by wjw on August 17, 2006

Thoughts on the work-in-progress:

Having tantalized my future readers for three whole chapters with a main character who, while participating in a considerable amount of action, has so far failed to inform anyone (least of all the reader) what he’s thinking or hoping to accomplish, the time has come for him to put his cards on the table.

Yes, the time has come for exposition. A lot of it, in what I hope will be a shortish amount of space.

I find myself looking with envy on Elizabethan drama. How pleasant it would be to have the character simply face front and say,

“Alas, that wormholes in their thousands be
The gates to worlds unnumber’d, and to villainy,”

and then go on for fifteen or sixteen lines, in which the character concisely (though with an elegant simile or two) explains his problem and what he intends to do about it, with or without a bare bodkin.

Unfortunately our current literary conventions to not allow for such direct methods of exposition. Ideally the exposition (“infodump”) is inserted elegantly into the narrative, such that it does not impede the flow of the action with the dreaded “expository lumps.”

One wants the mashed potatoes creamy, unmarred by gross chunks of starchy matter.

Avoiding starchy matter seems to be a thing that writers care about more than readers. Dan Brown’s work is full of pages and pages of information dumped into the reader’s lap through clumsy expository dialogue. Tom Clancy’s characters regularly lecture each other about sabot rounds and missile throw-weights. These authors sell many more books than I do. Readers love this stuff, I think because it allows them to feel that they’re learning something.

“But,” as I have told my students, “just because the million-selling authors are doing it, doesn’t mean that you should do it, too.”

One of my favorite methods of exposition is to give a piece of dialogue in impenetrable jargon, followed by a paragraph or two of an omniscient narrator explaining what was just said and why it matters. I did this a lot in my old sea stories. Here’s a direct quote:

“Tend the vangs and flag halliards. Ease the peak and foot inhauls and the brails. Haul away on the peak and foot outhauls. Belay.”

At Martin’s orders the spanker rumbled into life, the boom swinging to larboard as the canvas caught the wind; and the sleek schooner gained way, increasing the distance between herself and the enemy.

Not bad for a journeyman work. You get the jargon, then the bit of explanation that tells you what the jargon meant and what its effect was on the action. Plus the author gets to establish authority over his fictional world, in that he knows what such things as “peak and foot outhauls” might be, and what they’re for. (“Watch out! I’ve got a spanker in my pocket and I know how to use it!”)

Unfortunately the opportunities for jargon-dense dialogue was limited in my expository scene, so I didn’t get to use this technique much.

Insofar as I have an omniscient narrator, it was theoretically possible for the narrator to simply insert a lecture explaining everything. This was a favorite technique during the Victorian period, where Victor Hugo had no problem with opening Notre Dame de Paris with a hundred-page infodump on medieval Paris, and fill 150 pages of Les Miserables with successive lectures on (1) the nunneries of Paris, (2) the gamins of Paris, and (3) French revolutionaries of the 1920s.

(And with no action in between! And I have to confess that the infodump on the revolutionaries did me in— I never picked up the book again. I knew that the lecture on the sewers was bound to come soon.)

Still, direct exposition of this sort, though not as dead as the soliloquy, is no longer state-of-the-art in fiction. I was forced to rely on expository dialogue.

Theoretically, this isn’t a bad thing. You can fill the dialogue with tasty little character bits, and you give the reader some idea how the characters view each other, and you can demonstrate your talent for witty dialogue, assuming of course you’ve got one. (Nothing more painful than witty dialogue that isn’t, unless of course it’s fifty pages on Parisian nunneries.)

But there are hazards. There is always the danger of “As you know, Bob” dialogue, where people tell each other things they already know. There’s also the menace of the “bobblehead syndrome,” where to break up the relentless march of dialogue, the writer keeps his characters nodding, blinking, tilting their heads quizzically, and then nodding some more. (Cigarettes are very handy in these scenes. The temptation to turn all my characters into smokers is always present.)

There is also a postmodern alternative, in which the characters know they’re doing expository dialogue for the benefit of an audience, and they can just rip through it with a wink at the reader and everyone can have a good time. I didn’t do this, not quite, but I came close.

Well, I have done what I could do. I had the protagonist encounter an old friend, so the dialogue was friendly and open, and gave glimpses of their past history, and a chance for the old friend to analyze the hero’s actions by her own lights. I made it clear that they enjoyed one another’s company, which meant that each might sit still for a lecture by the other, at least provided the lecture was brief and entertaining. I’m not sure I entirely avoided the characters telling each other things that they would likely have known, but I’ve done my best to minimize the obviousness of it.

In any case, I’ve got the infodump behind me, so that I can get on with the story.

And I’ve still got the spanker in my pocket, just in case I need one.

Max Kaehn August 18, 2006 at 6:46 am

I rather enjoy the technique of beginning chapters with quotations from references that exist inside the universe, coming from a non-omniscient point of view. (e.g.: the quotations from The Hipcrime Vocab in John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.) Neal Asher uses this technique to good effect in many of his novels of the Human Polity.

Pat August 18, 2006 at 1:09 pm

Amusing image and I did the same thing …

I told historyical blogger John Xenakis in response to his quiz that the Civil War Crisis ran “from 1860 to 1965.” (hmmm… probably truer than I thought.)

Victor Hugo’s infodump about “French revolutionaries of 1920” calls to mind the Lost Generation mentoring Enroljas et. al and brought a smile to my face. (One thing Hugo ever thought of: the older people around in 1820 had lived through the French Revolution and the Terror and they wanted a repeat of that the way they wanted the Bubonic Plague.)

Ah, infodumps. I still like one of Shakespeare’s major infodumps, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

Kelly August 18, 2006 at 5:36 pm

Personally, I like a long infodump as long as it’s chewy and juicy with delicious gossip about the world you’ve created.

Coherent August 18, 2006 at 5:45 pm

I favor the “paint the walls until the room is revealed method”, by which I mean that you reveal motivations and circumstances such that the reader is led down the same thought processes as the protagonist. So that way the reader assumes he knows what’s going on, but you can still pull plot twists later because you never explicitly said anything 🙂

Bruce August 21, 2006 at 3:18 am

Just for the record, Victor Hugo’s “lecture on the sewers” was a great lecture!

dubjay August 21, 2006 at 8:26 pm

Bruce, I’ll have to take your word on the sewer lecture.

Hugo’s lectures were, as you say, pretty good. It was just the sheer number of them that staggered me.

Max>> right, the old Encyclopedia Galactica trope. I’ve used a variation of it, beginning with Knight Moves, then Hardwired , but most notably in the Metropolitan sequence, where I ran amok and each space break had its own headline.

I never quoted from reference works, but mainly from news headlines (often tabloid) and advertising. I figured you could find out a lot about a culture from its tabloids and from what people chose to advertise.

When I started, I thought I was stealing the technique from Roger Zelazny, but after I picked up Ulysses after a gap of many years, I realized Roger had stolen the technique from Joyce.

If Roger and James Aloysius don’t between them constitute a reason to use a technique, I can’t think what does.

Steve Stirling August 26, 2006 at 11:45 am

I like the chapter-heading quote too; used it many a time.

HaloJonesFan August 30, 2006 at 4:57 am

You can always have a character be interviewed. Or possibly interrogated…

Anonymous September 8, 2006 at 8:27 pm

This same debate is going on on the Paul McAuley Blog site at the moment (, if your intrested. phil

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