Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Exposition! It will kill your fantasy stories.

I hate exposition. dialog. I know it's unavoidable, but it just sucks the reality out of any story.

For example, I like the setting of Girl Genius, a popular webcomic. It's this weird steampunk world (which is hard to pull off) set in something that bears a vague resemblance to western Europe.

However, I find the pacing grating and its made worse by the fact that almost every single page is full of characters narrating and explaining what's going on. I.E. instead of interacting with each other or creating the illusion of fully fleshed out characters just going about their lives, they EXPLAIN EVERYTHING.

Every panel is "What's this thing do?" "It stops the effects of that thing!" "I thought that thing was unstoppable!" "No, because of this other thing!"

Or, "Why is that character doing X? I thought he always did Y!" "Yes, but he's probably doing X now to accomplish Z, which will keep the plot stalled for another fifty pages." "Should we worry about him?" "Maybe!"

I just want to scream SHOW DON'T TELL! a zillion times. And then cut out half the dialog on every page. Because comics = visual medium.

Now, people will tell me "The world is so complex and the characters are so multifaceted that we'll never know what's going on if they don't explain it to us at every turn!" I say Nope. Needing to explain in great detail why characters are doing what they are doing is a sign that the characters aren't detailed enough. We should just be able to see them react and make choices and think, "Of course she would do that. That's so her."

Imagine if in Star Wars the duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi were narrated by the other characters.

"Why's he staying behind?"
"To buy us time, I guess."
"Who is that? Wait, how do they know each other?"
"Darth Vader was once his apprentice, who went to the dark side of the Force. He apparently wants revenge."
"This doesn't look good. He can't win!"

Imagine how this would totally kill the tension. Just because it's information doesn't mean you have to put it in the scene.

Take this page from Girl Genius

Essentially, all we're getting is exposition dialog from a sentient monster train. Every villain in the series is like this because every conflict consists of an over-the-top villain explaining everything in detail, the heroes arguing back, and plans and counter plans being put into motion while the cast explains everything in detail. The train doesn't monologue because of its character; the style of the comic doesn't allow for any other types of characters.

How much cooler would the first panel be if instead of explaining how it gets more powerful, the train actually ate some metal and then got bigger? Or if we could see the net breaking? The next two panels do absolutely nothing. The train literally says that its not going to say anything to the monks. Um, so why show it?

The bottom panels are all more exposition from the train, and an invitation to get some exposition in return from Agatha. At least we get to see Agatha's reaction a bit. I think the only line that sounds like a genuine character moment is Krosp the cat's request "Drop him again." It's just a thowaway joke, but at least it sounds like a real person reacting in the moment and not someone narrating or explaining what just happened.

Fantasy writers: Exposition does not make your world more real. It make it less real. In the real world, I don't understand squat about how things work. How often do my friends and I sit around debating how a microwave makes food hot?

NEVER. We just roll with it.

By all means work out the minor details of your world and how all your character arcs fit together, but there is absolutely no reason to tell us all or even most of the background details. When you shift the focus off of what the characters are doing and feeling onto how the world works or what exactly the plan is, all you're doing is reminding us that this stuff doesn't really make sense or that its weird for the characters to be acting the way they are.

As the Nostalgia Critic said, all stories have some plot holes. But a good story will work so well on an emotional level that we just don't focus on the minor details. We're totally absorbed in the what the characters are going through.

For this reason, I by far prefer fantasies that just throw you into the deep end with their world and expect you to learn to swim. Even if half the time they make no sense. When that's done well, it really pays off and makes the world and the characters feel so much more real. Like you're only seeing one part of a much larger whole, and you want to take in all you can.

Hmm, now I want to work some more on my own projects...

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