is a lot of writing.

 

Anyway, you're not alone!

 

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@LambentTyto - personally I think that excerpt has *way* too much exposition - I was zoning out of the story about 6 paragraphs in -- I feel like its a massive worldbuildong info-dump without anything actually happening, without it setting a tone or intriguing me to read further. Then again, it might just not be my taste in fiction. I think its one of those creative subjective things and if you're happy and interested writing similarly to that, go for it!

@hawkedup that sounds like awesome advice. Take an upvote :)

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Also: last week's episode on time had a significant discussion on this topic.

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Hmmm... hard to say. I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, especially in literature. (Movies are fine). It FEELS really expositionaly to me, but that's mainly because it's sci-fi with the learning curve and all of that joy. So it's hard to say.

I guess the best thing to say would be if you would enjoy reading your writing, then you're golden.

*Of course, it would be best if editors enjoyed reading your writing, but that's another thing all together.

It's the absolute best if average Joe enjoys reading, or at least buying, your writing. But that's another beast altogether.
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It's the absolute best if average Joe enjoys reading, or at least buying, your writing. But that's another beast altogether.

I think we're mixing the art and the marketing here a little.

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Hence the other beast. But I do think that the appeal of a work to a target audience is an integral part of it's artistic merit.

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I agree, except for maybe the type of writers who only write for themselves. There are multiple layers of artistic merit going on here.

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