Tag Archives: setting

The Art of Narrative, Part Two: Exposition

Welcome back!

***A quick note before we begin—the call for flash topics opens today! Please send your idea (a theme, a sentence, a prompt, or a couple of words) to evariederauthor@gmail.com. I will be choosing a topic and incorporating it into a 500 to 1,000 word piece for next week’s Third Thursday Flash. Submissions will remain open until Monday the 8th at 8 p.m. Pacific Standard Time! In your email, please let me know if you would prefer I keep your name anonymous should I pick your idea, and thanks for participating!***

Last Thursday, I started an exploration of the art of narrative. My post focused on point of view (otherwise known as POV), and now that we’ve established who the narrator/speaker is, we move into the first stage of the narrative arc: exposition.

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary Online, exposition is “1. a setting forth of the meaning or purpose (as of a writing) [and] 2. discourse or an example of it designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand.” Thus the point of the exposition is to provide the reader with background information and details that will set the tone for the rest of the work. This happens in three key parts: setting, character details, and mood.

Let’s focus on each individually.

Setting

The setting tells us where and when a story takes place, but also introduces themes and background viewpoints essential to the story. While the where is portrayed with ample sensory detail and gives the reader an idea of where he or she is about to set foot in the story, other information is provided at this stage to signal pending plot lines and narrative themes (for example, homelessness and hunger in a post-apocalyptic world, or political upheaval in an ancient time). These features help readers identify potential goals of characters they will meet, which will further their understanding of why characters make their choices. Writer and former agent Nathan Bransford wrote an excellent post about these deeper aspects of setting, which you can read here.

Depending on the plot of the story, setting may reappear throughout the work or change dramatically with each chapter (for example, a space opera might center around a ship that docks at various planets, each conveyed with new setting details, whereas a story that takes place entirely in a house will not need to add much in the showcasing of different rooms). Whether local or more broad, setting at every stage of the story helps orient the reader and provides context for the plot.

Character Details:

Along with the background detail of the setting, the exposition introduces a protagonist. A skilled writer unveils the protagonist slowly yet thoroughly, making him, her, or it accessible to the reader without creating an “info dump” of all their personal details. This gradual familiarity allows the reader to identify the character’s goals and struggles, so that they in turn will understand the intensity of the impending conflict and the character’s reaction. Though the antagonist and/or conflict is not always introduced in this stage, some motivations or issues may start to surface in preparation for the obstacle to come.

Characters must become real to their readers. This is accomplished through a portrayal of their interests, thoughts, speech patterns, behavior, appearance, and other mannerisms, as well as how they interact with others. Dialogue, inner thoughts, and actions are all compelling ways to take the reader on a journey through the characters’ personal details instead of listing them in a bland and telling way. “Joe had red hair. Joe had a big nose. Immediately, Joe lost his wallet and screamed. This was because Joe had a rager of temper, so when he started yelling everyone ran in fear.” Not so interesting, right? As writers, we must be mindful of how we introduce character details, making sure to feed traits through action so as to pull the narrative along in a smooth manner. UDL Editions by Cast provides some helpful quotes and thoughts on characterization here.

Mood:

Setting and characterization are huge aspects of a narrative—but the mood is also important. Mood is what the reader feels, a sensation that will carry him or her through the work. This mood is a foreshadowing of sorts, alerting the reader to the story’s possibilities. Word choice, tone, voice, theme, imagery, dialogue, character behavior, and setting details are all features that convey mood. A shadowed forest with heavy winds and a mumbling vagabond might alert the reader to a sinister, dark tale, while a giggling, blushing child running across a pier might indicate a lighthearted and fun tale to come.

Through each part of the exposition—setting, character details, and mood—writers prepare the reader for the narrative journey ahead. Some writers spend a great deal of time on the exposition stage, and in turn, some readers love a lengthy and detailed exposition before diving forward in the narrative. Other writers craft a shorter exposition with the hopes of letting more details reveal themselves throughout the piece.

What about you—what’s your style when it comes to exposition length and detail? What is your favorite to read?

Please share below! I’d love to hear. 🙂

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Juliet Dark’s THE DEMON LOVER

Oh my goodness, am I excited to tell you about this book!

For years I’ve loved Carol Goodman‘s work. You’ll even find her book, The Lake of Dead Languages, listed as one of my favorites on my Links page. Ms. Goodman’s stories usually fall into the genre of contemporary/mainstream literature, and her style is quite gothic and eloquent. So, suffice it to say I was delighted to discover she’d made a crossover, writing a gothic paranormal romance under the pseudonym of Juliet Dark.

And what a read it was! Goodman/Dark’s prose is enchanting, and her imagery is mind-boggling and rich. Every time I read her work, I find passages to read over and over for their lush beauty.

The same held true in The Demon Lover, in which a college professor with a background in the supernatural—vampires, fairies, incubi, and the like—found her way to an unusual college in the remote town of Fairwick, New York. Callie McFay has spent her life sharing her knowledge of supernatural creatures in literature, and something about the town draws her in. She is also captivated by an old Victorian home in the area, but soon finds there is something more to her love of the house than she realized. Callie has a demon lover, a man made of shadow who comes to her in her dreams and sucks her life breath in exchange for the love they share, and while she realizes the danger of their affair, she must find a way to separate her heart.

What I found delightful about this book—besides breathtaking love scenes and settings filled with beautiful detail—was the collection of other mythical creatures Callie finds in Fairwick. Callie learns a lot about herself as well as her supernatural studies through these people, and the relationships between the characters are natural and well-portrayed. In truth, when I finished the book and realized it was the start of a series, I decided I might very well have found my next Sookie Stackhouse collection. The difference between Charlaine Harris and Juliet Dark, however, is tremendous. Callie’s tale sits closer to the dark, gothic world of Thornfield Hall in Brontë’s Jane Eyre (another favorite!) than that of Sookie’s Louisiana world, and her story is far more serious.

