the underdark: a modified craftalk
on exposition, interiority, backstory
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
There was some interest in a craft talk I gave recently on the subject of exposition, interiority, and backstory. I thought I’d make some modifications and share it here for this week’s newsletter. But first, I guess, some thoughts about what prompted me to write this talk. I think I am by nature a writer who is very interested in gesture and in implication. I unpack it a little in the talk, but it probably comes from being a gay reader, lol. All that subtext hunting. Anyway, my default position is to place the primacy of a piece of fiction on its dramatic elements. It’s narrative elements, so to speak. Scene, etc. I often make fun of backstory and exposition.
But then I had this realization that many of the novels I love most are full of exposition and backstory. Even a novel I just picked up like Brideshead Revisited is full of flashbacks in flashbacks inside of recollections. Knausgaard’s novels are BURSTING with memories and flashbacks and digression. I can’t get enough! My favorite parts of Austen are the exposition bits! So then how to account for this. I decided that I would as an exercise take up the idea of defending exposition. I would try to uncover the peculiar power and force these things exert upon me. Why do I enjoy them and how can they be useful to writers.
In other words, I did what I was taught to do in science school, by my brilliant and at times difficult advisor, to take the thing I hold most true (a primacy upon scenes) and assume the opposite view and interrogate my belief with extreme skepticism until I arrive at something much more like the truth. Or a sincere clarity of vision. Anyway, that’s why I wrote this. I wanted to take exposition seriously and to see if I could come to a justification. Also to try to think through differences in approach to characterization in fiction. I do think it’s something that has changed in the last couple decades, but especially the last ten years. Those thoughts are still developing though. Anyway, this is just a talk I gave. Maybe I will come back to these ideas in an actual essay sometime.
OH. Also, forgot to mention last week, BUT, I wrote an introduction for an incredible book of lyrics by Robin Pecknold of the band Fleet Foxes, my favorite band! It’s coming from Tin House books. Info over here: Wading in Waist-High Water
Also, this summer, I will be teaching at the Tin House summer workshop! I’m so thrilled about it. Info here: Tin House Summer Workshop
For the most of the last year, I have been reading the novels of Emile Zola and the canonical writings of Sigmund Freud. I started with Freud because I wanted to understand the midcentury critical texts I was reading for fun. Fiedler, Trilling, Frye, and those dudes all contain pulses and traces of Freud. He kept getting mentioned, and I thought, oh, I should probably learn some things about that if I’m going to really get my head around these books. So I ordered a bunch and read them in a delighted haze over the summer, Hot Freud Summer, I called it. I am reading Zola for an assignment that I fear I am running long on, but it takes the time it takes.
Zola and Freud are two writers whose humor is very underrated. Zola’s humor comes from irony of situation. Humor of incident. Freud’s humor is linguistic. He enjoys puns and comedic asides. He’s also crass sometimes, and his use of exclamation points—at least, the use of them in the translations I’m reading—never fail to make me cackle. Freud has the humor of a frat boy, Zola that of an old-school withering homosexual socialite. But despite how much I laugh while reading Zola’s novels, he gets very bleak. There is so little, especially in those early and mid-career novels of the Rougon-Macquart series. I mean, at the end of Pot-Bouille, a teenaged girl gives anguished birth all alone in the attic maid’s apartment and then cuts her own umbilical cord and then goes to work while she’s slowly hemorrhaging to death only to be insulted and heaped with vulgarities. In the following novel, The Ladies’ Paradise, what starts out as a fun, Billions-esque capitalism romp, full of humor and verve, turns quickly into a death march as lives are torn apart, ruined, and everyone’s souls are gobbled up by the Gods of money. It ends well, happy almost, but it’s still a bleak fucking novel. My point, I guess, what I’m getting to, is that sometimes I have to take a break from Zola, and I turn to other novels to remember the human capacity for warmth, love, tenderness. So I read Henry James, Edith Wharton, Tolstoy. The result is that I’ve spent most of the last year reading old novels.
