By Kerstin Hall
I’m running a meeting on plotting and exposition tomorrow evening. Which sounds about as exciting as a Statistics lecture, but is actually pretty cool. To me anyway. The Inklings might not be as easily pleased.
So plotting. In my opinion, it’s all about consistency. Let’s take Robinson Crusoe as an example. The book is structured as follows. Boring introduction, ACTION! PIRATES! exposition about plantation life, talking about traveling, traveling, SHIPWRECK! listing provisions, listing provisions, listing provisions (goes on for a very long time), surviving, thinking, thinking, thinking about god, thinking about food, collecting food….
And then, in the last couple of pages CANNIBALS AND ACTION!
This was part of our English course. And, terrible student that I am, I didn’t even finish the book. I got stuck in the endless listing of menial details and theorizing. Nothing was happening. And then (I’m taking other students’ words for it) everything happens very rapidly right at the end.
Even the lecturers dislike this book.
I would propose that maybe the problem with it is one of plotting (and padding, but never mind that). See, the abyss of nothingness in the middle of the book is where most of my classmates joined me in opting out. It was drudgery. And that’s not fun to read
Much literary theory states that plots should be structured thusly:
(thanks to this website for the picture: http://www.neshaminy.org/Page/25049)
Which is all very well. It’s what everyone is familiar with. There is nothing wrong with this structure; it has produced brilliant literature. However, it’s not the only way of doing things.
Introducing in medias res and the action prologue.
In medias res is latin for ‘in the midst of things’. Basically, it takes a scene that happens in the exciting climatic part of the story and plants it in the opening chapter. For an example, take The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams. The book opens with a scene that doesn’t occur chronologically until the third act. The protagonist is at the headquarters of an company owned by an archduke of hell, getting attacked by said archduke’s secretary. The reader is probably confused as anything, but at least they are interested. In this case, exposition has been foregone for the sake of excitement. And that’s okay.
The role of the author is to fill in the gaps afterwards, in a this-is-how-we-got-to-this-point kind of way. There is potential for things to fall apart here, because there is generally a massive drop in the level of suspense and intrigue. The characters go from fighting a crazy demon secretary to having a chat in a bar three months previously (excuse potential inaccuracies to Tad Williams’ work. I read this a while ago). This is difficult to navigate, but not impossible. The key is probably character. If your character is boring, the reader won’t care enough to plod through the bits leading up to the exciting bit.
Option B is the action prologue. In this case, the story simply starts at an exciting place. Think of any James Bond movie ever. The impetus is not then to go back and fill in the expositional details, but to plow straight ahead from the action-filled opening scene. Exposition usually takes a backseat in these kinds of stories; the reader is thrown in and expected to start swimming. That’s not to say that things aren’t explained. They just get shown rather than told, in most cases. It can even be used as a tool for creating intrigue, because the reader is left to wonder about the character’s histories. It’s exposition made interesting.
The worst kind of action prologue, however, is the dream opening.
Don’t do it. Just don’t. It’s cliché. Unless this story requires your character to be unconscious and pseudo-prophesizing about future events, this will remain a cheap gimmick.
You can choose to write either an action prologue or an in medias res opening. The idea is to be exciting and charismatic without confusing your reader so much that they want to burn your work. Balance exposition with action.
It’s a pretty open-ended task, so give it some thought and then embark.