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Exposition... what's not/enough?
Michael Guarneiri
Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2011 5:08 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 29


Well... I've been pondering this question a lot lately and I suppose it would make sense to tell you why. I have a contemporary fantasy-YA novel up on the site (Solomon Pierce). Recently, someone left a review that focused (pretty negatively) on the amount that I reveal to readers. The reviewer said that I leave out details because I already know them...However, I think this might just be my style of writing. 

For example, the reviewer had a big problem with the very first line: 

A man had come to visit. 

His response to this line was: 

What can this mean to someone who doesn’t know who they are, where they are, or what’s going on? We don’t yet know time of day or year, or even century. It could be a hovel or a castle. The speaker could be a crone or a child. It’s tempting to say, “Read on and you’ll find out,” but that’s not how a reader works. They have no assurance that they will find out. Perhaps you simply forgot to mention things because you already know them. You do that with lots of things in this story simply because you visualize the scene and are telling us what you see happening within it. 
(You can read the rest of this review on BC's Solomon Pierce page... I recommend that you do. The reviewer had a lot of constructive things to say and on this thread I'm focusing on something that I don't necessarily agree with...so I might not be doing him the justice that he deserves.). 

I do entirely agree with his statement. I am inclined to believe that most readers WILL 'read on and find out' if only because they are curious and know very little. Furthermore, this review suggests that EVERYTHING should be told to the reader. However, I believe that too much exposition can really drag a work down. Why should I explain where we are (whether it be a hovel or a castle)? Why not allow the readers to figure that out? 

Another writer left a comment on the review that sums up my point of view pretty well. I wouldn't do it justice if I summed it up, so I will post it below. The writer said: 

I just gotta say I don't know what Jay's problem with your opening is. It would never occur to me that you'd be leaving out details because you simply had no idea what it's like to read a book; that you're so entranced by the voice in your head that you don't notice what you're actually writing and what you're leaving out. What's more, he acts as if readers never make inferences, or as if the need to make inferences is onerous to us. Some readers actually enjoy using our imaginations to fill in what the writer leaves out!
In very few words, you manage in your opening sentences to capture a vivid mood of anxiety and the poignant ignorance of childhood; when we know something terribly important is happening in the next room, but we're still too young to put it all together. The scene is instantly recognizable to me. The details are not available to the child in such circumstances and your prose evokes such ignorance seamlessly. You capture a strong sense of foreboding without saying a word about how 
anyone feels except the cryptic "I didn't trust tall men." 
I can't imagine why a reader would want you to nail down the century or whether the scene is in a castle or a hovel--the answers to such peculiar questions are right there in the story! Your naming of "Pop" and "Gram" placed me quite easily in something resembling 20th Century America and the mention of a dining room placed the action in something not too far removed from a typical suburban home. More subtle references to light and shadow further suggest that this scene takes place at night. I'm good to go. And nicely done. I've yet to read the rest of your book, but if these initial inferences on my part are proved wrong (which I doubt), I won't hold it against you. Or lecture you on fundamentals. 

The lecturing on fundamentals annoyed me, but in the end I gave the review a thumbs up because I appreciated the reader's time and some of his criticism was helpful. Still, two other writers gave the review a thumbs down. Where do you stand? 

What amount of exposition is not/enough? Can we rely on readers to fill in the blanks, or should things be spelled out and detailed more clearly? 

PS: the first chapter of Solomon Pierce might be a poor example. Even I believe that the chapter is a bit sparse. Still, that is how I write and I'll stand behind it. What are your thoughts?


Marcie
Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2011 11:15 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 103


I haven't read your story yet, but from what I see of the comments in this post, I think the issue here is not the amount of exposition but rather the show vs tell issue. There's not enough here for me to give you a specific example for your story, so I've made one up to illustrate - If the man is tall, have the character duck into doorways rather than telling the reader that the man is tall. And try using sensory detail to ground the reader in the scene before diving into the meat of the scene.
Jonathan Face
Posted: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 6:15 AM
Joined: 5/23/2011
Posts: 5


>It’s tempting to say, “Read on and you’ll find out,” but that’s not how a reader works.

