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Handling the Exposition

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Creed, Aug 17, 2013.

  1. Daichungak

    Daichungak Minstrel

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    When is the last time you heard someone say, “I love this book, it is so standard!” or “I would have liked that book more, had it been more standard.” Never let yourself forget that writing is, before it is anything else, ART. Standard practice is a fickle trend, good art can last forever.

    Don’t let the norm dictate your style, if it works, it works. No one ever succeeded because they were the Most Standard.
     
  2. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    In my industry, we have standards and practice. If you're going to call yourself a professional, it's required that you follow them.

    Like it or not, there are standards and practice in the writing industry. They're admittedly less rigid than in construction, but they do exist. If you want to be a professional writer, you need to know what those standards are.

    I have no issue with an author making a conscious decision to write contrary to a rule. I have a major problem with those who don't care enough to learn.
     
  3. Daichungak

    Daichungak Minstrel

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    How would you know why a writer is breaking a rule unless they told you? I cant speak for the rest of the forum, obviously, but right now I am more of an aspiring author than professional author.

    And again, writing is ART. There are no rules in art beyond creating something people like.
     
  4. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    I feel like I need to bold this:

    beyond creating something people like

    I'll make a separate thread about this if we stray too far afield, but the short version is that most of the "rules" of writing exist because someone, somewhere read a book that "broke the rules" and realized, "This is boring!" or "This is repetitive!" or "This is hard to understand!" If you can avoid boring, repetitive, hard to understand, etc., there's no problem with "breaking the rules," but that doesn't mean I'm going to finish reading your story if it's too tedious to get through.

    To return to the topic at hand, the most pertinent issue with the standard "infodump" is "boring," whereas the threat the infodump is intended to avoid is "hard to understand." I personally try to hone this to a razor's edge, consulting with beta readers to determine exactly how little I can explain while still retaining reader comprehension. This is relatively extreme, though--the more common approach is to lean towards dumping, since lack of comprehension can create a problem throughout the story, whereas boredom is just a problem for a little while.

    (On the subject of the giant dumps that initially got this tangent started, I'd like to note that skip.nox mentioned realistic fiction and hard science fiction, both of which by definition rely on information about real things. I don't know about the general reader, but I have more patience when I'm learning something factual than when I'm being told the details of an entirely fictional magic system--it feels more relevant.)
     
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  5. Creed

    Creed Sage

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    I know I'm backtracking but I just realised a very nice piece of explanation (though not of something with details like a magic system) in Game of Thrones, from A Storm of Swords (and also A Clash of Kings).
    The Rains of Castomere is a nice little song about the ruthlessness of Lannisters and in the TV show Cercei explains the story to Margaery. The use of storytelling there and song work well as exposition.
    Not that I'm saying a song could really explain how Allomancy works, or the Anogogics of the Three Seas. I just remembered it and thought "Oh, that's fun."
     
  6. Lord Ben

    Lord Ben Minstrel

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    Speaking as a reader, even spoon fed isn't bad if handled correctly. The opening chapter of Hobbit had me hooked right from the start but it was pretty much just to get you thinking that furry footed people lived in comfortable holes in the ground. But it's charmingly written and necessary, it's not "Ages ago Krom'ol'an'gorah'ak created the world of Namralazthagor for the benefits of his servants the Talumus. Have I ever told you about the Talumus? Well, they're <3 pages>, and that about sums it up." Then 4 pages later we see a Talumus.

    So I say bring them on as long as it's interesting info. To use another example from The Hobbit he had all the chapters and chapters of Middle Earth lore in the appendix and the fun info dumps in the book itself. The appendix is very underused currently IMHO.
     
  7. The Dark One

    The Dark One Auror

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    I like the way your mind works Feo, you make many fine points.

    As others have said, info dump is only a problem if it's unnecessary. Sometimes it simply is necessary, especially when the story has jumped forward in time. Some devices I've used to disguise it are: newspaper reports (even had a url referred to in a newspaper report in my first book, and if the reader looked up that url they found a short film of an incident referred to in the book); the archived reports of undercover agents; diary entries and even poems.

    If you get creative, the readers don't even notice they're being dumped on.
     
