On Expository

Expository, for those that don’t know, is the explaining part of a story; the non-fiction grain of truth baked into your fictional sandwich. Its easiest to pick out in sci-fi stories because 1) you need to explain things more in a sci-fi story (what exactly is a Golding-Fargold Laser, Doctor?) and 2) you have some pretty classic characters to explain things to you. As a rule of thumb, if a guy or gal shows up in a sci-fi story wearing a lab-coat, you know you’re in for some expository (paging Commander Spock). If someone needs to explain to you the reader why the Golding-Fargold Laser is important to the plot line, than Dr. Lab-coat is just the gal to do it.

The problem is, expository is usually boring. Boring. Boring but necessary. Its the wikipedia entry you need to read in the middle of a car chase, the bad-tasting medicine you need to take to feel better, or the non-alcholoic beer served at a friend’s wedding. Sometimes a story really does need to explain things to you or it won’t work, and you just have to struggle though a couple of paragraphs to get back to the plot.

I bring all this up because I’ve been struggling with a story for the past fews weeks, and the process has been excruciating. See its a sci-fi story, and it takes place deep underwater. Because of this, almost everything about the world the story sits in is absolutely new to the reader. Had I set the story in space, I wouldn’t have to explain hardly anything. Everyone knows what a spaceship is, most people know that space is largely a vacuum (meaning there’s not many molecules laying around), and everybody knows what a light-saber or a blaster is. So, “he jumped into his spaceship, and secured his blaster before taking off.” is largely self-explanatory. But if I write, “he swam into his sub-reefer and checked the sonar for sea mounts,” there’s a lot of things missing. What is a “sub-reefer”? What are sea mounts? Sonar, for what?

So in the process of trying to figure out how this underwater world works that I invented in my head I have been constantly explaining things to myself as I write. Each and every new technology or slight change in the plot and suddenly I need a paragraph or two explaining why it is important. After a while, the story starts to sound like a travelog. Like this:

Quiency Pressure sits on the edge of an underwater peninsula called the Chatham Rise that sticks out from the Island nation of New Zealand, some 500 meters below the surface. Near the end of this peninsula sits a submerged mountain range only visible by the Chatham Islands on it tips. South and east of these islands the sea floor drops away rapidly, going from 500 meters to 4000 meters deep in just a few short kilometers. If such a rise were located on the North American continent, rather than deep beneath the Pacific ocean, it would create the tallest mountain in the United States. Though by the geological standards of the Pacific, this rise is small potatoes. This feature, called the South Wall, sits right on the edge of a region rich in valuable gold bearing ores and minerals. Its getting to these valuable ores that’s the tricky part.

See? That’s a nice descriptive. You now have a good picture in your head of where you are, but there is no story there. Its all expository.

I’ve now started this story five different times, and all together I have put down well over 10,000 words. Alas, with the exception of a few places, almost all of those 10k words are expository. There’s no story, just a lot of explanation. I’ve pitted my protagonist against sea monsters and corporate greed. Given him girlfriends, and killed off his partners. I’ve described the dangers of living deep in the ocean in a dozen different ways, and populated his world with a dozen different characters. And all of it is boring. And the frustrating thing was, I couldn’t figure out why.

Then finally, in the shower today I had this insight. There was too much explaining, and not enough storying. So I started on version six, and across the top I put these words:

Short and simple. Story of man, octopus, and ocean.

Then I started a new outline, keeping it clean, simple. My rule is now if it takes more then an adjective or a few words to explain something, then it goes without explanation. A sentence at the most. Nothing more.