Since this is in the context of the very first sentence of your book, then I'd say that's exactly how reading works, at least for me. If I wanted to know everything instantly I'd buy the cliff notes. It's a simple line that makes the reader wonder who this man is, and why he's visiting. It's enough to make me read on, at least for awhile. Presumably, the relevant details are forthcoming?
Robert C Roman
Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2011 1:34 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383


@Michael - I'd wager I can even tell you who the reviewer is, without looking. I recognize his style. Let me go check...

Yep. Nailed it.

From what I've seen, you need to consider the source. He's a fairly harsh reviewer, and he's got a few axes to grind, but for all that he does provide some good feedback. I'd take what advice you can use and move on.

In terms of whether you've got enough exposition or not, especially in the first few pages, I'll keep it mind when I'm reading / reviewing (SP is next in my personal queue). I will say this: the reviewer in question does seem to be *very* fond of citing too little exposition, but every reviewer / agent / publisher I've seen has been death on indigestible expository lumps, especially near the beginning of the piece.

As for 'show vs tell', again there is a middle ground. Sometimes, you just need to drop a bit of knowledge on the reader, and showing isn't the right way. In a way, you might actually *lose* the 'the man was tall' part, since 'I distrusted tall men' implies the man is tall.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Saturday, May 28, 2011 10:10 PM
• It would never occur to me that you'd be leaving out details because you simply had no idea what it's like to read a book;

You’ve missed my point, I think, which is that when we tell a story from our own point of view, as ourselves, we tell what we think is important (the reader knows it’s really you, wearing a false mustache, not the character magically made real). We talk about what we visualize happening withon the scene. And because we know the setting, the motivation, and even what’s to come, we tend to forget to mention details we believe obvious.

Intent guides us, in other words. But hand our work to someone else and we, and our intent, become irrelevant.

If we’re in the character’s POV (I mean the character experiencing the events, not one thinking back and reporting memories), using their senses to notice what they think is important, we’ll include everything the character uses to understand the situation because it’s what they will base their decisions on. You, as the author, can “read the future.” The character can’t, and has to make decisions based on their interpretation of the situation. If the reader has only the same data they’re living the scene as the character is, not hearing about it from someone standing between them and that character.

The first line was: “A man had come to visit.”

You mean it in the sense of the character’s present, telling the reader the situation as the character is actively experiencing it. But that’s your intent, and intent doesn’t travel. “Had come” also means it happened in the past, and if the reader takes it that way it’s backstory—the narrator clearing his throat. Either way, it’s telling, not showing, because it’s in the POV of the narrator, not the character on the scene.

The next line tells us only that the unknown person speaking is afraid he or she is in trouble again, though we know nothing about why—or even if they think that’s bad or funny. More telling.

Why not begin your story with story, in the POV of the character experiencing the events? Won’t I know it’s a man when he’s addressed as “Mr. Archer?” Won’t I know he’s visiting by context? Wouldn’t I know where they are when the character responded to the voices he heard by easing into a place where he could hear them talking in the dining room? After all, does it matter to the plot, or the reader, if he was already upstairs or sent upstairs when the man arrived? Either way we have no clue as to who either he or the man is. He’s listening, and what matters isn’t what’s said. It’s what his words mean to the protagonist. And that you don’t tell us because the boy never speculates or reacts. We hear the words of a conversation for which we have no context and the boy never even wonders where the man wanted to move him too, or why. He’s not relieved. He’s not curious. He never asks who the man is. In short, he’s not human. He’s a plot device. But were we in his POV rather then yours…

• What's more, he acts as if readers never make inferences, or as if the need to make inferences is onerous to us. Some readers actually enjoy using our imaginations to fill in what the writer leaves out!

Ahh… in that case I have a wonderful story for you:

“The.”

Wasn’t it great? You were free to imagine anything you wanted, without limit. It’s not my work, though.

Fiction is guided discovery—a self guided trail. I can imagine my own stories, and do. But if you’re hoping to ask me to pay money I had to earn, in order to experience your story, can you reasonably blame any problems encountered on the reader? It’s a great story but the reader had a failure of imagination?