This puts me in a strange state of mind when I pick up a new novel. The characters feel so much more alien to me than Isabelle Archer and Ralph Touchett, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, the horrible monsters of Zola’s novels. Characters living out twenty-first century problems don’t feel as real to me. Well, they feel real. That’s the problem. The contemporary approach to characterization amounts to, what, a few carefully chosen details arranged in a mis-en-scene to give the sense of a consciousness, the outline of a figure, a person, a vibe, so to speak. Do characters still exist? Of course they do. Faye in the Outline novels and the narrator of Knausgaard’s My Struggle novels and of course Lenù and Lila from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, all very cerebral books. Patrick Melrose, too, some might say. The narrators of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead cycle. Elizabeth Strout’s cranky Mainers. There are, of course, other narrators, other characters, surely.
But I do feel that there is a difference in these characters and the characters of classic novels. If contemporary characters feel real to me and therefore flat, opaque, then characters in classic novels feel fictional, so totally fictional that they attain a human resonance in a way that I sometimes miss when I return to novels about people of my time and place.
It’s not that I think contemporary books are worse than classic novels. That would be silly. For one thing, the selective power of time has generated a highly curated list of hits. It’s more that I think there is a difference the nature of character. Or, the approach to characterization. Our contemporary narrators have much less explanatory power and authority than the omniscient though at times highly subjective and opinionated narrators of James and Wharton. There, is too, the issue of first-person, very en vogue at the moment. First person can create a distortion field around the narrator, making it difficult to perceive them. I think, too, that there is a real anxiety regarding exposition in fiction today. A fear of doing too much, giving too much away, revealing too much information for fear of disrupting the reader’s interest. And, too, the lingering specter of show, don’t tell.
I have been thinking quite a lot about the nature of exposition, interiority, and backstory in fiction. I suppose I should give some definitions, but don’t hold me to it. I consider exposition to be the parts of narrative that are explanatory re: plot, re: motivation, re: the world. Exposition has the quality of speaking directly to the reader or audience. It exists perpendicular to the narrative surface where the events of the story are unfolding. Interiority is access to a character’s inner life, be it direct access in the form of attributed thoughts or free indirect discourse or something more ephemeral like tone or feeling. Interiority often provides a frame or context to a situation from the place of character. Interior narration is another way to think of interiority. Backstory is perhaps the easiest and most obviously named. Backstory—often delivered via exposition or interiority—is simply the pre-history of a moment, character, place, or thing within a story. It can take the form of a flashback or simply a passage of exposition.
If you have taken a workshop or spoken to a writer about the thing we call craft, whatever that means, then you have perhaps heard some of these terms used. Often in the context of things to avoid or take out. Or perhaps you were like me and came to writing from the wrong way around and read too much Ibsen and watched too much queer French cinema as a teenager and all your stories were moody tone poems and therefore needed more explanatory power, not less. But either way, the explanatory budget of narrative is crucial.
It’s a bit of a truism that plot is character in action, and that characters best reveal themselves via their actions in scenes. That is, you can say something like Helena was a jerk or you can allow Helena to demonstrate that she is a jerk in a scene. Perhaps she steals candy from a baby or kicks over a neighbor’s trashcan or refuses to help her mother carry in groceries. The old adage of show, don’t tell. I think this is when it all started to go downhill for exposition. This idea that it is more powerful to see a character reveal themselves via their actions. I consider it a variety of behaviorism. The inference of an internal state through close observation of behavior.
This writer I love, Andre Aciman, once said that if you are going to make a painting about love, the last color you should use is red. That it’s more interesting to approach it at a slant. One thing that exposition can’t do, we are told, is slant. It exists to tell things how they are in a direct fashion. When the content of the exposition is the character’s interior state, we call it interiority. When it pertains to the pre-history of objects within the narrative, we call it backstory. In this way, we arrive the idea that backstory and interiority are simply specific iterations of exposition. They all function in a perpendicular way to the narrative itself, which is why you sometimes hear people say, “I was really in the moment, but the backstory took me out of it” or “I was enjoying the scene, but then we got bogged down with internal monologue.”
I’ve come to the notion that narrative—the experiential, the events of the story so to speak—constitute an exterior world. And exposition (along with interiority and backstory) constitute an inward world, and often, characters serve as the frictive boundary between the two, the place at which the interior concerns of the narrative find vent and manifest. It’s all rather Freudian, I know. In this analogy, the narrative is the conscious—exteriorly oriented, perceptual. Exposition is the unconscious, removed, interior, governing but via subduction and repression. Though, it would be more accurate to describe exposition as preconscious, but that’s getting rather into the weeds.
