Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dropping Expository Nuggets

One of my favorite things about American Gods by Neil Gaiman is that for about the first six to eight chapters, every chapter would include some bit of information that radically recontextualized the relationship between the main character and his wife, without any of it invalidating what came before it. It's a joy to read, so I'm not going to spoil the specific steps, but I wanted to point it out because at no point does it feel like information is being willfully withheld, which is a terrible problem with a lot of the early fiction I see writers putting out.

I think what really kills it for us is movies and television. We're used to the idea that you can show a person in a scene without context, and because a picture is worth a thousand words, you're able to at least get a grip on what's going on, because film is as visual as the observation you've trained yourself to do all your life. Dropping a voice over in on top of it telling you who the person is and why they're doing whatever they're doing generally feels like cheating, and knocks you out of the moment (which can be done to great comic effect- often the film is stopped so the narrator can drag you out of the moment to somewhere else. There's also the genre conventions of film noire, which come from potboiler detective novels anyway).

I've seen an awful lot of starting writers put out opening scenes in which something is moving and some undefined someone is hearing it and it makes him think of that one really important memory that he's not going to think about right now, just like that one, tragic time that's too much for him to think about.

The thing is, when you do this in writing, it's obnoxious. It works in the movies because a picture really is worth a thousand words, and a really good actor can convey with face and posture things it would take paragraphs to get across. Generally, your reader doesn't have the benefit of Kenneth Branagh making faces at them, and they're not willing to sit through you objectively describing all of the facets of a character's appearance, dress, mannerisms, wardrobe, and setting.

I think either way, the trick is context and giving as much factual and true information as you can, like little pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, without laying out their relation to each other. And ideally, laying them out in such a way that you can, if you want, make each new bit of information a zig zag or a reversal away from the expectations set up from the previous.

Fred and June curl up on Fred's couch and kiss, and he opens a bottle of champagne between them. He gives her the necklace his grandmother brought over from the old world, the last thing he has of his family, all dead now. He tells her how much he loves her, and she replies that she loves him so much more than she loves her husband. He pours her each of them a glass and they clink them together and laugh in a way that borders on desperate and hysterical. Then they fill another glass and he tells her he's glad he went to those AA meetings, because he met her there, but now they're never going back. She lays her head on his chest and tells him she's happy, then turns her face so he can't see her cry. 

(The fun thing about this is you can reverse the sentences here, and it still works pretty well. There's a decent tension either way, but reversed, rather than building toward a more factually informed but alienated picture, it fills out from a place of aloneness to a weird sort of comfort and acceptance.)

There's so much information you can give in text that isn't possible in a visual medium, and vice versa. In a movie, it would be impossible to establish the history of the necklace, for example, without dialogue or some really avant garde editing. It can't give us June's reasons for turning her head.

Text on the other hand, can't really give us the subtleties. There's a thousand tiny nonverbal cues we have to tell if people are happy, or sad, or lying. In text we're stuck making heavy handed judgements about it from the perspective of whoever your point of view character is. We can't light the scene or play with colors. We can only evoke the senses- we can't make direct use of even a single one.

Too often I think we try to be coy by leaving out things that it's only fair the reader know, and we get this idea that we're being dynamic and mysterious. But we're really not. It's like taking the cane away from our blind nemesis and then taunting them about how they don't have a cane.

When what you really want to do is take their hand and lead them down a path they are familiar with, telling them always where they are, and remarking on the sounds and smells they might expect, all the while putting them just far enough off course that they don't notice that you're walking them to the edge of a terrible cliff.

Your job is to surprise the reader, but to make them walk all the way to that surprise by themselves and think they know where they're going.

Anyway, have a lovely night.

And do mind that first step. It's a little treacherous. 

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