• I can't imagine why a reader would want you to nail down the century or whether the scene is in a castle or a hovel--the answers to such peculiar questions are right there in the story!

The fact that they’re eventually given does nothing to remove the confusion at the time the matter is raised, and a confused reader is one who is closing the book.

In the bookstore they pick up your work with mild curiosity, while thousands of others clamor to be read. You have an audition by an unforgiving audience. Bore them or confuse them for a single line and they’re turning to the next applicant.

Were you to overhear someone say, “I was talking to Susan last week and she said it would be okay,” you’d pay little attention. But were you one of her fans, and overhear, “I was talking to Madonna after the show last week and she said it would be okay,” it would be an entirely different matter. That would make you want to know more. In writing, context isn’t important, it’s everything.

• Your naming of "Pop" and "Gram" placed me quite easily in something resembling 20th Century America and the mention of a dining room placed the action in something not too far removed from a typical suburban home.

But it takes place in NYC. And I was born in 1937 and not one of my friends called their grandparents Pop and Gran, so it told me nothing of the kind.

You just made my point. Context is everything.

I’m not trying to start a fight, but you did ask for opinion, and now you seem upset that your wish was granted. In fact, you seem more upset at my perceived tone than what I said.

As with all writing advice: you take what makes sense. You try what you’re unsure of, look again at what you’ve seen before, and trash the rest. It might pay to read this article because it relates: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2009/09/i_will_not_read.php?page=1
Michael Guarneiri
Posted: Saturday, May 28, 2011 11:00 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 29


I'm not at all upset. As I commented after giving you the thumbs-up, I appreciate the time you spent reading the story and writing the review. Indeed, some of it I found helpful (as mentioned above). However, I don't think we see eye-to-eye on certain things, and that might be due to miscommunication. You wrote:

The first line was: “A man had come to visit.” You mean it in the sense of the character’s present, telling the reader the situation as the character is actively experiencing it.

But I do *not* mean it in the sense that the character is present, telling the reader the situation as the character is *actively experiencing* it. It is not: A man had come to visit, and I wait on the stairs. It is: A man had come to visit, and I waited on the stairs. The story is told in the past tense. Thus, I'm a bit confused about your wording: *the character is present* and *is actively experiencing*. It is in fact the opposite, as you mentioned briefly above, the character is reflecting upon the event from some unestablished time in the future. Therefore, it makes sense to me that he *can* select the details that he finds important and do away with what he deems unnecessary. That seems evident to me, as the story is told in the past-tense; though, perhaps I can make that clearer. It seems more likely that we are failing to communicate on some level.

Once again, not at all upset (though I could have done without: *I’ve often thought that books should come with a disclaimer that says, “This was performed by a trained professional on a closed course. Do not try this at home.” That’s not to say that it can’t be done without formal training, but that there’s much we must learn. Having a story is only the starting point.* - as it sounds a bit condescending and doesn't take into consideration the fact that I might have "formal training," whatever that might be), just enjoying the dialogue.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Sunday, May 29, 2011 6:33 AM
• . It is: A man had come to visit, and I waited on the stairs. The story is told in the past tense.

No, it’s not. It’s whatever the reader takes it to mean, not what you intend it to mean. You’re not there to explain, so it’s your words and what those words mean to that reader. Unless you make it impossible to misunderstand, some will, and when it happens it’s your fault, not a failure of the reader.

If you truly mean your intention was to tell the reader that at some time in the past the man arrived, you're opening you story with a trip back in time to a point before the story began. If the man's arrival is that important start the story then.

The problem is that the POV isn’t that of the character, it’s that of the narrator. It makes no difference that you claim that the narrator is some later version of the one who experienced the events, because unless it’s in the POV of the one who is in the process of experiencing—the one to whom the word “now” is meaningful, it’s a told story—the history of a fictional character as interpreted and reported by a narrator. And that narrator cannot be an active character in the story because he and the protagonist exist at a different time and place. Showing stories of your summer vacation is NOT the same as experiencing it.

