Escape Artists

News:

News

ATTENTION: NEW FORUM THEME Please see here for details: http://forum.escapeartists.net/index.php?topic=13188.0

Author Topic: Exposing Myself  (Read 21825 times)

smartbombradio

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 89
  • Clthulhu loves me, this I know!
    • One Eighteen: Migration
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

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 687
  • Writer of Union Dues stories (among others)
    • J. R. DeRego - Writer
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.

"Happiness consists of getting enough sleep." Robert A. Heinlein
Also, please buy my book - Escape Clause: A Union Dues Novel
http://www.encpress.com/EC.html


SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
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->

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


FNH

  • Matross
  • ****
  • Posts: 309
  • F Napoleon H
    • Black Dog Of Doom
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

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 3
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

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 61
    • ScatterPod
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

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 78
  • 4-Color Hero
    • The Voice Of Free Planetx
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

  • Matross
  • ****
  • Posts: 262
  • Writer of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror
    • Jonathan C. Gillespie, Author
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.

Published genre fiction author with stories in print and upcoming.

Official site: http://jonathancg.net/ | Twitter: JCGAuthor | Facebook


SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
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->

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
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

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 727
  • Stephen Lumini
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

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
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?

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


slic

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 727
  • Stephen Lumini
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

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 779
    • Mr. Wake
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

  • Meen Pie
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 703
  • ...depends a good deal on where you want to get to
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]

Winner Nash's 1000th member betting pool + Thaurismunths' Free Rice Contest!


jrderego

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 687
  • Writer of Union Dues stories (among others)
    • J. R. DeRego - Writer
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
Also, please buy my book - Escape Clause: A Union Dues Novel
http://www.encpress.com/EC.html


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
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

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 107
    • Flying Whale Productions
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

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 440
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

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 156
    • Nobilis Erotica Podcast
Reply #19 on: March 18, 2007, 02:44:51 AM
Well, Roney...

Under what circumstances would you open with exposition?



SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
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


ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
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 »

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
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

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 78
  • 4-Color Hero
    • The Voice Of Free Planetx
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

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 78
  • 4-Color Hero
    • The Voice Of Free Planetx
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.



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #25 on: March 21, 2007, 01:17:17 AM
But you're assuming all readers skim in the same places. They don't.

The idea that stories should start with action has nothing to do with reader tolerance; it's a convention of the genre -- a convention that does not exist in mainstream fiction.

There's also a condensation here of narrative as exposition, versus scene, I think. Narrative is not necessarily exposition.

The beginning of "Magic Beginners," if I recall correctly, is not in scene.



JaredAxelrod

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 78
  • 4-Color Hero
    • The Voice Of Free Planetx
Reply #26 on: March 21, 2007, 03:13:31 PM
Narrative is not necessarily exposition.

I couldn't agree more.

However, I would like to point you to Elmore Leonard's second rule of writing, where he calmy points out that it is best to place your prologue (which is basically what we're talking about here) elsewhere than the beginning of the book.  Leonard is an extremely successful author of mainstream fiction--and some really good cowboy stories--so I think we can trust his opinion here.  I feel that starting with "action," or at the very least, excitiment, is something that exists in ALL ficition, genre or not.  That's why they call it a "hook." 

Just look at the first sentenceof NY Times Paperback Bestseller list, a non-genre title, THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, by Kim Edwards: The snow started to fall several hours before her labor began.  Starting, not even with names, but with an event.  Starting without a prologue isn't a genre trope; it's good writing.
« Last Edit: March 21, 2007, 03:50:26 PM by JaredAxelrod »



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #27 on: March 21, 2007, 06:36:30 PM
Well, no, I don't trust his opinion as being a final word; I don't trust anyone's opinion as being a final word. 

A hook can exist in many different ways. It may be advisable for a writer, particularly a new one, to start hir novel with a hook and then do backfill, but I reject the idea that it's a necessity. People get away with all kinds of things, and the conventions of modern, usually mimetic fiction are symptomatic of our time and place.

