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The Trouble With Exposition


We’ve all suffered from it.  As both writers and readers, we’ve all had that moment when Bob struts onto the page and goes, ‘hey guys, there’s something really important you need to know now if the story is going to make any sense….’

It’s a difficult thing to get right.  Boring But Important is a fair summary – in the same way it’s vital to understand capitalism and communism if you’re going to get the Cold War, but no one has fun learning it.  Down the years writers have come up with varying tools for making exposition exciting and accessible – and as anyone who’s read my books will know, I tend to just say, screw the exposition and start with a bang, and hope that everyone will pick up the theme as they go along.

Different writers, and indeed genres, have different ways of getting vital information out there.  Star Trek coined a nifty device back in the 1960s with the invention of the all-purpose scanner.  Spock would look into a screen and announce, ‘it would appear, captain, that we are in orbit above a planet that strangely resembles 1960s California with some extra rocks, inhabited by bipedal creatures who breathe 80% oxygen but also have strange mating rituals and a tendency towards shirtless knife duels.  Shall we beam down for a closer look?’  And thus, in less than 30 seconds, you’d have the plot.

Fantasy has been known to rely quite heavily on the prophecy.  Turn to page one and you can feel fairly reassured by a bit of text that reads something like:

In the dark west, land of the orcs, an evil is rising.  After ten thousand years of dormance, the dark lord is coming back to the world in fire and blood.  Only a hero of the chosen blood can resist.  But the chosen blood faded years ago, and now only a few who know the secrets of the lost dragons will be able to stop the coming evil…

If it rhymes, better yet!  And if you’re a little worried about this, don’t knock it – Shakespeare was using prologues to both explain the political situation at the top of his more complex plays, and occasionally to apologise for the lack of extras in his cast.  (‘Think when we talk of horses, that you see them!’)  He also introduces another helpful trick – start with a bang, get the hearts racing and then explain everything.  Witness Hamlet, where we start with a visitation by a ghost and only after the lights have come back on and everyone’s paused for a fag does someone turn round and go ‘so what the bloody hell was that?’

Then there’s doing exposition, quite literally, running.  24 is a prime example of this – a TV show where the twists and turns of the plot, and how twisty and turny the plots can be, are delivered, ideally, over a mobile phone, to a man in a car, in a hurry.  If the car is being chased, all the better.  It’s one of those few bits of TV where all exposition begins with ‘Jack, I don’t have time to explain, but….’ and you just know that in less than ten minutes someone involved in the information you’ve just heard, will be dead.

There’s crime drama exposition, usually summarised as the ‘gee Sherlock’ moment.  Sherlock has waltzed across the crime scene, he’s examined footprints and puffed a little on the pipe and finally announced, to everyone’s shock, that it was the cousin of the housekeeper who dunnit because of his time spent on a convict ship off Portsmouth.  ‘Gee, Sherlock!’ cries Dr Watson, ‘how on earth can you be sure?’  ‘Well,’ says our great detective; and the rest, as they say, is ellipsis…

Dr Who, interestingly, fuses both ‘gee Sherlock’ and ‘it would appear, captain’ qualities.  The Doctor’s assistants are obliged to spend a reasonable amount of time going ‘nope, still don’t get it’ thus forcing the Doctor to explain, hopefully with gestures, how the mating cycle of the great Vrall Beatles of the Nether Moons obliges them to feast on the nightmares of slumbering children, at which a cry goes up of ‘ah, I see!  So they were responsible and that’s why you’ve got a new ironing board!’  At the same time, the Doctor increasingly will spend a lot of time pointing his screwdriver at stuff, glancing at a microscopic readout and proclaiming, ‘good grief, it would appear that this object is in fact going to prove important in the following way…’

There are also certain bits of information we can excuse and forgive.  Medical dramas are a great example of this.  Three, usually beautiful and dentally well maintained doctors will strut on screen and have the following conversation:

“The scan came back negative?”

“Did you run the PCP?”

“Yeah, I ran the PCP, and saw increased levels of dioproxilathermol.”

“That could be significant, but we need a CT to confirm.”

“Already booked, but he can’t take it until the PH940 has cleared the system.”

“Oh my god, so we’re out of time?”

“That’s what I’m saying – we’re out of time.”

Thus, the useful and necessary information is received, but in such a manner as to leave 98% of the population, popcorn half way to mouth, staring at the screen with a cry of ‘what’?  But we accept it!  We accept orcs in the west, CT scans in the east, planets below and screwdrivers above, because at the end of the day, the vital, heart-pounding information on which it all depends has been imparted and because, basically, we all understand that what matters is not the surrounding circumstances, but what the people we’re cheering for do within them.  It’s a trap science fiction writers always struggle with.  Do you attempt to explain the principals of time dilation in near-light speed interstellar travel, or do you merely have a character turn round and say ‘I was twenty two years old, and my family had been dead for three hundred and ninety years’ and just hope people go with it?  Many different writers have called it many different ways, and it continues to be one of the trickiest bits of craft for any scribbler to master…