Monday, January 3, 2011

The Short Story for the Editor, Part Four: Exposition

Perhaps the very notion of complex thoughts and concepts is a point to belabor. Perhaps not. It's possible that in our pursuit of the editor's short story, we're going about it completely in error. There is the academic approach to all of this, and we do use a little of that here. A little bit of formal training can't be all bad. Rather, when we talk about the short story we're doing it from a worker's approach. Hopefully, we're all busy working at our desks or cafe tables, and we're reading and writing and thinking. I, for one, have written a couple of short stories during this short story for the editor series that I am almost proud of. I hope you can say the same thing. A quick rehash: character, conflict, and plot. All good things to consider in the short story. Today, it gets more worthy of consideration.
Today's discussion and this week's pursuit: exposition.
To take the formal let's look at the way John Gardner describes and defines exposition for us:

In his exposition, the writer presents all that the reader will need to know about character and situation, the potential to be “actualized.” Obviously he cannot plan his exposition without a clear idea of what the development section is to contain and at least some inkling of what will happen in the denouement, since in the novel, as in the short story or novella, what the reader needs to know is everything that is necessary if he is to believe and understand the ensuing action... And here, as in the shorter forms, what the reader learns in the exposition he must be shown through dramatic events, not told. (Gardner 186)

Here, John Gardner takes for granted that the students of fiction are just in a pursuit of the novel. Yet, he does make a few good points: give the reader what they need to know and give it through dramatic events. Fair enough.
Let's consider exposition in a dismantling the word way. All it means when you look the this word: expose-to uncover, bring to light and -tion, a noun. Just bring to light the events and that's all we need to do. Right?
I have always found this concept of exposition tricky when spoken of in a theoretical way. This is why I have suggested that the academic is not going to get us there any quicker. As with other complex concepts presented to us as human beings, concepts like irony or love, we must first be given an example, then a definition, then a connection. When we think about exposition, let's think about the storytellers we have in our lives. A writer should be a storyteller, yes, but not all storytellers are writers. Many storytellers do what they do because not all that far back in our history all stories were passed along orally. Perhaps this is still imprinted on our genetic code and it's more pronounced in the storytellers.
My grandfather, Frank Aiello, was one hell of a storyteller. He would have entire rooms of people entertained with some yarn about judges and immigrants, poachers and the game warden, wops, krauts, japs and polacks, in short all his brothers who he loved and they all had funny stories too. His method of exposition? Well, he told people what they needed to hear for the story to make sense. He also used different details during different tellings, if the audience was different or needed different things to understand. He was magical in so many ways. As a child I would listen to these stories and see the reactions on the listeners and I would jump as he delivered the denouement to everyone's delight.

So? Where does that leave us? Somewhere between a “higher” thinker with a dry explanation of exposition and my grandfather who knew how to employ it without ever giving it a name.
Somewhere between.
I believe most writers have this betweenness when it comes to the exposition. Gardner recommends that the first 1/3 of a story be dedicated to the exposition, the second 1/3 to the development and the last 1/3 to the denouement. He also subscribes to Aristotle's begin “in the middle of things.” Where do we fit in now? We're writing a story for our magazine editor, remember?
I think the clever writer who invests in the story, the characters, their struggles and desires and then the overall construction of the short story can have the exposition happening at every turn, every page.
I've come up with a few examples that may or may not be pertinent to the short story.
Julio Cortazar's “Marvelous Pursuits” in Unstable Stuff comes to us first. In less than five hundred words we go from a severed spider's leg to enemy troops invading the city. How can these two events be linked? I ask you assuming you've never read the story. How can you, or any writer get from one to another of these points and in less than 500 words? The beginning: “cut off the leg of a spider” certainly in the middle of things. Then the character proceeds to mail it to the minister of foreign affairs, builds mountains out of sugar, dances under trees, then to the denouement. The letter is opened and the troops invade. Exposition? All the way through, not just the first third: 166 words.
We've talked about Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams before. I think John Gardner would have loved this book. Lightman has a beginning, a middle and an end. He starts in the middle of the action. The plot definitely uses the Fichtean Curve. It's beautiful and beautifully written. It is a novel, so this example may be a bit of stretch for the short story. In the chapter “20 May 1905,” Lightman suggests a world where there is no memory. As a reader of this chapter, you are discovering the aspects of this world as the characters do, they have no memory and we've never been there before. Talk about giving the reader what they need to know-it's discovery and it's inclusive.
The last example is another snippet, crup or vignette. From an academic stand point, Richard Brautigan is an absolute disaster. But when we consider the intuitive nature of the storyteller, we must not discount Brautigan. I present “Trout Death by Port Wine” in Trout Fishing in America. “It was not an outhouse resting upon the imagination. It was reality.” It's fantasy and nonsense and a funny way of digging at the journalistic writing and Alcoholics Anonymous. Who knows? They may be or may not be helpful examples to you, but it should be enough to get you to think.

This week's exposition task:
1)listen to a storyteller or solicit a story and pay attention to the exposition.
2)knows that these pieces of exposure are the tools for the reader to understand and make sense of events, motivations and action. You are reading, aren't you? Read, read, read. As you read short stories know that this exposition is happening. Keep reading. If you're all out of fresh stuff to read, look at some of the wonderful magazines online. Check for some magazines. This will be part of this program in a couple of weeks, so consider this a head start.
3)expose us to a character. List out all the good actions, evil actions or both that make that character who s/he is.
4)the short story (or stories) you've been working on since we began should give you an indication of how you use exposition. You should be armed with enough exposition-sense to see it.
5)need an exercise: Here's one from Kyle Bass-
a)pick three of the following: a foreigner, a person suffering from memory loss, a child, an alien from outer space.
b)give them an everyday object that they have to figure out what it is.
c)begin in the middle of the conflict.
Exposition here? Probably. Good luck, and happy writing.

Brautigan, Richard. Trout Fishing in America. Dell: New York, 1967.
Cortazar, Julio. Paul Blackburn, trans. Cronopios and Famas. Pantheon Books: New York, 1969
Gander, John. Art of Fiction. Vintage: New York, 1982.
Lightman, Alan. Einstein's Dreams. Warner Books: New York, 1994

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