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smartbombradio

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on: January 26, 2007, 07:19:20 PM
Ok I've got a style question regarding exposition.  How much exposition do you need for a fantasy novel to set the scene.  I don't want the first 20 pages to read like a text book, but there is a certain amount of "These are the factions, this is the problem, here is how we got to this point, this is why these two hate each other" That has to be done in an any book where the world is an unfamiliar one. 


jrderego

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Reply #1 on: January 26, 2007, 07:30:05 PM
Ok I've got a style question regarding exposition.  How much exposition do you need for a fantasy novel to set the scene.  I don't want the first 20 pages to read like a text book, but there is a certain amount of "These are the factions, this is the problem, here is how we got to this point, this is why these two hate each other" That has to be done in an any book where the world is an unfamiliar one. 

None. Open with action, then introduce the elements as necessary through useful dialogue.

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SFEley

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Reply #2 on: January 26, 2007, 07:40:09 PM
Ok I've got a style question regarding exposition.  How much exposition do you need for a fantasy novel to set the scene.  I don't want the first 20 pages to read like a text book, but there is a certain amount of "These are the factions, this is the problem, here is how we got to this point, this is why these two hate each other" That has to be done in an any book where the world is an unfamiliar one. 

It's tough to offer formula answers on questions like this, because it depends so much on the specifics, but as a reader I usually only want to know two things immediately:

1.) That something is happening; and

2.) Who I'm supposed to care about.

Give me enough in the first few pages to make me care about that person, and whatever's happening to them, and I'm good to go.  You can develop the specifics of why things are happening over the first three-quarters of the book and I'm still happy.  The important thing is not to stop the plot or divert from your characters.  If you want to tell me something that has nothing to do with the action or the characters I'm reading about right now -- then I probably don't care to know about it right now.

Oh.  And don't fall victim to Prologue Syndrome.  You know what I mean: the plague of prologues that begin hundreds of years before the rest of the book, involve characters we're never going to see again, and explain trivial details like "why the Sword of Doom has a scratch over the letter D" that no one's ever going to need to know.  Resist this temptation.  If it's a brilliant scene and you can't bear to give it up, then write it and put it in a drawer, and after your fantasy series is a runaway bestseller you can sell it as a "prequel" short story.  >8->

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FNH

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Reply #3 on: January 26, 2007, 07:41:55 PM
You could include a small amount maybe a few paras' with tha standard zoom-in opening.

e.g.

Heres the country, in it is a city, in it the poor quarter, on the edge of which is a road that two factions fight over ...


CrushEm

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Reply #4 on: January 26, 2007, 07:44:13 PM
Ok I've got a style question regarding exposition.  How much exposition do you need for a fantasy novel to set the scene.  I don't want the first 20 pages to read like a text book, but there is a certain amount of "These are the factions, this is the problem, here is how we got to this point, this is why these two hate each other" That has to be done in an any book where the world is an unfamiliar one. 

The key is to intersperse the exposition.  At times, you'll have to grin and bear it and just do an info-dump but the best way is to feed it out slowly.  Nothing slows down a story faster than too much information.  As a general rule, don't write more than two paragraphs of exposition without breaking it up.  A little dialogue, some action (even if it is just ancillary, like walking around the room), and changes in emotion are all viable breaks for exposition blocks.

One of the mistakes that I always made early on was feeling like the story wouldn't work if I didn't tell the reader everything right away.  I have since learned that the opposite is true.  In your attempt to feed out the information slowly, the reader will have questions as to why it works that way, who is this person, where does this take place.  Questions keep a reader reading--so long as those questions are answered at some point.  For basic questions, like who is this character? try answering it within a chapter (unless you want to keep the reader guessing).  Where does this take place? can be answered slowly throughout the whole story, as can how does magic work.  Even if you don't explain, if you can show the reader that magic does work, you don't really ever have to explain it!

To go back to your question, I'd say about 30-40% of a modern fantasy novel goes toward world building.  In a perfect world, I'd say no more than 15-20% should be dumped as exposition, the rest should be interspersed.

"Mark gritted his teeth, the last time he trusted an ambassador from Kreel the city had been attacked and twenty-thousand people died.  The armistice was meant to stop that from happening again, but Mark would never trust the Kreel to honour their word.  War would be inevitable, the Kreel knew it, and Mark knew it."  -- This is exposition, cloaked in action.  We learn so much from a sentence like this, yet it doesn't feel like an info dump.  Using your example, this short phrase tells us there are two factions, with a problem, how we got to this point, and why they hate each other (well, sort of).  All of this is general and needs to be built on, of course, but it didn't take 20 pages either.  Now that the stage is set, the reader will keep going to discover the rest of the story.  You'll be able to expand on all of those points throughout the book, but the basic need of the story has been met.