I'm taking a class with a Pulitzer Prize winner right now, and she should be as good a source on what's acceptable in literary fiction as anyone, and I suspect the word hook would make her shudder in her shoes. To her, hooks are crass. Fiction is art.

And while it's easy to dismiss her perspective in this forum, I think it's unwise to do so - as a decorated, groundbreaking, well-known author, she certainly has not only the chops but the credentials to back up the fact that she can find a large, and extremely appreciative audience.

There really aren't any hard and fast rules here.



JaredAxelrod

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 78
  • 4-Color Hero
    • The Voice Of Free Planetx
Reply #28 on: March 21, 2007, 07:14:40 PM
I'm taking a class with a Pulitzer Prize winner right now, and she should be as good a source on what's acceptable in literary fiction as anyone, and I suspect the word hook would make her shudder in her shoes. To her, hooks are crass. Fiction is art.

And while it's easy to dismiss her perspective in this forum, I think it's unwise to do so - as a decorated, groundbreaking, well-known author, she certainly has not only the chops but the credentials to back up the fact that she can find a large, and extremely appreciative audience.

As I am always open to other perspectives, I would like to read this author's books and see how they begin.  I'll freely admit to having read more "crass" fiction than Pulitzer Prize winners, though a quick check shows that the few that I have read do not start with prologues. 

Granted, this list only contains Micheal Chabon, Ernest Hemmingway, and Toni Morrison, so what do I know?  Ms. Morrison in particular is the most crass here, what with Beloved starting en medias res, and we all know that is a convention that does not exist in mainstream fiction.   ;)

Kidding aside, I would like to read the work of your instructor.  I do not want to dismiss her perspective, but I feel I can't accept it until I see it myself.
« Last Edit: March 21, 2007, 07:22:55 PM by JaredAxelrod »



ClintMemo

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 680
Reply #29 on: March 21, 2007, 07:23:04 PM
I ran across today and thought I'd pass it on, since it seemed at least close to the topic.
George Orwell's Five Rules for Effective Writing.
http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/george-orwells-5-rules-for-effective-writing/

Interestingly, rule 6 (the bonus rule) is "Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous." which sort of sounds like an out.   The first rule of writing fiction may also be the first rule of writing code - "The best solution is the one that works."  I suspect that most of the other rules are in opposition.  :P

Life is a multiple choice test. Unfortunately, the answers are not provided.  You have to go and find them before picking the best one.


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #30 on: March 21, 2007, 07:39:38 PM
Quote
"The best solution is the one that works." 


That's more or less what I was trying to say, via using an example of someone for whom the technique works, at least with some audiences.



ClintMemo

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 680
Reply #31 on: March 22, 2007, 05:33:36 PM
Quote
"The best solution is the one that works"

I think Tsun Tzu said that originally (though the context was likely to have been different. :P )

Someone else posted the Kurt Vonnegut version.  (lol - the spell checker knew how to spell "Vonnegut" but I didn't)

http://www.americanstate.org/vonnegut.html
He has 8 rules.  I like #4.
"4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action."

Life is a multiple choice test. Unfortunately, the answers are not provided.  You have to go and find them before picking the best one.


BlairHippo

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 126
    • The Blair Hippo Project
Reply #32 on: March 23, 2007, 06:27:02 PM
I don't know if this is in any Famous Persons' List of Rules (and my thanks to the people who posted the Vonnegut and Orwell lists -- handy, those), but my big unbreakable rule is this:

Don't bore me.

Grab my attention.  Keep it.  Give me a reason to read the next sentence, the next page, the next chapter.  Make me interested in what happens next.  Pull that off, and I'll read you.  Fail, and I'll go do something else; I have literally dozens of other things to choose from.

That is, I think, why people are generally opposed to starting a novel with exposition.  As a general rule, history lessons are boring.  Characters are interesting.  Start with characters.

Now if you're such a kick-ass writer that even your history lessons are scintillating, then by all means go ahead and start there.  But are you certain your prose kicks that much ass?



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #33 on: March 23, 2007, 08:36:19 PM
Yeah.

I think "Don't Bore Me" is the #1 rule in most genre fic.