  8. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Here's what I've noticed about forums like this one: it's populated mainly by aspiring authors rather than by people making a living in the industry. There's nothing wrong with that; I fall into the same category.

    However, the message I hear repeated over and over again on forums like this one is that "rules don't matter" and "writing is ART."

    In contrast, go to any source written by people actually making their living by editing and publishing books. They, almost universally say, to even be considered for publication, your book needs to meet minimum standards of quality.

    Since my goal is to one day become a professional, I try to follow what I see the vast majority of the people who are making a living from it say.
     
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    A "standard of quality" isn't the same thing as following a set of technical standards, or following certain stylistic standards, and so on. This is empirically provable by browsing through the bookstore and looking at the diverse range of books on the shelves.

    Further, the people making a living in writing don't present a uniform front on the subject of how to write or what constituted good writing.

    And I think you would admit, BWFoster, that you don't always follow that route. For example, the negative feeling toward italics for thoughts is something that crops up quite a bit, and is something a lot of professional writers have argued against (often citing the fact that the CMS doesn't call for it). Many readers don't like it either. So, on par, if you look at it as a pure cost/benefit analysis, it doesn't make sense to do it, because while I've never heard of anyone being put off by the lack of them, a certain segment of the population appears to have a strong negative reaction to them. But you include them anyway, and that's an example of a stylistic choice that goes against the conventional wisdom.

    You can name just about any so-called 'rule' of writing you like, and I can provide you with an example of a successful work of fiction that doesn't follow it, probably from my own shelf of books. The main exception to that would be a rule against boring the reader :)
     
  10. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    If you read anything written by people who edit for a living, their advice is remarkably consistent and includes plenty of details on what to do and what not to do.

    As I've stated before, the practice is common in the epic fantasy genre. In other genres, such as YA, it's not so accepted. In my epic fantasy novel, I'm using italics. In my YA, I'm not. Not saying that I don't sometimes break the rules, but I'm not seeing how this example is a good one of such.

    Also, I've been remarkably consistent, in my view, of saying, it's okay to break a rule if you understand the consequences of doing so and feel the benefit outweighs the cost. I feel that any editor would tell you the same.

    An example of me breaking a rule:

    I want to achieve a deep POV with my writing because I feel it accomplishes my primary goal of making my writing more engaging. Not infodumping helps me achieve a deep POV.

    In the first chapter of Power of the Mages, I write:

    "At seventeen" is an infodump. There is no story reason for Xan to be thinking of himself as seventeen. However, I feel it is important for the reader to know this information, and I think the benefit of telling the reader the information in a quick, straightforward way outweighs the slight break in POV.

    And I'd counter with the fact that an established author can get by with anything they like. That doesn't make what they do an example to be followed.

    Writing is tough. The modern marketplace is freaking tough. You need every advantage you can get.
     
  11. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    And then I'll show you first novels by unestablished writers that break all the rules.

    The truth is, you can do whatever you like so long as you do it effectively. You're right, the marketplace is tough, and so there is a certain allure or comfort in the idea that if you just follow a formula you'll be doing it right and be successful. Unfortunately, that's not true, and I don't agree with deceiving new writers by telling them such things.
     
  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I have not said, and do not advocate, that "if you follow this formula, you will succeed." What I say is that the rules are there for a reason. They've been established by people who know what they're doing and were established as examples of how best to craft your work so that you can become successful.

    An intelligent man learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others.

    Following the rules is simply a wise idea.

    No matter how much you follow the rules, however, it does not guarantee success. If I knew what guaranteed success, I wouldn't be on this forum right now; I'd be out accomplishing success.

    As for what I don't agree with:

    I think that telling aspiring authors that they can do whatever they like without any consideration of what experts say is atrocious advice that I feel is much more damaging to someone trying to start a career than is the advice of "start off by understanding the rules."

    If an author wants their work to be engaging, they quickest way to achieve that is to:

    Be clear
    Show more than tell
    Include plenty of tension

    Perhaps some writer in some book somewhere once achieved engagement by a lot of tensionless telling and incomprehensible description, but I wouldn't want to try to accomplish it. I think most aspiring authors would give up well before they achieved it.
     
