Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Exposition

Those of you who read my earlier post entitled "On Narrative Structure" will hopefully remember that a story is divided, in its simplest form, into five parts: exposition (also known as introduction), rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Each of these five parts is vital to the story. It is almost impossible to find any kind of narrative which eschews one of them and doesn't leave the audience feeling unsatisfied.

This particular post, however, is about a specific one of those five parts: the exposition. Specifically, it's about how to provide your reader with the necessary exposition to allow them to get into the story without boring them.

So. Let's begin.

Firstly, it's important to remember that the ultimate goal of any piece of fiction is to entertain. A writer knows that they have failed when the audience decides to put their book down and walk away to find something more interesting. You can do it by scaring them, you can do it by making them laugh, you can do it by making them cry, but you have to hold the audience's interest.

More than that, you have to hold your audience's interest throughout the entire story. This includes the introduction. The purpose of the introduction is to lay the groundwork for everything to come, yes, but this isn't an excuse for a boring introduction. In fact, a boring introduction just leaves the audience begging for you to skip over it and get on with the more interesting things.

For this reason, the introduction to a story is usually short and sweet. But short and sweet also doesn't have to mean boring (are you sensing a pattern in what I'm saying?).

The purpose of the introduction is to establish the following things:

  • The protagonist, including the basics of their character and their driving goal for the story.
  • The antagonist, who will be opposing the protagonist's attempts to reach their goal.
  • The setting, which is where the conflict will take place.
  • The mood, which will influence the rest of the story.
  • The inciting incident, which marks the beginning of the story's rising action.
This is all that the introduction needs to do to get the story moving. You can have other things happen here - the most common addition is the introduction of the most important supporting cast members - but these are the only necessary components to the introduction. Establishing these five things will allow you to begin writing the parts of the story that people actually care about.

It doesn't take long to establish these things, either. The introduction is commonly one of the shortest parts of any narrative, because, by definition, the conflict does not progress while the introduction is taking place. Any actual advancement of the story is not part of the introduction, but of the rising action or one of the later parts. This means that the introduction should be short, sweet, and to the point: set up the rest of the story, but don't mess around, because you'll bore the audience if you take too long to do so.

So how long is too long? Well, for that, we go back to another principle of writing: the law of conservation of detail. The introduction of a story has nothing happening in it. It only exists to set up the stuff that people will need to know in order for what follows to have any meaning. How long do you need to set up your protagonist, antagonist, setting, and central conflict without rushing? Take exactly that much time, and no more. Otherwise, you'll bore the audience.

As an example, let's look at one of the greatest horror movies of all time: John Carpenter's The Thing.

The Thing opens by showing us a helicopter flying above Antarctica, with one of the two people inside hanging out of one door and shooting at a dog running across the snow below. The dog runs into a nearby American research station, and the helicopter - and its two passengers - die. As they spoke only Norwegian, they were unable to tell the Americans why they were so determined to kill the dog. The crew of the station travels to the Norwegian installation and discovers a twisted, mutated, horribly-burned monster along with the corpses of the Norwegian crew. The movie then moves into its rising action with the titular Thing - the dog - revealing its true form and attacking the other dogs.

This gives us our protagonists (the crew of the American station), the antagonist (the monster that slaughtered the Norwegians), the setting (an Antarctic research station), and the central conflict (the shapeshifting monster trying to kill the crew), with the Thing's initial transformation acting as the story's inciting incident. It doesn't take any more time than necessary to do so, either; it's an extremely clean method of introducing us to the story.

That's how you do an introduction. Take only as much time as you need to establish the important facts of the story. Don't waste time with pointless padding about what your characters' favorite colors and foods are. Think about what your audience would actually be interested in seeing. If they aren't interested in reading about something, don't write it. Just get the groundwork laid out and start telling your story.

It's especially tempting to violate this when writing a story in blog format. The point of a blog, after all, is to be an online journal, and many works of fiction written in blog format attempt to act as though they really are online journals kept by the main characters. This leads to a temptation to begin the blog with a series of pointless posts that tell us about the narrator's musical interests and the like.

Do not do this.

Really. Don't. How important is it that you establish that your protagonist is a fan of Band X but despises Band Y? Who cares? Remember, the introduction shouldn't be boring, either, so you shouldn't fill it with things that no one cares about. Tell us what we need to know to set up the story, then move on. Even if you are trying to make it look like it's a real blog (which is entirely pointless, because we all know it's fiction and so the audience is incredibly bored while waiting for the story to show up), you don't have to make your introduction boring.

As much as I hate to just toot my own horn in one of these posts, my blog Call The Schoolmaster provides an example of how you can set up a blog which, at least at first, looks like it isn't going to be fiction without giving your readers pointless exposition about things they don't care about. The first three posts set up that Pink is lonely, a fan of The Wall, stubbornly optimistic, and abused. It tells us that Pink lives in a town where no one is willing to talk to them, due to it being a strictly Catholic community and Pink being an atheist. It tells us that Pink is trying to find a little bit of human contact. And it shows us The Cold Boy, even though Pink doesn't know it. And it ends with "Another Brick In The Wall, Part One", the story's inciting incident, wherein Pink refuses to go home on their fourteenth birthday.

Even if you're trying to make your blog look like a more "conventional" one, with a protagonist writing a "normal" blog with no idea of what's about to happen to them, you don't have to drag out the introduction, and you can use it to set up the story that is to come. Jordan Eats Normally Now is an example of one blog that does this well, once its author decided to actually include a story. It establishes Jordan as a fan of progressive rock and a reader of other prog blogs (plogs?), then uses that as a springboard for him launching his investigation.

But, in the majority of cases, this doesn't work. People don't care about your protagonist's day-to-day life. Odds are, their life isn't too different from your readers'. Why should your readers read your blog if all you're going to do is tell them the same thing that they hear all day?

Ultimately, it comes down to a choice between immersion and storytelling. You can either sacrifice your story's narrative integrity for a tiny amount of "realism", or you can tell a story that moves at a nice pace, doesn't bore your reader, and isn't drowning in boring details that no one cares about.

Personally, I choose the latter.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with most of what you talked about here, especially the bit about immersion vs storytelling. I think what ruined the Slenderverse for me is that people became so focused on immersion and crossovers that they lost sight of the storytelling aspect.