We don’t know what the character is reacting to, we only know what’s being said and that he wonders if his grandmother can cry. She doesn’t wonder why she would be, and that’s more natural. We don’t know what Solomon thinks the man wanted him for, or what he thinks having to move would do to his life. He doesn’t even speculate or react to the idea that he’s lost his parents and now may lose his grandparents and all stability.

The man wants to take him away but the boy never wonders about where. The grandparents tell the men they’ll get back to him which he has to take to mean they might say yes, but he doesn’t worry, speculate or ask. I don’t know about you, but I’d certainly want to know what’s going on had someone to demanded custody of me.

You tell us he hates tall men, but give no clue as to why, or even what the effect of it is on his thinking. And because of that, for all practical purposes it’s not meaningful. After all, when he says the man is tall he could mean five-nine or six-nine. Is it more meaningful to tell me that he hates tall men, when he doesn’t act on it and it doesn’t seem related to the conversation, than to tell me he like cabbage—or hates it? From my POV, is has no brearing on the conversation, his interpretation, or his grandparent’s reaction, so why do I care if he loves or hates anything?

You’re telling a story one fact after another, as a series of events. The problem with that is that it’s an external approach. It’s plotting, so you tell us what happens, and then have to make up what comes next, rather then having the events flow from each other as they do in life.

If there’s a tap on the window you don’t go to the refrigerator, you react to it. But in your story you tell me he’s there to listen to what’s going on, but then have him looking and talking to his mother’s picture, for no reason I know of. Is mom dead? No way to tell. Mum tells us she lost a child, she doesn’t mention death, and the boy’s father isn’t mentioned. Yes, we guess that she means that the mother is dead, but it could be that mom is on vacation and the loss was her brother. Remember, we don’t know if the man was expected.

“A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he is supposed to be doing.”
-Anthony Burgess
Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Saturday, June 11, 2011 7:01 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90


"Unless you make it impossible to misunderstand, some will, and when it happens it’s your fault, not a failure of the reader."

There is no way to make a story impossible to misunderstand or even a single scene. And outside of a primary school text book, why would you want to? Whether or not that misunderstanding is the fault of the reader or the writer is beside the point. It could be either, both, or neither. Thank our minds for that fundamental aspect of communication. We make inferences. We fill in the blanks. And even when the blanks are filled for us, sometimes we disbelieve and seek a deeper meaning.

I think each author must decide for her or himself when is the best time to share specific information with the reader. Certainly a writer can suck at this, but making a rule that we have to front-load every story with what Jay Greenstein or Kevin Haggerty believe to be essential information denies the individuality of the story and the storyteller.

Also, if you're writing in a character's pov, you're not necessarily going to focus on those pieces of information that would most comfortably orient the reader to the MC's surroundings. One rarely concerns one's self with the basic facts of one's existence. It helps if the MC is a remarkably observant person, but even then, unless the voice is specifically addressing the reader as an author of a book might do, the pov will not focus on getting the reader up to speed. True, a skilled writer manages to get the necessary information across anyway. But, again, who is to say what information is necessary? When it comes down to it, the only necessary information is the information that keeps a reader interested. And readers vary enormously in that regard.

That a reader would at first mistake a domestic scene taking place in NYC for a suburban household after just two paragraphs of a novel only proves Jay's point if the reader is as obsessed with such factoids as Jay is. The moment the explicitly urban asserts itself over the merely inferred suburban, I'd simply amend my presumption and continue.

The imaginative reader makes all kinds of inferences about a text and knows perfectly well some of those inferences may be proved wrong soon enough. Unless you're Alain Robbe-Grillet, you don't want to booby-trap your story with a bunch of misleading cues, but too much focus on matters outside the thoughts and feelings of the MC can burden a work and turn readers away.

Limiting information at any point in a story can greatly increase the psychological tension in the narrative. A story that begins at a pitch of psychological tension, as Michael's does, is prone to a certain amount of tunnel-vision. Not all story's are going to begin in the kind of psychological ease that allows for lavishing the scene with a lot of expository detail.

-Kevin
 

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