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#17: Exposition how much I loathe thee

Let’s try something different today: starting off with a rant – followed by a segue to another rant!

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Seeing is different than being told.

African proverb

Not sure where I got came across this (probably Brian McDonald’s podcast) but it’s apropos for every writer & comic creator in the world. Show don’t tell, the teachers try to beat into our heads. And they’re right.

If there’s one thing I loathe – my biggest pet peeve – is poorly executed exposition. Nothing ruins being engrossed in a story or kills the suspension of disbelief for me like bad exposition.

Groove the movie
This movie had two people talking about their favorite DJ using his first & last name. NO ONE DOES THAT.

The most common example that irks is when two people are talking about someone they know – and they refer to them with both first and last names. NO ONE talks like that.

And then sometimes they’ll follow it up with some more hacky exposition:

Hans: What’d you this weekend?
Franz: Not much, just hung out with Judith Blaupunkt again.
Hans: Nice. You guys never stopped hanging out since we all went to high school together.

You’ve heard this type of dialogue I’m sure. It’s not as boring as someone giving some long-winded back story, but it’s just bad writing. But long-winded backstory is the worst, by a long shot.

A couple of years ago I went on a little kick and wanted to revisit my favorite fantasy books from my formative ‘becoming a nerd/outcast’ period.

First up was The Lord of the Rings, which I had last read in it’s entirety in 2001 before the first movie came out. I ended up writing a blog post about it (tl;dr: he needed an editor – badly).

Next up was Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara. I didn’t recall the story at all (I knew it involved a sword, and there were no movies to remind me) so I went into it totally blank.

And it was bad.

The Sword of Shannara
I know I wasn’t the only kid intrigued by this book cover.

First off, my pet peeve of naming a familiar person with their first and last name was invoked almost immediately.

Then came the only thing that’s worst: a long-ass spouting of backstory, by the wannabe Gandalf named Allanon. It was clearly a first book that didn’t have a good editor (or maybe Brooks was obstinate). I stopped reading after a paragraph or so, realizing that my 12yo self didn’t have enough experience to know this sucked.

(I was a little curious if the character Allanon was some sort of allegory for temperance but it was too shittily written to continue.)

In some ways, it kinda sucks being a storyteller focused on craft because the flaws jump out at you (though I hated the first & last name thing long before because it just wasn’t natural). I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s read up on Save the Cat (a simplified, movie-specific Hero’s Journey) and then rolls his eyes when a movie has an inevitable Dark Night of the Soul.

Actually – that doesn’t always happen. Some stories are so engaging that they can hit the steps of the story structure without being jarringly obvious. Wolfwalkers had a Dark Night of the Soul and I was riveted because I was so wrapped up in the characters and emotions.

It’s the half-assed attempts at copying something successful that tends to fail (like Terry Brooks writing his thinly-veiled version of LOTR).

Everyones got to be different. You can’t copy anybody and end up with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. And without feeling, whatever you do amounts to nothing.

Billie Holiday

Or as Neil says,

All fiction has to be as honest as you can make it.

Neil

If you’re just copying something, you’re not putting yourself, or as much feeling or emotion, into it. Simply copying is what makes something boring & predictable, even if the creator changes some things up.

Note: copying is a great learning exercise. And borrowing or combining ideas can be a font of inspiration.

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What I’ve been up to

I’ve spent the last week fine-tuning the first volume of my mythological fight club story. And I rediscovered a bunch of notes & ideas for it, which helped me map out a loose roadmap for further volumes. It’s gonna be expansive, but with a definite end (I’m not a fan of stories that go on forever).

I’ve been reading up on myths too, gathering ideas, looking for themes, similarities, and differences. And seeing how much of what was passed down was influenced by patriarchy.

I’m looking at myths in the same way that I look at the Bible. It’s obvious that the Bible was written by men, with a focus on making men more important than women (and demonizing women whenever the opportunity arose). The Fall of Man is attributed to a woman, men do most of the things, there are copious reasons why women shouldn’t do X or Y, etc, etc.

I’m looking at myths through a similar lens, expecting that many of the stories have been influenced by men. It’s pretty consistent, at least in the European myths I’ve covered so far, that men can philander as much as they want with little more than a slap on the wrist, while there’s very few women in the mythos who can freely take multiple partners (and usually there’s a special goddess of love/sex that does most of it).

Gorgoneion Antefix Terracotta. Greek art, c. 500 BCE
Gorgoneion Antefix Terracotta. Greek art, c. 500 BCE

Or take Medusa’s story – she gets raped and it’s her fault? That is biggest, most egregious crock of shit (and yes, Medusa will definitely be in my story and she sure as fuck won’t be victim shamed)(actually, she might, because not all the characters will be good).

I’m looking at myths to see how they were used to maintain the status quo – and what the real stories they conceal may be. And I’m looking hard at the institutionalized misogyny in countries like India & Greece too – and the myths that helped shape them.

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That’s all folks! I actually managed to write somewhat quickly this morning, proving the power of complaining. And also because I have to go run some errands, so I’ll update y’all on what I’ve been reading next week.

Do you have any storytelling pet peeves? I want to hear them!

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