Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Writing and dreading exposition

One of the aspects of writing that I really dread is 'exposition'. Yes, I do know exposition is very important to a story or play because it establishes bits of information the audience needs to know and/or understand who's who and what's what.
I have read and heard very bad deployment of exposition in plays and stories, sentences such as:

Beatrice: "Oh! Look! Here comes Uncle Henry up the pathway. Uncle Henry of whom the family rarely speaks about since he drinks too much and lost his fortune at the race track. He appears to be limping also. It must be that old war wound he received long ago when he saved his entire platoon during his time France."

For the sake of the story, we now know critical information about Uncle Henry. Details that will hopefully, move the plot along as well as define this "Henry" character.
But in terms of this exposition sounding like a natural sentence or something you would hear spoken in everyday conversation, not so much. It pretty much screams out "Oh! Look! Here comes some very awkward exposition up the pathway!"
So, how do you avoid it? How do you make it sound a little more natural?
One trick (or cheat) I employ to establish exposition and make it sound a tad more natural is to use an "outsider", or someone who doesn't know much about the other characters. For example, in this scene about Uncle Henry, I would have someone in the scene with Beatrice, perhaps a new neighbor or someone "outside" of the loop of information. That way, Beatrice can deliver the same information in a conversational manner. Such as:

BEATRICE: Oh No! Here comes Henry.
OUTSIDER: Why do you say "Oh No"?
BEATRICE: Because, my dear Uncle Henry is a bit of a problem.
OUTSIDER: A bit of a problem? Why?
BEATRICE: Well, he drinks for one thing.
OUTSIDER: Ah! I see. And?
BEATRICE: And he always wants to borrows money. Money that he just blows at the racetrack. In fact he's blown his whole fortune at the track.
OUTSIDER: That's a shame.
BEATRICE: What's really a shame is that he was a War Hero! Saved his whole platoon over in France and got injured in the process. Shrapnel in his leg. Received the Purple Heart. And now, look what has become of him. A limping, broke old drunk.

In this scene, the same exposition about Uncle Henry was established but sounded a bit more natural. I picked up this outsider "trick" many years ago when I was a fan of the old "Doctor Who" series. (the original Doctor Who that aired in the States on PBS, not the New Doctor on SyFy)
Anyway, the character of the Doctor, who was immensely intelligent, was always paired with a somewhat less intelligent companion. The main idea behind this pairing was to a way to introduce exposition in a natural manner. When the Doctor would ramble off scientific jargon or figure out some complex plot point, the (outsider) companion would simply ask, "What does that mean Doctor?" or "How did you figure that out Doctor?".

This is also very similar to the plot vehicle Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used in Sherlock Holmes. The character of Dr. Watson was outside the loop of Sherlock Holmes' deductive reasoning. Watson would ask questions of Holmes and the answers were simply points of exposition. In essence, this "outsider" is essentially a representative of the audience. Their role is ask questions out loud of the characters so that we might understand. It's a great tool for writers and helps everything flow in a natural way.

More exposition cheats, coming soon.
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