Writing Excuses Episodes 32: Talking Exposition with Patrick Rothfuss

In this, the last of our WorldCon 66 episodes, Brandon, Dan, and Howard interview Name of the Wind author Patrick Rothfuss. We discuss exposition, and how not to bore people as you move them through the learning curve. We start by covering some “don’ts”  – including the essay, the police-artist sketch, and the thesis statement.

And then we work into the “do’s” – show-don’t-tell, focus on character, and don’t write stuff the readers don’t care about.

   This week’s Writing Excuses is brought to you by Schlock Mercenary: The Teraport Wars  by Howard Tayler


34 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episodes 32: Talking Exposition with Patrick Rothfuss”

  1. Another great podcast. One thing I liked was Brandon’s conscious choice to leave some explaining to chapter 6 of mistborn. Not only did it make the beginning more accessible, but it actually created a sense of mystery about Kelsier. I wanted to know more.

    One thing I recommend is Bernard Cornwell’s writing advice: http://www.bernardcornwell.net/chapters/writingadvice.htm

    Take a book you love, get a colored pencil or crayon, then begin reading. When you find a passage of descrition/setting, draw a line along the side. After 30 or so pages of doing this you’ll begin to see how much setting the author puts in and how he goes about doing it.

    You can do the same thing with character. In fact, I just finished FEAR NOTHING by Dean Koontz. Loved how he did his characters. So I’ve got a used copy and am marking it up. Very interesting insights come from doing this.

  2. Patrick Rothfuss is awsome, i’m excited for Wise Man’s Fear. Good podcast, I would love to hear even more from Brandon and Patrick, since both are epic fantasy authors who go about doing things very differently, though both with great success.

  3. Hey guys, the iTunes feed isn’t working for this episode. It says the server is timing out. Just thought you’d like to know.

  4. Hey guys, fantastic ‘cast this time. There was some great information in there, especially for those of us who tend to be too economical in our word use. I know I tend toward extreme brevity. I don’t intend to, it just seems to come out of me that way. I’m constantly being told by my alphas “more detail! more descrption! more explanation! flesh it out!” Hopefully I can put some of the wisdom in this ‘cast to use next time and do a better job of immersing my readers in my world.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been having problems lately downloading the podcasts similar to what has been described on previous weeks’ comments. I eventually get them downloaded, but I have to ride herd over the download and cancel/restart when it starts to get sluggish. When I restart it picks up where it left off and goes a while before it gets sluggish again. If I don’t sit there and monitor the download and manually cancel/restart as it starts to slow, it will stop partway through and think it’s done. Then I have to clear the partial download from my cache before it will even restart. Last night it took me almost 90 minutes of start/watch/cancel/restart to get this one downloaded. As others have stated, it’s just been in the last month that these problems have occurred. Before that, I was downloading them in less than ten minutes each week.

  5. Howard, you have just learned rule number one in journalism of any kind: NEVER insult or alienate the gatekeepers (assistants, secretaries, web administrators, etc.) . They have unimaginable power over what you can and cannot do.

  6. Perhaps someone could set up a mirror or something for the episides? I am very sad that I can’t download the last four. :(

  7. My particular aversion is what I call “disguised exposition” – that is, exposition masquerading as dialogue; when badly done, of course. Quite often the author will merrily make it worse by adding things irrelevant to the exposition to make it more natural. To illustrate and exaggerate:

    “I think there might be a plot to – would you like some toast?”
    “Oh, I don’t know…”
    “With jam.”
    “Well, maybe – what kind of jam?”
    “Strawberry. Well, as I was saying – ever since the king decided to —”

    This is equally frustrating whether I’m interested in the exposition or not. If I’m interested I’m annoyed at the interruptions, if not I just want to get it over with instead of having it dragged out endlessly. When well done, I don’t think about it, but when ill done it’s like nails drawn over a black-board – it sets my teeth on edge!

    Naturally one way – much used – of exposing one’s world is of course by the character who has hitherto led a sheltered existence setting out into the wide, wide world and the reader thus discovering it with him/her; as often in dramas when a stranger will newly arrive in a town, village, family when that is the focus of the story.

    Lastly I’m a Trollope-fan, so I will cheerfully wade through CHAPTERS of exposition if I think it is worth my while – I read for entertainment, but I am prepared to work for it!

  8. I prefer the opposite kind of work, in which virtually none of the details are divulged and I have to keep a running tab of any breadcrumbs I might get in order to form a larger picture. Like they said in the ‘cast, I find the world setting much more rewarding that way–it’s almost like a personal accomplishment.

    I skipped the first 80 pages of Les Miserables.

  9. I’ve noticed that with more realistic settings and worlds that are coexisting with reality, often you can get away with just dropping the name of a familiar place and that’s all you really need to set up.
    For example, it’s easier to say “The sun rose over the Statue of Liberty” than to say “the sun rose over a two hundred foot tall green statue of a woman, robed, and holding a torch upraised and two tablets in her other arm, who was standing solitary on a small island just off the coast of the mainland.”

    Of course, that only works with stories in reality-ish places. I guess that’s why novels like Twilight and such focus on character descriptions and just give a passing nod to setting.

  10. Spencer:
    One of the great tricks you can do with a fantasy setting is to have a statue of…Honor or whatever, and just PRETEND like everyone knows what it is. Then you say “The sun rose over the Statue of Honor,” and don’t describe it, because your narrator wouldn’t describe it, and then even though the reader doens’t know exactly what it is, they know that this city has a big statue, and this culture thinks honor is really important. Throw in details like that as if they were the most normal thing in the world, and your readers will get sucked in because your setting will seem more real and fully formed.