The problem being that people have very different levels of bored. 90% of fight scenes numb me with boredom, for whatever reason. Star Wars & LOTR bore me, so I wander off.

"Don't Bore Me" is not, generally, the driving force in lit work, I'm finding. Or at least, it doesn't seem to be the driving force in the way people talk about it.



BlairHippo

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 126
    • The Blair Hippo Project
Reply #34 on: March 23, 2007, 08:44:03 PM
"Don't Bore Me" is not, generally, the driving force in lit work, I'm finding. Or at least, it doesn't seem to be the driving force in the way people talk about it.

I don't read much "literary" fiction, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't a fundamental truth there, too.  It's just a matter of the audience having different standards of what's boring -- different taste regarding what captures and holds their interest.

Or are adjectives like "cliched," "tedious," and "mind-numbing" considered high praise in literary circles these days?   ;)



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #35 on: March 23, 2007, 08:51:50 PM
No, I see what you mean. No one wants to be bored. It just doesn't seem to be the first thing you think about, in those circles, if you know what I mean.

I feel like in genre "Are you bored?" is at the forefront of most discussions. I think in literary circles, it's, oh, question 6 or 7, after "How beautiful is the language?" and "Do I gain a deep understanding of the character?" and some others.

As a writer, and as a critiquer, I would say that one of my primary concerns when I'm looking at the work is to think about the audience. That's not the way that most lit workshops I've been in tend to consider fiction. It's not that the audience won't ultimately be important; it's just not the perspective that seems to be at the forefront.

My very limited experience working with academic journals versus commercial jounrals that publish literature (say, 580 Split @ Mills in Oakland versus Esquire Magazine) suggests to me that the latter seem to be more interested in getting and keeping attention, and in considering the audience.



BlairHippo

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 126
    • The Blair Hippo Project
Reply #36 on: March 23, 2007, 09:13:20 PM
No, I see what you mean. No one wants to be bored. It just doesn't seem to be the first thing you think about, in those circles, if you know what I mean.

I wonder if it's because the question isn't relevant, or because it's so fundamental that nobody thinks to ask it.  (And that's not a rhetorical question; not traveling in those circles myself, I honestly have no idea.)

I feel like in genre "Are you bored?" is at the forefront of most discussions. I think in literary circles, it's, oh, question 6 or 7, after "How beautiful is the language?" and "Do I gain a deep understanding of the character?" and some others.

But, see, if I squint my eyes a little, I can spot "Are you bored?" lying under each of those.

"Your use of language was utilitarian and uninspired; it bored me."

"I never got more than a surface impression of your characters; I found them too shallow to be interesting."

(Of course, I suppose a response of "Your use of language was fresh, inventive, and utterly repulsive to my sense of aesthetics" kinda squashes my hypothesis, don't it.  Eh, but then again, I'm not arguing boredom is the only sin, am I; just that it's the key concern underlying a lot of rules of thumb like "Don't open with exposition" and something you're well-advised to avoid in general.  So I'm not sure what my exact hypothesis here is anyway.  Yet I will keep right on going.  Hooray for the internets!)

As a writer, and as a critiquer, I would say that one of my primary concerns when I'm looking at the work is to think about the audience. That's not the way that most lit workshops I've been in tend to consider fiction. It's not that the audience won't ultimately be important; it's just not the perspective that seems to be at the forefront.

My very limited experience working with academic journals versus commercial jounrals that publish literature (say, 580 Split @ Mills in Oakland versus Esquire Magazine) suggests to me that the latter seem to be more interested in getting and keeping attention, and in considering the audience.

I would argue that both are considering the audience, they're just considering different audiences.  The latter wants broader appeal, the former is gunning for readers with more refined sensibilities.  Would 580 Split really be inclined to publish something its readers would find dead dull?  Or do they publish work they think their readers will find captivating even if Esquire's readers would be bored senseless by it?

(Again, not rhetorical; I'm asking.)



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #37 on: March 23, 2007, 09:51:29 PM
Okay. Hmm.

You expect to like the fiction you read on some level, yes?

