Keep Out Of The Plots

However you decide to handle exposition, of whatever kind, remember: the plot is paramount. Plot is the engine drawing everything else along. If you weigh it down with too much exposition, it's going to grind to a wheezing halt.

Limit exposition to the absolute essentials. Introduce it the least conspicuous, most natural-seeming way. Keep it as short as possible in any one place. Spread it across different scenes, if you can, according to where it's actually relevant and needed. And always make sure the present, immediate story is running strongly before breaking away from it for more than a paragraph or so. Leave your plot as unencumbered as possible. Let it move.

Judging the Balances in Popular Fiction

It's a question of proportion, of balance. The stronger, simpler, and more melodramatic your plot is, the more exposition it will stand (within reason) once the plot is rolling. If there's a murder on page one, readers will wait quite a few chapters, while the detective investigates this or that possibility and interviews suspects, until the next major event. That initial murder isn't forgotten. Once you've earned readers' confidence by an economical, powerful opening, readers will trust you not to let them down. They'll have faith that the buildup wasn't for nothing: something important is going to come of that first murder and there'll be more exciting dirty work afoot in the very near future.

The more complex, strange, and actionless your story is, the more you'll need to limit, digest, and subordinate your exposition, doling it out very sparingly indeed. That's particularly true in the most exposition-prone genres: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction of all sorts. If you're working in any of these forms, you're going to need to be particularly careful not to let unsubordinated exposition bog everything down.

With Literary Fiction, You Have to Make Your Best Judgment

Literary fiction is often complex, and isn't normally characterized by slam-bang zippy melodramatic plots. Readers of literary works are a more tolerant audience in some respects than are readers of popular fiction, though they're apt to be more exacting in others. They're remarkably patient with fairly long stretches where nothing much seems to be happening, provided they like the characters, or the writing style, or something about the story enough to keep reading.

There are folk like me who like the cetology chapters in Moby Dick and the long, bizarre ruminations in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, and folk who think of War and Peace or Finnegans Wake as a pleasant evening's entertainment. (All right, a weekend, then.) Plot isn't as crucial to such readers as it is to devotees of genre or popular fiction. As will be discussed in Chapter 11, literary fiction occasionally substitutes some other kind of strong motion or contrast for plot, so there may not even be a plot to subordinate the exposition to.

If, in your story, something else is substituting for plot— juxtaposition, contrast, collage, whatever—then keep all other el ements out of its way. If it serves plot's purpose as the bones, the dynamic engine of your story, then it's that which should be the basis of your choices of what to subordinate and what to leave clear, unencumbered, and dominant. If your story is built on a nested series of flashbacks, then character and plot come second. Exposition should be no more than a distant third in your narrative priorities.

Exposition is the thing in fiction most like thought, least like action. Decide how much thought your story will support, in proportion to its dominant element, and still remain compact, direct and readable. Then write it however it seems to need to be written.

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