I hope this helps.  :)



bekemeyer

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Reply #5 on: January 26, 2007, 07:44:57 PM
i have very little to add to this, except to say that in writing screenplays there is a 10 page/10 minute rule in hooking the audience.  in that time, you meet the main characters and are witness to the events to what set off the rest of the story.  you might call it the Preface to the rest of the film. 

in my longer narrative writing, which is still in its infancy, i have tried to stick with this also. 
« Last Edit: January 26, 2007, 07:47:00 PM by bekemeyer »

Excuse me, but what exactly is ScatterPod?


JaredAxelrod

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Reply #6 on: February 09, 2007, 03:41:04 AM
Ok I've got a style question regarding exposition.  How much exposition do you need for a fantasy novel to set the scene.  I don't want the first 20 pages to read like a text book, but there is a certain amount of "These are the factions, this is the problem, here is how we got to this point, this is why these two hate each other" That has to be done in an any book where the world is an unfamiliar one. 

Well, yes.  But it doesn't have to happen right away. The best way to look at it is, how much exposition do we need to understand who the main character is and why he does what he does, in the first scene?  Do we need to know all the factions?  Probably not.  Do we need to know the problem?  Perhaps, but it might be better to hold that out a bit for a more dramatic reveal later.  Do we need to know how we got to this point?  Not in the first scene.

The thing to remember is that while your world may be as beautiful and intricate as a finely-cut diamond, people don't read books for worlds, they read them for characters.  So really, you only need to reveal as much of the world as it pertains to the character in each scene.  Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion is  great example of how effective slow expostion can be.
« Last Edit: August 12, 2007, 07:07:47 PM by Russell Nash »



Jonathan C. Gillespie

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Reply #7 on: February 19, 2007, 05:39:04 PM
So is virtually anything by Robert Heinlein.  The master cloaked his exposition in such a fashion that you never even noticed it.  F'in brilliant stuff.

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SFEley

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Reply #8 on: February 19, 2007, 05:43:58 PM
So is virtually anything by Robert Heinlein.  The master cloaked his exposition in such a fashion that you never even noticed it.  F'in brilliant stuff.

Well, he often did.  Though you also have books like Have Space Suit -- Will Travel, which stops for several pages to explain how the suit works.

(Granted, it was a cool explanation.  Just not slow or subtle.)  >8->

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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #9 on: February 20, 2007, 01:47:27 AM
Hmm... I've always thought Heinlein's exposition was very transparent... I'm super-picky about exposition, though, I'm not sure I think anyone handles it terribly opaquely. Maybe someone like Toni Morrison who lulls you into the poetry of the work so deeply that you stop caring whether or not it's exposition.



slic

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Reply #10 on: February 20, 2007, 03:28:06 AM
Quote
Hmm... I've always thought Heinlein's exposition was very transparent...
I agree here - Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land - they had whole sections that he just explained things.  Personally, I like that - after a good exposition, I sometimes actually put the book down and my imagination starts firing off in other directions...



SFEley

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Reply #11 on: February 20, 2007, 04:37:23 AM
Hmm... I've always thought Heinlein's exposition was very transparent... I'm super-picky about exposition, though, I'm not sure I think anyone handles it terribly opaquely.

Are we using the same...ah...polarization here?  I always thought "transparent" in literary technique meant something you didn't notice.  Something that didn't distract the reader.  (E.g., transparent prose is language that doesn't call attention to itself.)  And "opaque" meant something you couldn't help noticing; something that got in the way.

Is that the sense you mean, or are you referring to the opposite?

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slic

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Reply #12 on: February 20, 2007, 03:49:39 PM
I'm going with transparent being very obvious - opposite of subtle is how I think this got started.



wakela

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Reply #13 on: February 21, 2007, 01:08:53 AM
A writing professor in college told me, "begin at the beginning or after it."



Anarkey

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Reply #14 on: February 21, 2007, 01:21:54 AM
A writing professor in college told me, "begin at the beginning or after it."


[obAliceinWonderland]
Did he also tell you to go on till you came to the end: then stop?
[/obAliceinWonderland]

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jrderego

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Reply #15 on: February 21, 2007, 01:31:28 AM
A writing professor in college told me, "begin at the beginning or after it."


[obAliceinWonderland]
Did he also tell you to go on till you came to the end: then stop?
[/obAliceinWonderland]

[betterofdead]
Go that way, very fast. If something gets in your way, turn.
[/betteroffdead]

"Happiness consists of getting enough sleep." Robert A. Heinlein
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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #16 on: February 21, 2007, 03:34:56 AM
Yeah, I was going for transparent as in noticeable, and oblique as in not noticeable.

I have personally found Heinlein's exposition noticeable. But as I said, I find almost everyone's noticeable.

No one's so amusingly (and endearingly) as Robert Sawyer's. :)



Mfitz

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Reply #17 on: February 21, 2007, 08:20:51 PM
Also keep in mind, you may need to write 20 pages of exposition to set the stage for yourself, but you don't need to have those be the first 20 pages in the final story.
 
Try writing exposition setting it aside, then turning to the next blank page and starting your story where the action starts using  the exposition as reference as needed. 



Roney

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Reply #18 on: February 28, 2007, 08:23:42 PM
Open with action, then introduce the elements as necessary through useful dialogue.