I'm not totally sure that all lit people expect to like the fiction they read -- particularly publishers of academic journals.

It's... more like fiction is medicine. You read what's good for you, damn it. And if you get bored and stop, that's because you're WEAK, damn you, weak!

...But that's not quite the right way of putting it, because my impression is just that "did you enjoy this?" isn't the question on the table.

It's like, I don't know, going to a class in a discipline outside your own, to learn something you need to know for work. "Was it a good class?" is going to involve things like how did you learn, what did you learn, etc. etc. "Was it fun?" is a casual question that might get asked. But when you're trying to assess the goodness of the class in general, "Was it fun?" isn't the salient question.

It's a slight shift in perspective and priority (which I am probably exaggerating or misrepresenting in an attempt to get my point across through metaphor).



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #38 on: March 23, 2007, 10:03:49 PM
"And if you get bored and stop, that's because you're WEAK, damn you, weak!"

Fisking myself.

It also has to do with what boredom means in different contexts, which may be what you were trying to get at, Pete.

These are of course overlapping categories and gross generalizations, brought out for the purpose of making a point, for whatever it's worth -- possibly nothing at all. :)

Experimental writers (I call myself one) tend to emphasize intellectual engagement. If a piece is interesting to me for some intellectual reason -- for instance, Robert Sawyer's _Hominid_ series, or Samuel Johnson's _Rasselas: Prince of Abyssinia_ -- I can read past the craft issues. I sort of giggle at Sawyer's "I added a funny hat, voila, it's a character" issues, or his "and now watch me exposit through dialogue! Surely you won't notice, Bob!" -- and meanwhile, I read those three books in like three days, and then wrote him a fan letter, because I loved the anthropology so much.

Literary writers, esp. the ones in the midst of an MFA program, tend to get off on craft execution a LOT. A story that surprises us -- fuck yeah. That's like teh awesomest thing ever. We tend not to be reading immersively (because we're in the middle of overanalyzing everything to death -- and yes, I'm spoofing us a bit here) and so we're watching the story's bones. So, the kinds of things that are enjoyable qua enjoyable are probably going to make us roll our eyes, because we are overexposed to narrative trickery and can spot a trick whe we see one. On the other hand, a tedious but well-executed passage is appealing on the bones-level.

Literary readers... eh, I'm over-immersed in MFA culture, so skip that one.

Genre readers, on the other hand, will often talk about boredom and enjoyment in the way that, well, our culture uses the terms. It's enjoyable because it's immersive and exciting and fast-paced and fun. It's boring because one isn't interested in what the text is doing, and I have usually found most genre-readers and -writers to use this in the sense of what the text is doing as a text, not what the text is doing on a meta-interpretational level.

It's that last point, I think, that I was trying to make. If it's clear at all. And if I  haven't wandered.



SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
Reply #39 on: March 23, 2007, 10:25:04 PM
Cool discussion.  I personally don't want to stick my neck out by suggesting that any set of priorities is fundamentally any more important than any other, or that any reason to read is better than any other reason. 

I have only a partial, albeit increasing, understanding of what my own priorities are -- both for my pleasure reading and for Escape Pod.  The two are not 100% congruent, by the way, although there's certainly lots of overlap.  I doubt that anyone here could completely explain what they enjoy and why, even to themselves. 

But I will stick my neck out far enough to suggest that the best literature is the best because it succeeds at many things at once.  It can be exciting and beautiful and reveal the human spirit and commercially viable and interesting to academics and challenge the reader in deep ways.  It can all cross over.  Vonnegut, for instance, is pretty well-accepted in both SF and literary circles and succeeds at many of the above.  So does Margaret Atwood, even if her blatant rejection of the SF tag annoys many in the community.

And for what it's worth, although it isn't genre, I don't think it's sticking my neck out at all to say that To Kill a Mockingbird is the best book I have ever read, for all of the above reasons.

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #40 on: March 23, 2007, 10:40:32 PM
I sort of agree with that. It's good when books do all the aforementioned things, certainly.

