Thoughts on Exposition by KSR, in Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer

So, Vandermeer’s Wonderbook is an interesting and unique book about writing.

I’ve only ever read one of Vandermeer’s novels, and “read” is a strong term because I didn’t like it much, just skimmed most of it, and don’t remember anything about it now. I think it was his Annihilation, but I wouldn’t even swear to that much. But this book about writing is neat. Not necessarily helpful – I don’t generally find books on writing helpful, just interesting. This one offers a lot to think about, with many snazzy illustrations. Also many sidebars on various topics, by tons of great writers, including, here, Kim Stanley Robinson, writing about exposition. That’s what I want to pull out today. Here are some excerpts from this sidebar, slightly edited for brevity:

Exposition is half of a binary term used mostly in writing workshops … its other half is called plot or dramatization. Exposition is therefore all the other kinds of writing that appear in a story – description, summarizing – 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. 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 advice “show don’t tell” is a zombie idea, killed forty years ago by the publication in English of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, yet still wandering the literary landscape. …

Done well, exposition becomes a huge part of the pleasure of fiction, containing much of its specificity, texture, richness, depth. … 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.”  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). …

For a while after that, the “camera eye” 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. …

Hmm, I said. I certainly agree that “show don’t tell” is massively overstated, though I wouldn’t have said it was a zombie rule, far less known when the rule was first given life or when it was killed. This is all interesting and I nodded along to basically everything in this sidebar, but I also paused at the references to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

This is a novel that has been both recommended to me and dis-recommended, the first because of the beauty of the writing, the second because the person telling me about the book didn’t think I’d like it. Well, either way, this essay by KSR certainly made me want to take a look at it. As it happens, I had it sitting right here on my TBR shelves, where it’s occupied space for some years. Obviously it was time to pull it off the shelf and examine the first pages. Here’s how it starts:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time, Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquiades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedonia. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs, and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquiades’ magical irons. “Things have a life of their own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” José Arcadio Buendía, whose unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracles and magic, thought that it would be possible to make use of that useless invention to extract gold from the bowels of the earth. Melquiades, who was an honest man, warned him, “It won’t work for that.” But José Arcadio Buendía at that time did not believe in the honesty of gypsies, so he traded his mule and a pair of goats for the two magnetized ingots Ursula Iguarán, his wife, who relied on those animals to increase their poor domestic holdings, was unable to dissuade him. “Very soon we’ll have gold enough and more to pave the floors of the house,” her husband replied. For several months he worked hard to demonstrate the truth of his idea. He explored every inch of the region, even the riverbed, dragging the two iron ingots along and reciting Maelquiades’ incantation aloud. The only thing he succeeded in doing was to unearth a suit of fifteenth-century armor which had all of is pieces soldered together with rust and inside of which there was the hollow resonance of an enormous stone-filled guard. When José Arcadio Buendía and the four men of this expedition managed to take the armor apart, they found inside a calcified skeleton with a copper locket containing a woman’s hair around its neck.

Okay, first, that’s one heck of an opening sentence.

Second, this is all one paragraph, 480 words, so wow.

Third, some of these sentences are kind of amazing in themselves and even more amazing when crammed together in the same paragraph. I’m going to admit that I don’t see why Márquez didn’t break out the first sentence in a paragraph of its own – and break it again after “it was necessary to point.”

Fourth, I see what Robinson means about no dialogue. It’s not that no one ever speaks – I wondered if that was what he meant – but no, that’s not it. It’s just that a line of speech now and then isn’t a conversation, and dialogue = conversation. This really is a novel created by extensive exposition. It’s quite compelling in a way. In another way, I don’t like this opening at all, because starting with a man who tries a get-rich-quick scheme to the detriment of himself and his family, well, that’s not an appealing opening, that’s all. The story goes on that way, I see, with José next getting obsessed with a different invention, and then another after that. Ah, the ice makes an appearance at the end of the chapter. The firing squad is not yet in evidence, unsurprisingly, as we already know that incident occurs many years later.

