The Exposition Paradox

Writer exposition

I first noticed the exposition paradox when I was reading “The DaVinci Code,” a few years ago. It was not a favorite of mine, and I only slogged through it to the end because I had promised my mother I’d try to explain to her the mystery novel’s immense popularity (She hated it; but then again, she honestly and ingenuously referred to Ulysses as a “page turner”). I could never really help her, beyond the eternal allure of religious conspiracies and Dan Brown’s trick of gently solving each riddle for the reader before the stalwart Robert Langdon could arrive at the same conclusions, giving his audience an astringent illusion of intellectual acumen, along with a deeper connection the story. It’s a good trick—I’ve used it myself.

But something else troubled me as I shoveled out the trench of pages. Brown seemed to have reversed one of the basic laws of narrative fiction. His action sequences were hard to follow, his characters were cut-outs, his dialogue was flat footed and tone deaf … action, character, dialogue—the great engines of a good story. But what kept me interested was the exposition. I gobbled every little factoid hungrily, like the birds feasting on the trail of Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs. The wordy code-breaking, the slowly assembled chart of long departed actions and deceptions kept me up reading, late into the night.

This was especially strange for me, coming from a background in screenwriting, where all exposition has to be spoken and lines like “I’m your brother, Helen! We grew up in the same house together!” make the fillings ache to hear, and crush the spirit to write. The exposition in mysteries is different, though. It’s not passive, it’s active. Sometimes, it’s imperative. It does everything that character and dialogue and action do in an ordinary book or movie.

It’s the air we breathE

Watching “Chinatown” again recently clarified things further. I thought about its whip-crack expository lines, like “Middle of a drought, the water commissioner drowns! Only in L.A.” and “They’re blowing these farmers out of their land and picking it up for peanuts. You have any idea what this land would be worth with a steady water supply? About fifty million more than they paid for it,” and best of all, each sentence sealed with a slap: “She’s my sister. She’s my daughter! She’s my sister and my daughter! Get it? Or is it too tough for you?”

These are the moments that hurtle the story forward. Information isn’t random backfill or place-holding chatter in a mystery. It’s not the mud we slog through. It’s the air we breathe.

A mystery is a treasure hunt and the author holds the map. Every truth unearthed, every clue discovered, every red-herring thrown back into the sea is another step closer to the sack of gold buried at the end of the quest: the villain unmasked, the crime punished, and a sane comprehensible world restored. And that’s why these little fragments of mundane information take on such an unexpected narrative force.

“Investigatory beats”

I’m finding this in the book I’m working on right now. I have my personal stories, the human interactions that should be pulling the reader along. And I have the dry inventory of “investigatory beats” – data from police logs and soil samples and ballistic reports – that I know I have to introduce in a timely manner, like the weekly allergy shots that allowed me to keep my boyhood pet collie without choking on the dander from its fur. Not fun (ugh, needles), but necessary.

Turns out, it’s exactly the opposite. The plot, dawdling along with the characters and their personal problems, their languors and love scenes, their groping and gossip, suddenly leaps alive when the ballistics reports appear! This is progress. This is action. “Come Watson. The game is afoot!”

As I read through drafts of these scenes I find myself eagerly turning the pages happily forgetting a budding romance or a tentative new friendship to find out why crime scene investigators discovered cyanide, arsenic and nuclear waste in a twenty-year old grave, and how a home-made osprey nest can provide the link between the bullet rattling around in a skeleton’s skull and the single sheet of paper that can save a suspected killer from spending the rest of his life in jail.

Up, up and away

Exposition: I went back to the root of the word, in old French and Latin, the 12th century gallic word Esposicion from the Latin Expositionem – “a setting forth”, a launch, a take-off. How appropriate! You can feel the afterburners kicking in as those dry facts, arranged into a weapon or a trap, hurl the story from the ordinary earth, into escape velocity, up up and away.

This is what my editor has been trying to tell me all along, what Robert Towne was trying to tell me in his brilliant screenplay for “Chinatown,” and even what Dan Brown was trying to tell me as Robert Langdon explained the history of the Priory of Sion and deciphered DaVinci’s Cryptex.

Exposition deserves to come out of the shadows, step into the spotlight and take a bow; it deserves our admiration and respect. Who knew? Certainly not me. But the fact remains, exposition is active, exposition is exciting.

Exposition makes our stories work.