But I get a bit uncomfortable with ranking. Is _Tequila Mockingbird_ better than _Candide_, for instance? Is that really a meaningful question?

EDIT: to be clear, I'm using _To Kill a_ as being an example of a well-rounded book, and _Candide_ as an example of an intellectually-driven book which relies on the reader's academic engagement to gloss past craft issues. Of the two, I personally like _Candide_ better. In contrast, though, I like _Salt Roads_ (which I'd characterize as a well-rounded book) better than _Candide_, so I'm not arguing that academic-only books are better, just saying that I don't think well-rounded necessarily trumps limited emphasis.
« Last Edit: March 23, 2007, 10:55:39 PM by palimpsest »



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #41 on: March 23, 2007, 10:52:15 PM
Quote
Would 580 Split really be inclined to publish something its readers would find dead dull?  Or do they publish work they think their readers will find captivating even if Esquire's readers would be bored senseless by it?

Just noticed I glossed over this.

A lot of lit journals have extremely, extremely small readerships. 580 Split as a non-paying magazine which I'd never heard of before I went to Mills... well, the circ # doesn't seem to be in my copy of Writer's Market (I can't find the listing, if it has one), but I imagine it's very small.

Further, because its funding probably mostly comes from the University rather than from subscriptions, I'm not sure that increasing readership is its number one priority. (I slushed a bit for the magazine, but I did not attend any business meetings. I may be mischaracterizing 580 Split. I don't mean to impugn it.)

So, rather than trying to put together a magazine that will attract a broad, or at least dedicated, readership -- i.e. thinking about the readers' responses to the work -- my sense is that most literary magazines that are tied to academic institutions are more interested in putting "the best" stories together, to create a work of art that is the best that it can be.

That piece of art might attract an audience, if the audience is particularly sensitive or if the zeigeist is right, but that's a happy result of, say, planetary alignment. It is not by marketing design. And if it does not attract an audience -- well, it might just be theat there are an insufficient number of people around hwo appreciate true art, or at least who have the money to spend on the litarry magazine and also apprecaite true art.

This is a different attitude from Greg Bear's, "Get their beer money," and it's what I mean when I say that audience is more at the forefront of genre discussions than of literary workshops. The lit workshops are interested in getting the art right, and then maybe people will like it, and maybe they won't. The genre workshops and writers groups that I've been part of have tended to be more focused on "how do I take this thing I want to do and balance it with what the audience will like."

I mean, it's a game. All magazines balance art with business; all writers balance art with audience. But where one's priorities lie affects how much sway one gives one factor over the other.



SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
Reply #42 on: March 23, 2007, 10:58:36 PM
But I get a bit uncomfortable with ranking. Is _Tequila Mockingbird_ better than _Candide_, for instance? Is that really a meaningful question?

To me it is, because I haven't read Candide.  >8->  I'm not going to claim universal truths, but I'm fine ranking things in my own opinion.

And in that opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird tops the scale.  I also think that Atticus Finch is a paragon for how to be a father.

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #43 on: March 23, 2007, 11:01:08 PM
Quote
I'm not going to claim universal truths, but I'm fine ranking things in my own opinion.

Oh, sure!

I just thought you were using TKaM as an example of the set of well-rounded books, as part of an argument that well-rounded books are generally the best thing (which is a fine argument, but trips my "what is universalism?" kvetch). Sorry if I misread.



SFEley

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1408
    • Escape Artists, Inc.
Reply #44 on: March 23, 2007, 11:30:33 PM
I just thought you were using TKaM as an example of the set of well-rounded books, as part of an argument that well-rounded books are generally the best thing (which is a fine argument, but trips my "what is universalism?" kvetch). Sorry if I misread.

Well, I was ambiguous in my intention.  I actually do think that well-rounded books are generally the best, and I think it's defensible in the sense that if a book is truly well-rounded, you'll get more people from more perspectives to agree that it's a great book.  I don't equate that with fundamental truth, and I wouldn't be stricken down by exceptions, but I think it's a reasonable heuristic by every criterion I can think of, and it stands up very favorably against its inverse (that books that succeed on many levels are bad.)  >8->

Oh...  And come to think of it, is To Kill a Mockingbird another example of a story that starts with a bigass lump of exposition?  Okay, the very first sentence is action, but after that it's all exposition and analysis for the rest of the chapter:

Quote
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn't run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn't? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.

Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings... 

...And so on, with the complete family history for a few pages.

Opinions?  Is this opening with exposition, or is it character development?  I could see it both ways.  What it isn't, except for the foreshadowing in paragraph two, is plot.

Anyone find it boring?

ESCAPE POD - The Science Fiction Podcast Magazine


Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #45 on: March 23, 2007, 11:44:28 PM
I'd call that exposition. It interests me.



Roney

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 440
Reply #46 on: March 24, 2007, 10:19:15 PM
I like Salt Roads (which I'd characterize as a well-rounded book) better than Candide, so I'm not arguing that academic-only* books are better

* My emphasis.

I (politely) (at least I intend so) disagree that Candide is academic-only.  I got a lot out of it as an interested teenage civilian, thanks to a recommendation from my Da.  Some of the jokes that made it accessible at the time are still funny.

Narrative is not necessarily exposition.

A very good point.  I think we're in danger of falling into one of those arguments where everyone actually agrees with each other but we don't realize it because we use the same terms to mean different things.  I get the feeling that some people are using "exposition" to mean "boring infodump".  (Correct me if I'm misconstruing you.)  Without wanting to start another grammar pedantry thread, that would be genuinely begging the question.

My opinion is that there's only so far that "show don't tell" can go, and that sometimes you have to tell.  This is not a bad thing.  Telling is what words is for.  And it can work from the very first sentence: I love stories that draw me into them by slowly conjuring a world that I want to know more about.



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #47 on: March 25, 2007, 02:56:12 AM
I'm defining exposition as that space in the text which has the primary purpose of relaying information. Often, this means stopping the action (whether that action was taking place in narrative or scene).



JaredAxelrod

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 78
  • 4-Color Hero
    • The Voice Of Free Planetx
Reply #48 on: May 02, 2007, 05:59:27 PM
What it isn't, except for the foreshadowing in paragraph two, is plot.

I'd argue that paragraph 3 is also foreshadowing, if for no other reason than it paint Atticus Finch as a wise, understanding man much before we get indroduced to him proper.  It's almost subliminal.

So, there.  One and a half paragraphs of foreshadowing, one paragraph of character development, and one sentence about family history to provide a sense of place.  The exposition is one sentence, done as a line of throwaway family history. 

The lesson from Harper Lee?  If you're putting your exposition in the beginning, limit it to one sentence snuggled into an ancedote.



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #49 on: May 02, 2007, 06:28:05 PM
Foreshadowing is not exposition? I'd say it is.



JaredAxelrod

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 78
  • 4-Color Hero
    • The Voice Of Free Planetx
Reply #50 on: May 02, 2007, 06:54:11 PM
Foreshadowing is not exposition? I'd say it is.

Only when it's done poorly. 



Rachel Swirsky

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1233
    • PodCastle
Reply #51 on: May 02, 2007, 07:32:27 PM
It sounds increasingly like your definition of exposition is "stuff that bores me."



JaredAxelrod

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 78
  • 4-Color Hero
    • The Voice Of Free Planetx
Reply #52 on: May 02, 2007, 07:44:06 PM
It sounds increasingly like your definition of exposition is "stuff that bores me."

One could also say that it sounds from your arguments like your defintion of exposition is "stuff that isn't plot."

My definiton expostions hews very close to Merriam-Webster's, actually.  They say it's "a setting forth of the meaning or purpose,"  which strikes me as fairly dead on.  Exposition is the author puting aside the story for a moment to explain something.  If your foreshadowing is done in a plainly ovbious way, than it's exposition.  If you subltly work it into the narrative in such away that the reader exclaims some form of "Why didn't I see that coming!  All the clues where there!" then it's not.

Is it boring when authors stop the story to explain where we are, who we're talking to or why we're talking to them?  Sometimes.  Depends on how good the author is.