August 8, 2014
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Exposition (Fiction 4)

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana's that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. — Raymond Chandler, Red Wind

Exposition is a problem for fantastika – the literature of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, the literature of the unfamiliar world.

You start, say, with a terrifically tense scene in which the ship’s engineer discovers that something is terribly wrong. This is exciting stuff, and it establishes the ship, the engineer, and other crew members who are all engaged in a desperate effort to save the ship. And then, we stop: everything comes to a standstill while we explain to the reader how spaceships work and why the cracked dilithium crystals are such a big deal. The engineer knows this. Everyone knows this. But the reader doesn’t know this, and somehow we need to stop and have a kindergarten lesson on space travel.

The same thing happens in horror and fantasy, even when the underlying elements are familiar. Everyone knows what a vampire is, but any specific vampire story has to establish which of the traditional ground rules apply and which do not.

This is not an obstacle we cannot overcome. Dr. Watson was born to do this. So was Gandalf. We can do surprising things by just skipping the exposition; O’Brian’s wonderful Aubrey-Maturin stories show that we don’t even need to be intelligible to get the point across. We need not be clumsy, but we need to take care.

Exposition is also a problem for new media. Interactive Fiction, strictly defined, often seems entirely given over to exposition: you go North, and the system tells you where you are and where you can go next. You move again, and the system tells you what you see next. The cutscenes of games often think they are providing narrative excitement but in practice they may simply be tedious expository episodes, reciting the names and backstories of each character in order to make their cardboard slightly less flimsy.

There’s a lot of direct address in classing hypertext fiction, too; it’s not always exposition, but all that intertextual guidance to the reader has a similar effect. Most of the hyperfiction crowd saw the problem and addressed it with some skill; lots of game creators, approaching the work in different terms and not always accustomed to wrestling with the problem in writing workshops and also often appealing to TV conventions where exposition can be useful before or after an ad break, indulged exposition more directly.

I’ve been writing to half the world, it seems, to inquire about good writing on exposition and electronic or interactive media. But the world, thus far, has come up fairly empty. Surely there is good discussion of the problem and its solutions!

If you know where to look, please Email me.