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Transcript for Episode 1.32

Writing Excuses Episode 32: Talking Exposition with Patrick Rothfuss


Key points: don’t start with info dumps. Avoid essays, police artist sketches, thesis statements, repeating. Use three good details, and characters in action. Toss readers into the world, and move the story and the characters forward. Arguments are good. Make every sentence do more than one thing. Give your readers a little tease, then wait. Make the exposition a payoff instead of an entry price.

Writing Excuses 33 or 32? Brandon’s having trouble talking. [And I didn’t manage to identify everybody]

Brandon: Exposition — how to write it without being boring? Let’s start off with what do people do wrong?

  • Patrick: one of the big crimes is the essay. We get that from Tolkien. The other one is when you’re describing a character, the tendency is to really try to give an impression, so we get what I call the police artist’s sketch. 50 details and a half a page later, the reader has forgotten everything. I try to hold to three good details.
  • Dan: another thing people do is the thesis statement. We’re taught for essays to tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell it to them, and then tell them what you told him. Good for essays, not good for fiction. Cut out the thesis statement and go direct to showing.
  • Patrick: dialogue moves things quickly, at least from the reader’s perspective. Sometimes you get good dialogue, then there is a glimpse into the person’s head and they think exactly the same thing.

Brandon: new writers have trouble with exposition. They want to start with this wide-angle shot, and 20 pages later finally get to the character milking a cow.

  • Howard: don’t think for a moment that the reader cares more about the setting than the characters. Let your setting be the canvas and don’t show us the canvas without paint on it.
  • Patrick: my internal measurement — if I’m showing five to 10% of the world I’ve created, that’s enough. The question I always ask is who cares.
  • Brandon: fantasy readers expect to be tossed in. Give them credit for being smart. And as long as you’re moving the story and the characters forward, they’ll pick up the world.
  • Patrick: you’re talking about people wanting to start with a wide-angle shot. It’s just as effective — we get to know the world through the characters interacting with it
  • Brandon: narrow is better
  • Patrick: you start in with this narrow shot. An argument is a great way to replace exposition because then you see multiple viewpoints.
  • Brandon: I always tell people if they’re having trouble to start with dialogue or start with action.
  • first person — you can get away with info dump’s better.

Brandon: Talk about sometimes you have to exposit — what makes the difference between a pro and amateur?

  • Patrick: first-person you have an excuse to exposit, but you need to think about who is the storyteller talking to. If it is someone who lives in the world, then you can’t explain things that they both know.
  • Brandon: we call that maid-and-butler dialogue [see SFWA glossary:] people don’t explain what people already know.
  • Patrick: with first-person you can use a passionate or somehow engaging narrator who is viciously opinionated but wrong about it. What’s interesting is not so much what they are saying, but how they are saying it.
  • Brandon: Kurt Vonnegut says you want every sentence to do more than one thing. So you want exposition that explains things, and makes you laugh
  • exposition can also do character. You want dialogue that does not just reveal information, but also tells us about the person who is revealing information.
  • Howard: we’ve talked about third person limited and character voice. When you put those together, switching points of view because another character has interests and backstory, makes what they notice important to the story.
  • each character says something about the world — and themselves
  • Patrick: first-person switching is very hard to do well

Brandon: Fiction and science fiction has a steep learning curve. How do you balance this? Patrick, you book ended your story with third person — was that to make it easier for the reader?

  • Patrick: in some ways. Basically it helped me make sure that the reader knows who the protagonist is talking to.

Brandon: Howard, how do you decide what to explain?

  • Howard: it isn’t funny, I have to have a punchline in every four panels and anything that doesn’t help me, doesn’t get explained. Some things are fun to explain. Some I realized I don’t need to explain the mechanics. What’s important is the characters.
  • we want to be thrown into the story. Starting with an information dump throws us out of the story.
  • Patrick: we have to build the world, as writer. But we can give the readers a little — tease them — then withhold the rest. The more secrets we have, the more the reader is curious. Then when we give them exposition, it is a payoff not a burden.
  • Dan: one of the themes that keeps coming up is take one thing that’s unimportant and explain the heck out of it. Then take something else that is very important and don’t explain it all. Let people wonder.
  • Howard: that’s the third time you’ve said that and you only said it twice.

Brandon: All readers are different. Sometimes some things work, sometimes not. [Brandon explains why he postponed his magic explanation]

Narrator: Monkey noises, questions about physical attractiveness, and a final “pod to the cast, biznachos.” Whatever that means.

Take one thing that’s unimportant and explain the heck out of it. Take something else that is very important and don’t explain it all.

Current Mood: croggled
Current Music: In Color, Jamey Johnson