From my many precious jewels of fiction quotations, I’ve selected a few that showcase different methods of doing exposition.
Classic Infodump from omniscient POV
Ma KongQun suddenly let out a sigh and said, “You still can’t let go of that incident that happened twenty-three years ago at the base of Wudang Mountain?”
Exposition by crowd/collective
Injun Joe helped to raise the body of the murdered man and put it in a wagon for removal; and it was whispered through the shuddering crowd that the wound bled a little!
-Mark Twain, Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Character learns the situation via summarized “montage”
Lucien threw himself with enthusiasm into inventing the epigrammes used as fill-ups for the newspaper; the journalists smoked and chatted, exchanging the news of the day, picking their colleagues to pieces, and handing on pieces of personal gossip. This conversation, eminently witty, malicious and flippant, put Lucien au courant with the current situation in the literary world.
-Balzac, Lost Illusions (my nomination for best 19th century novel)
Character remembers a detail, but not how he/she knows the detail
As he drove, he continued his theoretical analysis of his situation by means of a second well-established example. They had brought it up and drilled it into his own memory banks during his police training at the academy. Or else he had read it in the newspapers.
–Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
I should note that this double-explanation move is not only a constant Dickian device that undermines reality itself by undermining how its constituent facts are known, but in this context, it also helps Dick show the protagonist developing two whole different personalities, one police, one civilian!! (Murakami got off easy in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Because his story started after that split took place, he wasn’t forced to show it happening.) I love the double-explanation move so much.
Character spouts a mere theory that proves nothing, but works as though it does
“Then he dropped through the floor before anything else could hit him.”
“I’ll buy that.”
-Alfred Bester, The Stars my Destination
The typical Alfred Bester character is more interested in advancing the storyline than proving his/her point.
“Up to then he was nobody. Then came the tragedy, and with it the hysteria and the ability. Don’t tell me one didn’t produce the other.”
-Alfred Bester, “Time is the Traitor”
Characters give only half an explanation to increase suspense
“I want you to tell me everything you told them. When you’ve done that, I want you to tell me everything they asked you, whether you could answer it or not. And when you’ve done that, we’ll try to take a little thing called a back-bearing and work out where those bastards all are in the scheme of the universe.”
“It’s a replay,” she said finally.
“I don’t know; it’s all to be exactly the way it happened before.”
“So what happened before?”
“Whatever it was,” she said wearily, “it’s going to happen again.”
–John Le Carre, The Honourable Schoolboy
“Because of Explanation X, we can’t know Explanation Y”
ATTRACT MODE (literary equivalent: facts you learn on the book’s cover)
And I’m spent…
Filed under: EXPOSITION | 3 Comments
Tags: alfred bester, Balzac, exposition, Gu Long, lost illusions, philip k dick, pkd, wuxia