Have any of you read this book? What did you think? I think that both the person who recommended One Hundred Years of Solitude to me and the person who dis-recommended it were right: beautiful writing, but give the first chapter, I don’t think I’d like the story. I don’t like this José Arcadio Buendía destroying his life and his wife’s life with his obsessions.

But I don’t have a problem with the structure and style of the novel. This is a fascinating look at a novel that’s all exposition. If I were going to teach a class on the structure of novels, not that that’s super likely ever to happen, but if I did, it would certainly make sense to assign an extensive excerpt from a novel like this, just because it’s the total anthesis of a novel that’s heavy on dialogue and plot.

On the other hand, I would perhaps look around for a novel I actually do like. As it happens, I can think of novels like that are in the same ballpark when it comes to exposition and the use of single spoken lines rather than dialogue. Rumer Godden wrote like that. Her In This House of Brede is both her most famous novel and my favorite. Let’s take a look at that one. This is how the first chapter opens; there’s a long prologue, which I’m skipping.

The tower of Brede Abbey was a landmark for miles through the countryside and out to sea; high above the town of Brede the gilded weathercock caught the light and could flash in bright sun.

The weathercock bore the date 1753 and had been put there by the Hartshorn family, to whom the Abbey – in those days the Priory of the Canons of Saint Augustine – had been given after the Reformation; it had then been the Hartshorns’ private house for more than two hundred and fifty years. When the nuns came they had thought it prudent not to take the weathercock down. “Brede wouldn’t have tolerated a Catholic nunnery here in 1837,” Dame Ursula Crompton told the novices. “We had to disguise ourselves.” The cross was below, a stone cross interlaced with thorns – and it had known thorns; it had been thrown down, erected again, and stood now high over the entrance to the church; it was said to be nearly a thousand years old; certainly its stone was weathered but, though the wind from the marshes blew fiercely against it and rain beat in the winter gales that struck the heights of Brede so violently, the cross stayed unmoved, sturdily aloft, while the weathercock whirled and thrummed as the wind took it. Dame Ursula had pleasure in underlining the moral, but then Dame Ursula always underlined.

The townspeople were used to the nuns now. The extern sisters, who acted as liaisons between the enclosure and the outside world, were a familiar sight in their black and white, carrying their baskets as they did the Abbey’s frugal shopping. Brede Abbey had accounts at the butcher and the grocer as the family had; the local garage serviced the Abbey car, which Sister Renata drove; workmen from Brede had been inside the enclosure, and anyone was free to come through the drive gates, ring the front-door bell, which had a true monastic clang, and ask for an interview with one of the nuns; few of the townspeople came, through the mayor made a formal call once a year; the Abbey’s visitors, and they were many, usually came from farther afield, from London or elsewhere in Britain, from the Continent or far overseas, some of them famous people. The guest house, over the gatehouse, was nearly always full.

From the air it would seem that it was the Abbey that had space, the old town below that was enclosed; steep and narrow streets ran between the ancient battlements, and the houses were huddled, roof below roof, windows and eaves jutting so that they almost touched; garden yards were overlooked by other garden yards, while the Abbey stood in a demesnes of park, orchard, far, and garden. Its walls had been heightened since the nuns came, trees planted that had grown tall; now it was only from the tower that one could look into the town, though at night a glow came up from the lights, seeming from inside the enclosure to give the Abbey walls a nimbus.

And so on. As you can see, the lines of speech in this chapter are a lot like those in One Hundred Years: scattered and isolated, not part of any conversation. With, bonus, a million or so semicolons. I had forgotten that. Regardless, this novel is the story of a woman’s journey toward faith and peace, and it’s a novel that makes me … I started to type, wish I had a vocation toward an enclosed religious life, but that’s not what I mean at all … understand what it might be like to have that kind of vocation, and for that to be a beautiful thing. Yes, that’s much closer. It’s certainly a novel that leads me to understand aspects of human experience that are otherwise fairly far from my own experience.