In one of his lectures on the unconscious, Sigmund Freud, when describing the relationship between the unconscious and the conscious systems of psychic life, said:
On the contrary, the ucs is a living thing capable of development, and it maintains a number of other relations with the pcs, including co-operation. In short, we must say that the ucs remains activate through its so-called derivatives, that it is open to influences from life, and that it constantly influences—and, conversely, is even subject influences from—the pcs.
That is that the unconscious is not some static realm whose dimensions may be indexed and accounted for and neatly summed up. It is not a mere storage facility for latent processes and objects. It is a living world whose expansions and contractions and contradictions make it a reverse image of the exterior-facing conscious.
For a long time—an embarrassingly long time—I thought that good writing was gestural. That it had only to do with what could be implied by action and scene. That exposition and backstory and interior monologue were tools of the emotionally evasive and the cowardly. That people were afraid of scenes because they lacked sufficient moral courage to follow through on their characters’ worst actions. I had a lot of very firm ideas about fiction. But what I’ve come around to is that exposition is indispensable. Critical to the mission of telling a story and telling it well. Indeed, I think that exposition, interiority, and backstory are absolutely essential to getting at that human resonance that makes the characters of James, Wharton, Austen, and Zola so utterly unforgettable.
So then, how do they do it?
Let’s start with Jane Austen’s Persuasion, one of my favorite novels about property and bad break ups. At the open of this chapter, we are introduced to Captain Wentworth, but of course, it’s really a reintroduction for the characters in the novel because Anne and Captain Wentworth were previously to be engaged and would have been if not for the interference of Lady Russell. Here is how Austen chooses to introduce Wentworth:
He was not Mr. Wentworth, the former curate of Monkford, however suspicious appearances may be, but a Captain Frederick Wentworth, his brother, who being made commander in consequence of the action off St Domingo, and not immediately employed, had come into Somersetshire, in the summer of 1806; and having no parent living, found a home for half a year at Monkford. He was, at that time, a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit, and brilliancy; and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling. Half the sum of attraction, on either side, might have been enough, for he had nothing to do, and she had hardly anybody to love; but the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail. They were gradually acquainted, and when acquainted, rapidly and deeply in love. It would be difficult to say which had seen highest perfection in the other, or which had been the happiest: she, in receiving his declarations and proposals, or he in having them accepted.
Here we have exposition functioning as backstory. It should be noted that at the end of the previous chapter, Anne was startled with the information that Captain Wentworth’s sister would be moving into her family home. We didn’t get her interiority at the moment of the revelation. The news was a blow to her, but we don’t pick up on that until we turn the page and arrive at the start of this chapter and find that everything which Anne could not say in the moment has turned inward and taken the form of a history. The external is integrated into the internal. The shock of Wentworth has moved from the realm of the conscious into the preconscious, into exposition.
The backstory continues, explaining that Captain Wentworth was kind of a broke, struggling, aimless young man with no real prospects and that Anne’s guardians sought to sever the connection because of the difference in circumstances and station while also articulating what drew them to each other, outlining the particularities of their attractions and commonalities. And then the big cut:
Such opposition, as these feelings produced, was more than Anne could combat. Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible to withstand her father's ill-will, though unsoftened by one kind word or look on the part of her sister; but Lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, could not, with such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner, be continually advising her in vain. She was persuaded to believe the engagement a wrong thing: indiscreet, improper, hardly capable of success, and not deserving it. But it was not a merely selfish caution, under which she acted, in putting an end to it. Had she not imagined herself consulting his good, even more than her own, she could hardly have given him up. The belief of being prudent, and self-denying, principally for his advantage, was her chief consolation, under the misery of a parting, a final parting; and every consolation was required, for she had to encounter all the additional pain of opinions, on his side, totally unconvinced and unbending, and of his feeling himself ill used by so forced a relinquishment. He had left the country in consequence.
