Why Explain

You may be asking, reasonably enough, if exposition is so dull, why not stick to scenes? Well, you can, if you want to and your story will allow it. A good many short stories are one single scene with no more than a phrase or two of exposition or description in any one place. Hemingway's stories are almost all sparse like that. Some novels, like Jack Shaefer's classic western Shane, can be all present-time, all surface, and yet be powerful in a stark kind of way.

But doing without exposition can be a problem too. Not all writers want to sound like Hemingway, and not all stories can be limited to immediate, direct action with no past, no context, no overview.

Scenes are, of their nature, close-focus. Having nothing but scenes would be like a movie all in close-up, with no establishing shots, no panning across the landscape to reveal eventual figures far away. That can feel pretty claustrophobic and nearsighted, after awhile.

Well-handled exposition gives perspective, dimension, and needed context that help events in the foreground make sense. Watching only scenes, in long or complex fiction, would be like trying to follow a baseball game through the wrong end of the binoculars. You'd have a lot of motion, all right—but the larger motions of the game would be extremely hard to follow.

In fiction, doing completely without explanations would mean you couldn't describe a person or place for more than a phrase or two. You couldn't skip over periods of time when nothing of importance is happening, not without ajarring break in the narrative. You couldn't take a confusing, close-focus series of events, draw back, and give the reader an overview of what it all means. You couldn't tell about any of the characters' background or previous experience.

Worst of all, maybe, you'd find it very hard to begin in médias res, in the middle of things—you couldn't pull back after the initial scene and say how things got that way. That would be a real handicap.

Even scenes, wonderful scenes, have their trade-offs, their problems that require compensation. Even high drama needs relief and context and overview. And that's the specialjob nothing can supply but the more distant, less immediate, more thoughtful kind of storytelling: exposition.

So in practice, fiction is a balance between scene and expla nation—70%/30% or maybe even 80%/20%.

There may not be much explanation, but nothing else can do its work so economically or so well.

There also is nothing else that can kill a story quicker than explanation taking over, exposition badly handled.

Like viewpoint shifts, it needs to be treated with utmost respect, care, and narrative craft.

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