It’s also a deeply positive, uplifting novel. Despite the lack of a catchy first sentence involving a firing squad, I’d far rather pick this novel to study the use of an exposition-forward writing style. It would be fun and perhaps instructive to assign a hard-boiled detective novel to contrast to this one: something that’s all fast-paced plot and action and snappy dialogue. You’d practically get whiplash, reading such stylistically different novels back to back. I think that would be fun.

In fact, now that I think of it, really, it might be interesting to try to pick out a handful of novels that each approach the idea of “novel” differently. I wonder if that’s what classes on “The Novel” do, and how well those classes succeed in NOT treating the defining rule of an era (“show don’t tell”) as though it were a commandment handed down on a stone tablet by God. I guess you can tell here that I took very few if any Literature classes in college. I took twelve times the number of required lab science classes instead. I don’t regret that, but now I’m curious what books a class on the Novel might pick.

Let me see … okay, here are a handful of novels that would provide an interesting set of contrasts in how they handle the form. As a bonus, I genuinely like everything here.

In This House of Brede, all exposition and rather little dialogue, with the protagonist’s journey purely internal.

The Martian, which is also all exposition, but plot-forward, with no character development at all. One could hardly have a greater contrast, yet so similar in being heavy on exposition. And both so well done.

Then how about something extraordinarily fast-paced – oh, I know: The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forrester. That’s his WWII submarine novel, which come to think of it, fast pace is not really what I mean. No, what I mean is, this is a novel in which tension never lets up. The whole thing takes place during an absolutely unrelenting couple of days. This novel is just a masterpiece of tension.

Let me see, okay, here’s the decription:

The mission of Commander George Krause of the United States Navy is to protect a convoy of thirty-seven merchant ships making their way across the icy North Atlantic from America to England. There, they will deliver desperately needed supplies, but only if they can make it through the wolfpack of German submarines that awaits and outnumbers them in the perilous seas. For forty eight hours, Krause will play a desperate cat and mouse game against the submarines, combating exhaustion, hunger, and thirst to protect fifty million dollars’ worth of cargo and the lives of three thousand men. 

I don’t think I knew what this book was like when I picked it up and started reading. It’s impossible to put down.

Okay, what next?

I do think we need a hard-boiled detective novel, very heavy on dialogue and action, such as perhaps The Moving Target by Ross McDonald. That would contrast perfectly with the exposition-heavy novels. There’s not much dialogue in The Good Shepherd either; so much happens in the head of the protagonist; so we’d want something with tons of dialogue and far less exposition. A book like this one would provide that.

How about another one written in prose that’s stripped down and simple, or deceptively simple, but not a detective novel. Something by Hemingway, maybe, and that means For Whom the Bell Tolls, probably. Hemingway was one of the few authors assigned in school whose work I actually enjoyed, though at the time I don’t know that I would have read his books voluntarily. I’d just discovered fantasy at the time, and that’s what I was reading. Either way, let’s contrast this stripped-down sort of prose with —

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by McKillip. Boom, many of the same themes — forgiveness, love, power, war and in this case the avoidance of war — but in a novel that could hardly be more different. I couldn’t select a set of novels to illustrate the concept of “novel” and fail to include something by Patricia McKillip, and I think I would pick this one, even though it’s not my favorite of hers. It’s got a clear ending, that’s one reason. And it is very beautiful.

Let’s have another fantasy novel. Something very different but also beautiful, and beautifully written. How about:

Piranesi by Susannah Clarke. This represents a very different way to handle a novel, with its dearth of characters, and its emphasis on setting. Here we also have The House acting as a character in a sense, especially as this novel also asks What is a character and What is a character arc?

What’s something different from all the above? Oh, I know, how about A Damsel in Distress by Wodehouse? I don’t care for Bertie Wooster, but I do like Wodehouse novels in which Bertie doesn’t appear and the male lead is not an idiot. This one qualifies. I liked it a lot, and Wodehouse uses such elegant language.

How many is that? Eight. Fine, I’ll stop there. What is ONE novel you would enjoy including in a class about the different ways to put novels together?

