Monday, April 07, 2008

Explaining the Setup

"Sparrowhawk, if ever your way lies East, come to me. And if you ever need me, send for me, call on me by my name: Estarriol."

At that Ged lifted his scarred face, meeting his friend's eyes.

"Estarriol," he said, "my name is Ged."
Naming is a big thing in Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. Not only is it wrapped up in the themes - to know the name of something is to have power over it - but over the first 70 pages that lead up to this extract the reader has a good understanding of that names have a special place in this world.

We have had a great setup with Le Guin clearly developing the nuances of names, so when we reach this part, and we get the explanation (info dump if you will). It is a big tell that follows:

Then quietly they bade each other farewell and Vetch turned and went down the stone hallway, and left Roke.

Ged stood still a while, like one who has received great news, and must enlarge his spirit to receive it. It was a great gift that Vetch had given him, the knowledge of his true name. No one knows a man's true name but himself and his namer. He may choose at length to tell it to his brother, or his wife, or his friend, yet even those few will never use it where any third person may hear it. In front of other people they will, like other people, call him by his use-name, his nickname - such a name as Sparrowhawk, and Vetch, and Ogion which means 'fir-cone'. If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man's name, holds that man's life in his keeping. Thus to Ged who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given that gift only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakeable trust.
but then, how else do you set that out clearly? Would we have understood the meaning to Ged without it having been stated here?

This also raises a point about the difference between Show and Tell... what we have with the old S&T debate is that writers must show, in order to maintain reader interest - integrated descriptions of action, emotion, characters and setup that weave together.

The character was angry... is a tell.
The character threw down his ale an unsheathed his sword... is a show.

With exposition there is only so much showing that can be done. It's essentially an info dump and in order for the reader to understand fully what they are being told, the writer cannot flourish with a show. They must tell.


solv said...

Perhaps worth bearing in mind that genres have their own S&T expectations. Perhaps by their nature, SF and Fantasy fans expect, and even revel in, told exposition (although I'd assume that even these fans have a threshold).
I believe that good planning can help prepare for the delivery of exposition. If you plan a mugging early on, you can show how the protag reacts when the mugger tries to take his cash - the cash that he is taking to the bank - the cash that he is saving for his son's education/new kidney. Protag risks his life and/or pleads. There'll also be scenes early on in which protag finishes working his day shift and then goes straight onto his night shift, and he'll endure all manner of bullying from his bosses. He'll scrimp and save, so he'll have few creature comforts in his shabby flat in a dodgy part of the city. All of these scenes double as shows that reveal the protag's motivation and, through pressurized choices, his character. And all visible through a bit of forward planning!

R1X said...

Ack! Which brings me back to the problem of the last two weeks - am I starting in the right place?

solv said...

I think it can be very misleading studying SFF for techniques on exposition, simply because the genre expectations are rather singular.
The problem that you, me and Esy, and I imagine every writer, has is that of delivering info and creating mood without stopping to a standstill every time.
If we can incorporate exposition into the meaty stuff, the problem vanishes. And we can do this using shows.
In the first instance, if you haven't got all those dynamic scenes of love and heartbreak and vengeance and regret in place, then nothing else really matters; you probably have nothing worthy of a reader's attention.
So, assuming you have got all those elements in place, look for places to reveal information. This, I'm learning, is an artform! Saw a brilliant show in 'Catch Me if You Can'. Frank uses transfers from a model plane kit to forge a cheque. Later, we see a bathtub filled with model planes, showing that Frank has really gotten into this cheque-forging business.
Don't feel under pressure to dump everything early on or in one fell swoop. Remember to develop stuff as you progress, so that you clear up a little mystery here whilst having another one pottering along.
Beyond that, I'm as lost as anyone I'm afraid.

esruel said...

Maybe all it needs is a little patience. Telling your story must take precedence over telling why it exists. Only at the points where telling the story would become meaningless should you consider injecting a little exposition.
I've always tried to consider the possibilities before tying myself down to a certain way. I've had my worst moments following a bout of impatience. My second chapter is a result of impatience, and I paid for it.
One may even consider writing down the 'whys' and putting them to one side, separate to the writing itself. Then write, drawing on the whys as you go, adding to them, too, as you discover more. But don't get too hung up on it all - enjoy what you are doing and help the reader enjoy it. Exposition is a technicality that will kill you if you think about it too much. So don't!