September 10, 2008 / 1 Comment

The Ignorant Stranger

Exposition gets a bad rap.

People like to shriek that exposition kills a story, brings things to a grinding halt, and you’ll never make a sale if you use a lot of exposition. It’s an easy target, which is why lots of gurus warn against it and so many people latch onto it as an ironclad rule to be obeyed until the end of time. They can’t figure out how to do it, therefore no one should do it.

Of course, exposition isn’t a problem in and of itself, only when it’s part of bad writing. Honestly, you need to have exposition at some point or your story’s probably going to leave a lot of unanswered questions (and not in the good way). If you want proof, just look at a handful of the mildly successful movies or novels that use tons of exposition.

Star Wars – Ignoring the fact every movie in this series begins with a two minute text scroll, let’s look at the classic first film. Obi Wan spends a good four or five minutes explaining to Luke what the Force is and how it works. Darth Vader has to explain his relationship with Obi-Wan. The rebels have to explain the plans to the Death Star and how they’ll exploit its weakness.

Shogun—James Clavell’s best selling novel involves constant explanation as Captain Blackthorne, called Anji-san (Sir Pilot) by his captors, is forced to learn the Japanese language and culture in order to survive. He has to learn from scratch and drags the audience along with him.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – Right in the beginning of the film, Indiana Jones and Marcus Brody have to tell the two visiting federal agents about the legend of the Ark, its mythic powers, and where it may be hidden, a lecture that comes complete with pictures and chalkboard diagrams. Note that the two Feds don’t need to explain who the Nazis are and why they’re bad—everyone knows this.

The DaVinci Code – In Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, which pauses to explain historical details every ten or fifteen pages or so, Langdon and Sophie pause for two whole chapters in Leigh Teabing’s library while he relates a dozen or so different hypotheses about the blood line of Jesus, his relationship with Mary Magdalene, and how the Catholic Church has corrupted the Bible over the centuries to serve their own needs.

The Matrix—This movie has a staggering amount of exposition considering it’s known as a dynamic action film. It begins with characters discussing Neo (in voice-over no less), moves through Trinity and Morpheus each describing the mystery of the Matrix, and then Morpheus explaining the truth of it once Neo wakes up in the real world. The crew is explaining things constantly as Neo’s training begins. Cypher gets a little speech, so does Agent Smith… the exposition just goes on and on and on in this film.

Now, Damon Knight makes an interesting point in his book Creating Short Fiction (go buy it—most of his lessons are universal for fiction writing). A fact you don’t know that’s presented to you is information. It holds your attention for the sheer reason it’s something new. A fact you already know that’s presented to you is noise. It’s something you want to ignore and block out so you can get past it and back to the good stuff. This is why a lot of exposition fails—it’s information the audience either already knows or would be able to figure out on their own with minimal effort.

I’ll add one other tenet to that little point. Relevance. Information the reader needs for this story is vital. Information that has nothing to do with the story is wasting time and space. The catch here is the audience won’t know if something’s relevant or not until the final scene or the last page (although sometimes it’s painfully obvious). Notice in the above-mentioned scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the good Doctor Jones doesn’t progress into a lecture on Masada, the fortress-city where almost a thousand Jews were besieged by the Romans in 70 AD before committing mass suicide rather than be captured. The first time we all sat down, we wouldn’t’ve know any better and I have no doubt screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan could give us a completely gripping lecture on Masada. But then we’d reach the end of the film and say “What the hell was all that stuff about a fortress in there for?” Masada has nothing to do with the story of Raiders, which is why no one talks about it.

All those stories mentioned up above manage to pull off their reams of dialogue because they all do it essentially the same way. People in the know are giving information to people not in the know who need it. Years ago while writing one of my very first DVD reviews (for the miniseries adaptation of Shogun, actually) I came up with a term for this which I call the ignorant stranger. It’s when a character who is a source of information gets to do an infodump on a less-educated character. The name comes from John Blackthorne, the main character of Shogun, a man who is ignorant of Japan’s culture and language for the simple reason that it’s all completely new to him—an ignorant stranger. This is a surefire, never-fail, completely acceptable way to have exposition in your writing.

So, keeping that in mind, here’s the only two things you must remember so you can pull off the ignorant stranger in your writing.

First, the ignorant stranger can’t actually be stupid—there’s a big difference between ignorance and stupidity. It’s this particular situation that has put him, her, or them at a disadvantage. Your stranger has to be on the same level as your readers or viewers. We, the audience, are learning alongside them, so we don’t want to wait while the stranger’s educated on where hamburgers come from, what firemen do for a living, where Oklahoma is on a map, and who his friends and family members are.

Second, the Source explaining things has to be smarter than the stranger, and thus, smarter than your audience. If what’s being explained is something we can figure out on our own, or something that we’ll never need to know (within the scope of this story), then the Source is wasting their time, the ignorant stranger’s, and ours by explaining it. Remember, you want information, not noise. Yeah, maybe for whatever reason the Source doesn’t know much about U.S. currency, cooking on a grill, or this thing called love, but on the topic they’re explaining this character needs to be an authority. They don’t need a degree of some kind, the audience just needs to be clear the Source’s knowledge and understanding dwarf the ignorant stranger’s.

That’s it. Follow those two simple rules and you’ll be amazed how well exposition can work in your novels, screenplays, and short stories.

Speaking of which… aren’t you supposed to be writing?

0 replies on “The Ignorant Stranger”

Agreed, at least in most part.

You made me shudder when you invoked Dan Brown. On reflection, his exposition is probably the best part of his novels. It’s can be very interesting and fun (albeit wildly inaccurate).

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