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10 thoughts on “Thoughts on Exposition by KSR, in Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vandermeer”

  1. I haven’t read One Hundred Years, for basically the same reason. I’m usually a fan of magical realism, and it’s clearly written with skill, but the subject matter isn’t for me, as far as I can see.

    Do you have anything epistolary in your collection yet? Maybe This is How You Lose the Time War?

  2. I remember loving 100 Years of Solitude, but it’s a little telling that I haven’t picked it up again since high school(?)/college(?). Would you include the epic poetry of day, Virgil in your class? I would include that over post modern fiction like John Barth and Donald Barthelme.

  3. Oh, an epistolary novel would be a crucial addition! I love epistolary novels! I haven’t read This is How You Lose the Time War, though I liked the sample a lot and will read it eventually.

    That’s an interesting idea about epic poetry. Actually, it might be interesting to start with that and end with something in the postmodern realm.

  4. I remember Novel classes talking lots about Theme and Symbolism and not a lot about how a novel was written (other than mentioning structure if it seemed important to Theme, and figurative language if it was Symbolic enough). I think all literature classes should be taught by writers!

    Like Alison, I remember quite enjoying One Hundred Years, being entranced and astonished at the language, and not quite getting the plot (of which I remember nothing, so I can’t even tell you if it ended up being tragic or hopeful). And never feeling like I needed to pick it up again, though I was glad I had read it.

    If you aren’t sticking to a particular time frame (and epic poetry suggests you aren’t!) then you can’t really talk about novels without including a Jane Austen. She’s very expository-y as well, and brilliant at indirect dialog—whole conversations without a single quotation mark!

  5. I have no suggestions, but I am now reading A Damsel in Distress; I’ve had an awful day and Wodehouse sans Wooster is just the solace needed. Thank you.

  6. Well, there’s always *Atlanta Nights*.

    I was online after the reveal, and one aspiring writer said that he had gotten six chapters in and pulled out the book he had thought was done, and was revising. Future generations would never know what they missed. . . .

    I said I was glad even if he’d gotten the insight before Chapter 10. He said he’d gotten that far, and now vast swathes of description were also vanishing. . . .

    Let us say that in my quest for a bad chapter, I demonstrated why description can be an issue.

  7. I would include Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home as sort of a question – is this a novel? It’s certainly a long work of fiction, and it does contain some stories and characters, but it’s structurally very different from what most of us think when we say novel.

  8. Such great comments on this post!

    elise, you are so right about Always Coming Home. That book is so very interesting and … I don’t know? It might be a novel? It would be a great choice for asking the question: What is a novel anyway? Start the class by asking that question, then at the end of the class ask it again.

    For those who don’t know, Atlanta Nights was a stunt: here’s a link about that.

    As a non-stunt collaborative work that … is sort of a series of novels, but not really … how about Shadow Unit? That’s an attempt to write a series that reads like a TV series. It’s very good and you should all check it out if you’re not familiar with it.

    I would love to include a Jane Austen novel, and wow, this hypothetical class is now stretching out over a lot more than one semester. I hate, hate, hate the idea of assigning excerpts from novels. The work is a novel, not a series of vignettes; it’s wrong to look at a small piece of it and try to learn something just from that piece. But that’s fine, the class can go for a whole year … and then The Novel II can go for another year!

    If we’re assigning long novels, then something very short and tight would also be a good choice. I vote for Cuckoo’s Egg by CJC because it’s an excellent very short SF novel, and for anyone who hasn’t read much (or maybe any) SF, adding some SF novels to the curriculum might well be a revelation.

  9. I’m sorry you’re having a rough time, Mary Beth, but hopefully the Wodehouse will help …

  10. Another fun epistolary novel is Sorcery & Cecelia by Wrede & Stevermer.

    I really enjoyed Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull. It’s not solely epistolary, but also has pieces of newspaper articles interspersed. I don’t think there’s any direct action but I could be misremembering.

    Lifelode, by Jo Walton, is a little in style like In This House of Brede, in that the short scenes and quotes jump around in time.

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