World Building vs. Storytelling: The Power and Impotence of Exposition

One thing that separates classic and modern fantasy, and seems to persist as a dividing line between British and American works as well, is the prevalence of lengthy exposition, particularly that applied to the setting.  Psychologist B.F. Skinner posited that with each subsequent generation, modern audiences have greater need for immediate gratification in their consumption of media.  Newspapers gave way to radio, and radio to television, and with each new innovation, the need – and thereby the desire – to wait decreased.

This certainly seems true for me in my reading of fantasy, as I find the works of Tolkien nigh unreadable, and I dismiss Robert Jordan as long-winded and pretentious.  My eyes automatically glaze over any detailed descriptions of the slope of a hill or that precise shade of orange that only occurs in an autumn sky at 7:18 AM on the Northwest coast of – insert fantasy land here – during the second solstice on the morning after a full moon.  I mean, seriously, give me a break.  Who has time for that nonsense?

There were times during my reading of Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains when my gaze jumped over a bit of exposition, my brain deeming it insignificant as I bridged the gap in text with my own imagination.  Regardless of my personal tastes, one thing is for certain: an author cannot ever expect the reader to see their environment precisely as they imagine it, no matter how precise the description.  Isn’t it better, then, to cover it in broad strokes, and leave it to the reader’s mind to ink the finer details?  While Morgan is nowhere near as wordy as a Jordan or a Tolkien, he could stand a trim here and there.  However, one thing that I can say for him is that he has moments of truly stunning exposition.

The sun lay dying amid torn cloud the color of bruises, at the bottom of a sky that never seemed to end.  Night drew in across the grasslands from the east, turned the persistent breeze chilly as it came.  There’s an ache to the evenings up here, Ringil had said once, shortly before he left.  It feels like losing something every time the sun goes down. [p. 12]

For most people, and in most places, sunsets are regarded as beautiful, for their dazzling and often unique array of color, for the opportunity to look directly at the sun, for the painterly transition from day to night.  For this, they are often the setting for many romantic scenes in books and film alike.

Yet, from the very first sentence of the paragraph above, we view the sunset through a different lens – one of morose, even pessimistic contemplation.  The sun is not merely setting to rise another day, it is dying.  The clouds are torn, suggesting that their condition is not natural, but has been inflicted upon them.  The color is of bruises, not the more benign hues of flowers or other more pleasant things.  In fact, the sun is not so much setting, it seems, as being assaulted by the oncoming of night – wounded, killed, then gone permanently cold.

Aside from the obvious success of this passage in creating a mood, it also speaks volumes about the character Ringil, a grizzled war veteran who is estranged from his family, and completely cynical towards political establishment.  His is an embittered, often caustic personality, and yet here in this paragraph we get to see some of the wounded spirit beneath the calloused persona.  Far from filling his head with romantic notions, the sunset in this place fills him with an ache, a sense of loss – perhaps another reminder of all that he has suffered, on the battlefield, in the court, and amongst his own family.  It is a rare insight into the vulnerability of a man who otherwise interacts with people from the other end of a blade – both his physical weapon and his sharp tongue.

More than creating a vivid visual, this bit of exposition serves additional purposes – one being to convey the mood of the place, and also the far more important task of character development.  In my opinion, this is the strength of the modern writer, to be able to say so much in so little space, to be concise but no less evocative.

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