Thoughts On Exposition by Kim Stanley Robinson

Thoughts On Exposition by Kim Stanley Robinson

This essay first appeared in the Wonderbook, edited by Jeff VanderMeer, and is reprinted here with permission.

Exposition is half of a binary term used mostly in writing workshops and associated reading communities. Its other half is variously called plot, dramatization, or simply fiction itself. Exposition is therefore all the other kinds of writing that appear in a story—descriptive or analytical, summarizing or generalizing—and it is clearly the bad half of the binary, the thing to avoid. If it has to be done at all, it should be snipped into bits and distributed through the text so the story won’t be interrupted. If you don’t do it that way you are amateurish, and your text will be full of expository lumps that should be taken to the info-dump. Another way to say this is show don’t tell, because plot always shows while exposition always tells.

None of this makes much sense. The good/bad encoded in the binary is wrongly applied, because writing is always telling stories, it’s a function of being caught in time; whether the protagonist of the story is a person or a rock, whether the story is narrated or exposed, there is an equal chance of it being interesting. And the advice “show don’t tell” is a zombie idea, killed forty years ago by the publication in English of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet still sadly wandering the literary landscape, confusing people.

Still, there remains something here to discuss, some things to clear up. Granting there is sometimes a mode called exposition, I like it, and I will take my expository lumps and defend them. Indeed, I’m tempted to declare the binary has it exactly backward, that what is boring in fiction tends to be the hackneyed plots with all their tired old stage business, while the interesting stuff usually lies in what is called the exposition, meaning the writing about whatever is not us.

But that, too, would be wrong. Because there is no denying we are addicted to the human stuff; we read fiction for its characters and what they do and say, and to find out what happens next. We read fiction’s dramatized scenes to enter a flow state in which we seem to be living other people’s lives, and anything that interferes with that can quickly get irritating.

So exposition, if it is going to add to this fictional experience, has to be careful. Ezra Pound once remarked that poetry should be at least as well-written as prose; similarly, exposition should be at least as well-written as a story’s dramatized scenes—and perhaps (as I think Pound also meant to imply, a little sardonically, about poetry and prose) it should want to be even better. Done well, exposition becomes a huge part of the pleasure of fiction, containing much of its specificity, texture, richness, depth. This should come as no surprise, because, after all our narcissisms are exhausted, the world still smacks us in the face like the rocket in the Man in the Moon’s eye. The not-us is the permanent and inescapable Other; and writing about the Other is what we invented literature to do.

Modes of writing go in and out of fashion. Nineteenth-century fiction contained more exposition than twentieth-century fiction. Often a prominent narrator would comment on the action, detail settings or histories, direct the reader’s responses, ruminate philosophically, judge characters, report the weather, or in many other ways generalize. One of modernism’s reactions against all this was to remove the narrator as a character and present stories without comment, as if by way of a “camera eye” (plus its audio recorder). This narrative stance meant that many kinds of exposition could not be done at all, and the usual work of fiction in this mode was made up of a string of dramatized scenes, which readers interpreted by following subtle or not-so-subtle cues. This was the moment when Percy Lubbock advocated “show don’t tell” (in The Craft of Fiction, 1921). Hemingway’s popularity might have helped spread the mode, Dashiell Hammett possibly helped it along; in science fiction, Robert Heinlein famously dismissed all the old-fashioned exposition of the Encyclopedia Galactica with his sentence “The door dilated.”

For a while after that, “camera eye” and its dramatized scenes dominated. Then One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel with no dialogue or fully dramatized scenes, a tale told by a teller, was published and celebrated. “Show don’t tell” completely failed to account for its greatness, and there was a paradigm breakdown in that failure, and now we live in more open-minded times. Fiction still contains many dramatized scenes, but narrative methods have gotten a lot more flexible and various. Some writers have flourished using expository forms as frameworks, including Calvino, Lem, Ballard, Borges, Russ, Le Guin, Guy Davenport, Cortazar, and Coover. Stories have appeared in the forms of indexes, scientific reports, prefaces, glossaries, tarot readings, abstracts, constitutions, Post-it notes, encyclopedia entries, book reviews, racing cards, you name it.

All wonderful. Of course, a story’s exposition still needs to be done well if it is to fulfill its purpose. This is mainly a matter of writing well, which in any mode is always the issue. It’s true that there are some techniques for deploying exposition in a fictional text, but these are very simple and obvious. If the story depends on an idea, which is so often true in science fiction, then exposing the idea will be the work of the story, and exposition and plot become the same thing. It’s also always okay to have one character explain something to another. This needn’t be an “As you know, Doctor” embarrassment, because in reality we teach each other things all the time, sometimes crucial things; so moments like these are simultaneously exposition, characterization, and plot. This happens so often that again the binary collapses. And it’s much the same in scenes where a character is thinking about what to do next; the indirect style makes the narrator very free, and information of all kinds gets conveyed in a slurry of modes.

It does seem clear to me that exposition gets both easier and more interesting (like almost everything else in a story) when the story has a narrator who is not the writer but rather a character, also. If this narrator confidently takes the reader by the hand and says, implicitly or explicitly, “I know best what you need to know to understand and feel this story,” the reader will accept any mode the narrator cares to use, trusting that it will pay off, that, in fact, it is the story.

Of course, the camera eye can still be very effective, and creates its own particular effects. And one can still split a story’s exposition into info-bursts tucked into the flow of the action. It can make the narrator look a little scattered at times, but that’s okay, too.

The opposite strategy, however, I like more, because it is more of an opening up: One can create a narrator who loves exposition and revels in it, even to the point of italicizing it, which serves to mark distinctly the different modes being employed, while also suggesting that there is nothing to hide, that all modes are equally worthy. And really it can go beyond that, because the italicized sections, being rarer, look like they must be something special, perhaps the parts of the story most compressed and poetic. As, hopefully, they are.

Am I advocating a return to the Encyclopedia Galactica? Yes. Its entries were always (at least potentially) bits of Stapledonian prose poetry, soaring like phoenixes out of their stories. Face it: Sometimes the world is more interesting than we are. Even if the interest is always human interest.

author kim stanley robinson, a white man in his 60s with dark hair and glasses Kim Stanley Robinson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. He is the author of twenty books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed 2312, Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt, and Antarctica. Robinson has been named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine. He lives in California.

The essay “Thoughts On Exposition” is copyright © 2018 Kim Stanley Robinson