  11. My wife and I began reading Elizabeth Moon’s “Trading in Danger” this week. Her third person POV is very smooth, and tight to the MC. Something that stood out to me is how vivid the world was in my head, and yet, going back over stuff we’ve read, there’s almost *nothing* described. She very masterfully draws upon my imagination to fill in what she doesn’t describe. Today, for instance, the MC arrives at a space port, and is escorted by security to a ship. In my head I saw all this very clearly, including the conversation between the MC and another character in the shadow of the ship…and almost none of it was described, yet its all there for me. She tends, as mentioned in the podcast, to provide one or three distinct details, and let the rest take care of itself. Quite cool. I’ll definitely be pouring over her use of description, and her POV.

  12. A friend of mine just started reading Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem.” This is a distant future world, and his comments relate directly to the current podcast in terms of immersing the reader without burying them in explanatory exposition. He said:

    “Ended up starting Anathem over the weekend. So far, I am loving it. I tend to really like fully realized worlds with large, detailed histories to delve into, and from the outset, it seems Stephenson has done a really good job of producing this. There is a lot of new vocabulary that is extremely jarring at first, but each chapter is prefaced by an entry in “The Dictionary”, and as you combine the definitions with the contextual information you gain in the chapters, you slowly start to understand what everyone is saying, what their history is like, and how this has shaped their current social order. It provides a very appealing ‘sinking into the world’ feeling. I feel like the only failure is that I am currently much more interested in understanding the world than the main character, but it is still early and the main thrust of the plot has only really been hinted at so far.”

    And a follow-up comment from him:

    “Regarding the book, after another hundred or so pages last night, I feel like I really am fully engaged in the plot and main character, and details about the world have for the most part faded into the background. It took about 150 pages to really start rolling, but that doesn’t seem too far out of line for a 900 page book. At any rate, I was entertained even while Stephenson was just setting the stage.”

    Anyway, I don’t really have anything to add here, but felt his comments worth posting.

  13. @John Brown: I definitely concur on that point. My own family’s experience with Tad Williams’ Dragon Bone chair was that you had to hit page 135 before it took off. Consequently, each kid has had to breach that barrier after more than one attempt, and then they declared the series among their favorites.

    I’d say, not many readers today.

  14. Thanks for the podcast.

    This was really well put together and really had some good tips… creating characters is key but I love the tips that long exposition is NOT the way to develop character…

    it all makes very good sense and really highlights how most of us classify people in real life as well… other than a few key people in our lives everyone else really gets brutally classified by 2~3 key characteristics.. think Seinfeld… all the “Characters” were given a couple key characteristics with funny politically incorrect names, ( soup nazi, stuff in teeth guy, etc. etc. ) that we laughed at because we consciously (or unconsciously) do that to the world around us.

    the need to classify a character only needs limited detail, Developing the important people should take the entire story, or longer and limit the exposition and actions and dialogue rather than exposition.

  15. This cast certainly has helped me, having only managed to get to it late in the week, I have already changed the way I was going about a story I had started recently. You guys may make a writer out of me yet.
    Now I just need to get a handle on that third person limited thing. Time to go re-listen to episodes 23 and 25.

  16. @WEKM: My kneejerk advice on third person limited POV (all the others) is to pick up a copy of Orson Scott Card’s Character and View Point book. It’ll run you about $12, and give you a lot more value than that.

  17. I know I should.
    Who knows, maybe I can even start catching all the mistakes I have been making before having them pointed out in the podcasts.

    If I can just get over my insane procrastination and perpetual brokeness…

    I know, I know, If I want it I will find a way.

  18. My favorite exposition trick is the lesson. Some knowledgeable person in the story is giving a lesson to one of the other characters. The main character may be one of the parties involved in the lesson, or simply overhearing it, but when done right the sheer fact that someone is teaching someone else something adds depth to the world. Afterall, the main advantage of intelligence is the ability to communicate the knowledge and experience of the previous generation to the next.

    Also, lessons don’t have to come in just a rigidly formal style. They can also come in the form of a grandfather telling his grandchildren a story or they lyrics of a song.

    The trick, as always, is making it not feel forced.

    Also, where’s the latest episode?

  19. This was a really helpful podcast for what I’m working on right now; you touched on some things that I didn’t realize I was about to do, and now I know and can fix them.

    Also, I love the rattle of dishes and “dinner noises” in the sponsor clip. XD

  20. Very insightful, thank you for putting this podcast together.

    However, what’s up with the jokes at the end? Not sure how to take them, but they borderline offensive.

  21. I totally agree. Save all the world building details for the RPG supplement or the universe encyclopedia and remember that those books will only sell if the stories sell.

  22. sorry, i know this is a late comment, but i only just got around to listening.
    overall i think this was a very good episode, but i think you forgot to mention something very important, and that is what i call LOST-syndrome. i agree that it can be very effective to give a narrow view of your world, creating ambiguity and keeping the reader guessing. but it is important to remember to give the readers those nuggets of information else they grow frustrated and give up.
    i’m sorry to say it, but i actually think Mr. Rothfuss fell into this problem in the name of the wind. in my opinion the book was interesting throughout, but ultimately unsatisfying. by the end of the book, Kvothe has made little to no progess in his ultimate mission and Rothfuss’ world is still largely a mystery. i will undoubtedly read the next books, but LOST-syndrome makes for a frustrated reader.

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