June 19th, 2005


The Exposition Dwarf Says

While it may be tempting to lay out the main thematic conflict on page 84 in so many words, I find it is not a satisfying reading experience:

"Carla, this isn't about you and Chris. It's barely about you at all. Benito's talking about internal contradictions. Living with what you are, with what your society is. At Hammett McColl, Chris could do that because there was a thin veneer of respectability over it all. At Shorn, there isn't."

Everybody got that? The conflict between characters is really a conflict inside one character, and the other one (the wife, "coincidentally") doesn't matter in itself; it's just there to dramatize the really important stuff. (Marriages, we are all apparently to understand, are not really important.) The Exposition Dwarf* has told you so.

If you have done your job as a writer, the reader will see that the conflict in the main character's marriage is all part and parcel of his larger turmoil without you having to spell it out in all caps. If you haven't, spelling it out in all caps will not be effective anyway. Either way, you lose.

You especially lose when a father's reaction to trouble in his daughter's marriage is, "oh, honey, this isn't about you, it's about sociology and worldbuilding."

I am talking to you, Richard K. Morgan!

I keep coming back to papersky's dragons, how I had an argument with somebody (I forget who) who was claiming that Tooth and Claw wasn't really about dragons, and I kept saying no, really it is. It's also about other things, but if it wasn't really about dragons, it would be a much different, and worse, book. And Morgan is doing that here: he's skimping on one level of the story he's trying to tell. If the story is to work, interpersonal conflicts can't just be illustrations of the point the author is making about society. They also have to matter to the reader as interpersonal conflicts, or the whole thing will fall flat. Which -- so far, as of page 84 -- it is.

*Ever since the beginning of the movie version of "The Two Towers," we have referred to characters who are around to tell you what's going on as The Exposition Dwarf. "Thank you, Exposition Dwarf!" we mutter. The other thing we mutter at points like these is, "Everybody got that?" as in "Spaceballs."