Yikes.  I don't want to say that an actually podcasted EP author is wrong, but I need to play devil's advocate here.

An in media res opening works brilliantly when it works but I would hate to see it applied as a universal rule.  Like so many things we've seen in the flash contest, when it's overused it can get really old really quickly.  It's an easy way of hooking the reader (listener) into your story but try not to use it as a substitute for thinking about where your story really starts.

Let me try to explain by rewriting my comment:

Roney was at loggerheads with the most popular EP author of superhero stories, someone who was widely regarded as having super authorial powers himself.  The kerosene smell in the air could only mean that a one-sided flame war in the offing.

...Not everything can be made sexy by holding off the background information.  It really depends on the type of story you're trying to tell.



Nobilis

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Reply #19 on: March 18, 2007, 02:44:51 AM
Well, Roney...

Under what circumstances would you open with exposition?



SFEley

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Reply #20 on: March 18, 2007, 04:04:39 AM
Under what circumstances would you open with exposition?

   IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

   There were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes, that things in general were settled for ever.

   It was the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy- five. Spiritual revelations were conceded to England at that favoured period, as at this. Mrs. Southcott had recently attained her five-and- twentieth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic private in the Life Guards had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the swallowing up of London and Westminster. Even the Cock-lane ghost had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year last past (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs. Mere messages in the earthly order of events had lately come to the English Crown and People, from a congress of British subjects in America: which, strange to relate, have proved more important to the human race than any communications yet received through any of the chickens of the Cock-lane brood.

 -- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


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SFEley

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Reply #21 on: March 18, 2007, 04:12:29 AM
...Or to give a more recent (but similar) example:

A NEW HOPE

It is a period of civil war.
Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have won
their first victory against
the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel
spies managed to steal secret
plans to the Empire's
ultimate weapon, the DEATH
STAR, an armored space
station with enough power to
destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire's
sinister agents, Princess
Leia races home aboard her
starship, custodian of the
stolen plans that can save her
people and restore
freedom to the galaxy...
« Last Edit: March 18, 2007, 04:26:24 AM by SFEley »

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Rachel Swirsky

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Reply #22 on: March 18, 2007, 10:43:26 PM
Quote
Under what circumstances would you open with exposition?

Nany Kress writes that it's reasonable to write straight-up exposition when the events are bizarre or interesting enough to make the audience gasp.

She also writes that it's acceptable when the events are too complicated to be explained in any other way - which I believe is the heart of the Star Wars & Tale of Two Cities examples Steve has posted.

(FWIW, I don't think the SW opening is an effective use of an expositional opening. I also don't like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or epic fiction in general, however, so feel free to dismiss my opinion.)



JaredAxelrod

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Reply #23 on: March 20, 2007, 05:44:50 PM
...Or to give a more recent (but similar) example:

A NEW HOPE

It is a period of civil war.
Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have won
their first victory against
the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel
spies managed to steal secret
plans to the Empire's
ultimate weapon, the DEATH
STAR, an armored space
station with enough power to
destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire's
sinister agents, Princess
Leia races home aboard her
starship, custodian of the
stolen plans that can save her
people and restore
freedom to the galaxy...

This may be heresey, but I would go as far to say STAR WARS opening crawl is redundant.  By the time Darth Vader says "You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor!" to Princess Leia, we know everything we need to about this galactic civil war, and that Vader is looking for secret plans.  A few scenes later, we get that said plans are for something that can destroy a planet.  The exposition here mimics the exposition given in those old FLASH GORDON serials Lucas (and myself) loves so much, but take it away and the story still gives you everything you need to know in the first few minutes.

In fact, remove the opening crawl and you have an excellent example of how to quickly bring the audience up to speed with your world without too much exposition.
« Last Edit: March 20, 2007, 05:48:38 PM by JaredAxelrod »



JaredAxelrod

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Reply #24 on: March 20, 2007, 05:54:04 PM
Open with action, then introduce the elements as necessary through useful dialogue.

Yikes.  I don't want to say that an actually podcasted EP author is wrong, but I need to play devil's advocate here.

An in media res opening works brilliantly when it works but I would hate to see it applied as a universal rule.  Like so many things we've seen in the flash contest, when it's overused it can get really old really quickly.  It's an easy way of hooking the reader (listener) into your story but try not to use it as a substitute for thinking about where your story really starts.

Let me try to explain by rewriting my comment:

Roney was at loggerheads with the most popular EP author of superhero stories, someone who was widely regarded as having super authorial powers himself.  The kerosene smell in the air could only mean that a one-sided flame war in the offing.

...Not everything can be made sexy by holding off the background information.  It really depends on the type of story you're trying to tell.

You sure, Roney?  Which is more sexy, your rewrite, or this one:

Roney was at loggerheads with the most popular EP author of superhero stories. The kerosene smell in the air could only mean that a one-sided flame war in the offing.

"I know you're widely regarded as having super authorial powers," Roney said.  "But I aim to flame!"


It's not about holding off background info, it's about introducing it in a way that keeps the reader from skimming paragraphs.