I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved it. I am a slow reader, but I found myself reading it everywhere—on the cardio machines at the gym, at stoplights, standing in lines, and for an hour or two every night—because the world Goodman/Dark creates is so detailed. She is an author able to make characters out of setting, breathing life into things as simple as snow, wind, and plant life, and thus it is no wonder I found myself as seduced by the shadowed incubus as poor Callie.

I highly recommend this one, folks. For now, I’m off to pre-order the second book.

Happy reading! 🙂


Playing with Setting

Writing setting is all about creating a location and making it as real to the reader as possible. Some authors spend a great deal of their exposition on setting, while still others choose to infuse it more gradually throughout their work. No matter what the method, the act of building setting is essential, since it helps to create the very atmosphere and tone that will embrace the readers approaching your work.

This week I flew to visit some of my family. Most of us have been on an airplane at least once in our lives, making it easy to identify several common features: cramped seats, narrow aisles, tiny bathrooms, packaged peanuts or pretzels, miniature drinks, grouchy people, rickety tray tables, and colorful emergency pamphlets. As I sit on the plane, I always try to find some enjoyment in elaborating on these features. I think of it as playing with my setting.

I’ll start with a simple statement: It is 8:40, and I am on an airplane. Then I’ll begin to add some key details.

I am on an 8:40 p.m. flight, wedged uncomfortably into my uneven seat due to the broken spring beneath my left thigh. The plane reeks of stale pretzels and a potential sanitary issue in the nose-end bathroom.

As the flight attendants begin their speech about the procedure should we experience a sudden change in cabin pressure, I add in a few more details.

The air that spews from the vents above is doing nothing but suffocating me with a steady stream of hot air, making it more difficult to breathe against the surrounding stench.

The man next to me sneezes without covering his mouth, and after stealing a quick glance in his direction, I add more to my mental image.

The hum of the jet steadily increases, but not as rapidly as the sound of breathing that pours from the stuffy nose of the man to my right. He squirms in his seat, sneezing repeatedly until I’m forced to peer away. At the same moment, the little girl to my left tugs off her sweater, her sleeve nearly smacking me in the jaw.

Suddenly I realize that the dismal light above is not going to provide much to read by, leaving me little to do but continue my imagined ride. I do, after all, write fiction. Why not make this airplane scene go in a slightly more fantastical direction?

The girl looks up to me, her eyes glowing a light shade of green. She grins, her teeth sharp against her rose-red tongue and her lips pursing together when the man to my right sneezes again. She peers past my shoulder, her eyes slitting narrowly at him as the plane hits some turbulence. It bounces us violently in our seats in a manner that somehow does not seem to affect her.

The man sneezes. The girl licks her lips. Across the aisle, another man stands from his seat, so I add this in too.

Despite the captain’s direction for us to remain in our seats, a lanky man across the aisle stands from his chair, beginning to chat up the flight attendant before he heads toward the nose-end bathroom in a near run.

Then:

A thud sounds from the left of the airplane, as if something hit the plane and bounced repeatedly along its side. A shadow passes over us, the darkness outside creeping in, mimicking the growing smile from the girl in seat 7A. The chill looming over our row makes the sneezer in seat C and me in seat B start to shiver convulsively….

The joy of setting is that it can effectively set the tone for the work to-be. I have  no idea what to do with my airplane vision so far, but when I make a few tweaks and tie all the setting details together (as well as a little characterization and some information to build a scene), here’s what I have:

I buckle my seat belt on the 8:40 p.m. flight, my body pitched at an uncomfortable angle thanks to the broken spring beneath my left thigh. The plane reeks of stale pretzels and a potential sanitary issue in the nose-end bathroom, and the steady stream of hot air from the vent above makes it even more difficult to breathe against the stench. While the hum of the jet steadily increases, so does the ragged breathing that pours from the stuffy-nosed man next to me. He squirms, rocking our seats as he sneezes repeatedly, forcing me to peer away. As I turn, the little girl to my left tugs off her sweater and nearly smacks me in the jaw with her sleeve. She mutters, “Sorry,” before looking up at me, her light green eyes glowing. When she grins, her teeth press sharply against her rose-red tongue. The man to my right sneezes again and the little girl purses her lips together. She peers past my shoulder at him as the plane hits some turbulence and bounces us violently in our seats. She is not affected, her eyes slitting narrowly when the captain directs us to remain in our seats and a lanky man across the aisle stands from his chair. He chats up the flight attendant before running toward the nose-end bathroom at full speed.

A repeated thud sounds from the left of the airplane, as if something hit the plane and bounced along its length until it flew off into the nothingness behind us. Immediately a shadow passes over, the darkness outside creeping in, mimicking the growing smile from the girl in seat 7A. The sneezer in seat C and I start to shiver convulsively…

Though it is most certainly not a finalized scene, the setting aspects already have me thinking of where I could go from here. Playing with setting like this is a good practice to hone in useful details for writing, even if this particular piece never comes to life in a real story. The feel of the plane, and the random acts of the people around me on the plane, are all items that could be stashed in a mental rolodex of story components.

As I’m thinking about this, the lights above the walkway randomly start flickering, causing a gasp from some of the other passengers. I smile, then close my eyes to take a nap before we land…the sound of 7C’s stuffy breathing in my ear.

Happy Friday the 13th, everyone!


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