  13. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think the problem is that you're misreading the advice of the editors and authors who give out these 'rules.' For example, I think you've read Noah Lukeman, who provides any number of such rules in his book on writing that I read. However, Lukeman himself says to be leery of anyone who offers up rules as absolutes.

    The rules that are handed out are really guidelines for what a given person thinks leads, in general, to a stronger story. They are particularly useful for new writers, because they address common problems that weaken the writing of new writers.

    They aren't intended to be absolutes, and in fact they shouldn't be absolutes. Treating them as such is detrimental to the writer and to the craft as a whole.

    It seems to me that when people present 'rules' on writing forums and characterize them properly as guidelines, you don't see much strong reaction against it. When people take those same guidelines and state them as absolute, inviolate rules, then you see a reaction against them as well you should.

    The statement made above that ultimately the only thing matters is what works is self-evident, in my view. It's such a basic, fundamental, and obvious idea that I don't see how anyone can argue against it.
     
  14. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Maybe you're misreading me or I've done an atrocious job of making my point. I don't see the rules as an absolute as much as the starting point.

    Following the rules is much less important than understanding the rules.

    Breaking the rules without understanding them is what I find to be a super inefficient process.

    Exactly!

    New writers share a lot of common problems that the rules fix. In the vast majority of cases, new writers would be much better off simply learning the rule and following it.

    That message gets lost on these boards because you have the following exchange:

    A couple of more experienced amateurs (MEA): I think you should handle it this way. No, I think this way is better. Perhaps try this way.
    Newb: Just do whatever you want.
    MEA: Newb, this is the rule. You should do it.
    Newb: Writing is art.
    MEA: Rules are important.
    Others: Don't stress rules.

    In my view, simply telling the newbie to follow the freaking rule is the most efficient, fastest path for him to get better. I struggled for a decade trying to figure it out on my own. After a couple of writing group meetings where I was told, "Follow the rules," my writing increased exponentially in quality in a relatively tiny amount of time.

    Start with the rule. Use it. Study it. Understand why it's used, what it accomplishes, and what the consequences are of not using it.

    Once you've got it down, experiment. See what happens when you don't use it.

    You'll get much better, much faster that way.

    When someone says "writing is ART; no technique is needed," I feel it is entirely appropriate to tell them in no uncertain terms that they're hurting themselves by not following the rules.
     
  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Brian:

    I don't think I disagree with anything you just wrote, above, except that I think even when dealing with a new writer it is important to be clear on why the rules are there and that they can be broken if you want to (and I agree completely that understanding them is the most important thing; if you understand them and break them consciously, you're much more likely to end up with writing that works than you are if you break them out of ignorance or inexperience).

    I wouldn't say someone is hurting themselves by not following the rules (outside of a specific critique of their work), because that to me sounds like an absolute statement again - follow the rules or your writing will be worse. What I'd tell them is that the rules provide good guidelines in general, and when they are starting out they are likely to hurt themselves more than help themselves by not following them.

    The reason I can't go all-out with the "you're hurting yourself if you don't follow them" comes from reading plenty of novels, including first novels, that don't follow them at all and are great.

    In reality we're not very far apart in thinking, but maybe it is more of an issue of semantics. I'm reading your posts a certain way, and it may well differ from your intent, and vice versa.
     
  16. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    True enough.

    I also think that we're both motivated by the same thing: to help aspiring authors in the best way possible. I would not be where I am now without a lot of help.
     
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  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Same here. Can't argue with that (and if there is a way to argue with something, I usually find it :D).
     
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  18. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    That's why artists take drawing classes, and pottery classes, and watercolor classes. To gain better technique that will improve their art making. Same applies to writing.

    I think rules can bog down people, but its important to remember that they're mostly there for structure. Can't build the house without a good foundation.
     
  19. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Sorry for adding this in late to the conversation, but it took me a while to put it together. I saw a mention on another site of how great the exposition in The Matrix is, and that got me thinking: Morpheus's whole speech about humans used as batteries is pretty much straight infodump. It works because the viewer needs some explanation, any explanation, after the horrific image of all those people trapped in those pods. It's probably risky, but could this be another way to set up infodump--trying to give the reader a reason to be interested in it?
     
  20. Lord Ben

    Lord Ben Minstrel

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    They also have the benefit of visual aids. It's not just merely a speech.
     
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