More than seven years were gone since this little history of sorrowful interest had reached its close; and time had softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him, but she had been too dependent on time alone; no aid had been given in change of place (except in one visit to Bath soon after the rupture), or in any novelty or enlargement of society. No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle, who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth, as he stood in her memory.
And so it goes on further laying out the network of relationships that will come to shape and define our story. It is true that this history could have been titrated into scenes and in dialogue. We could have unfurled it slowly without dedicating an entire chapter to its explication and delivery. Yes. It is easy to imagine a situation in which a writing instructor, me for example, tells a young writer to cut the backstory and reveal these things indirectly, via action, or to let them exert pressure from off-stage. Anything not to disrupt what John Gardner called the continuous dream of fiction, the story, which places primacy upon the experiential, the interlocking scenes that drive narrative.
But, having read it, how can you argue with the magic Austen achieves. At the end of Chapter 3, Anne is startled by remembering Wentworth’s name, and then Chapter 4 takes the form of their history. That is more than just preserving the continuous dream. That is a recreation of how it feels to be alive. Who among us has not been jolted into memory by the return of someone or something we thought long behind us. Persuasion goes to become a novel so much about the ways that we are rendered unrecognizeable to ourselves or to others by way of our being persuaded to betray our most urgent wishes and desires. When you give away your power to someone else, you lose something of yourself. You become something else. The exposition explains, but more than that, it serves as a structural metaphor for the unconscious, for the unvoiced and unarticulated urges of the narrative. She cannot bring herself to explain the history. She can’t bear to say it aloud. She is still that girl who Lady Russell persuaded to give up Wentworth. And so she can only quietly supply the last name, and what see is, interiorly she absolutely still remembers. With vivid, painful clarity. How amazing is that.
Here we have a structural consequence of a character’s emotional state. And from this moment on, we will read everything that Anne does in the context of what we now know about her parting from Wentworth all those years before. It’s a stunning bit of structural magic that deepens and complicates both what we’ve just witnessed—Anne saying Wentworth in the previous scene—and what is to follow, a complicated re-encounter with the past. Achieved not by sneaking bits of information in, but by attending to the emotional needs of the story and the character. It demonstrates that exposition as backstory can have all the same resonances and depth as a scene.
It’s not just swimming backwards or treading water. Backstory complicates and deepens and reshapes a story, offering new layers of meaning and resonance. So when taking on backstory, it’s not just When I was little, I got my leg broken. Backstory should flow from the needs of the character and the story and the moment, and it should, or can at least, operate as a modulating force upon the story. Don’t just fill in the gaps in the narrative. Consider the emotional dimension of your characters’ history. And how does the revelation of the past change or shape or influence what a character is feeling or doing in the present.
But on to interiority.
I have been rather focused on third-person narration and rather focused on novels published long ago, so to borrow a contemporary example, let us turn to Nicole Krauss’s brilliant story “Seeing Ershadi” which is an extended meditation on the narration’s relationship to a film she saw at a turning point in her life, and the talismanic effect it accrues as the story progresses. In this passage, the narrator has just glimpsed the actor Homayoun Ershadi in Japan and sets out in pursuit of him. In the midst of this pursuit, we get this glimmering piece of interiority that deepens the encounter:
Love: I can only call it that, however different it was from every other instance of love that I had experienced. What I knew of love had always stemmed from desire, from the wish to be altered or thrown off course by some uncontrollable force. But in my love for Ershadi I nearly didn’t exist beyond that great feeling. To call it compassion makes it sound like a form of divine love, and it wasn’t that; it was terribly human. If anything, it was an animal love, the love of an animal that has been living in an incomprehensible world until one day it encounters another of its kind and realizes that it has been applying its comprehension in the wrong place all along.
Here is a pristine example of interiority. Not only thoughts. But thoughts about thoughts. It is a function of the retrospective element of the story. The narrator is looking back at this period in her life, sifting it for meaning and revelation. The revelation comes not in the real-time narrative element, but from the interior. More complicated still, it comes from the recreation of the interior within the narrator’s retrospective gaze. As Freud might say, the narrator raises the love object within the unconscious as a means of holding to it despite its loss due to time or death or the breaking of a relationship. This is how we preserve those things that mean the most to us, by erecting them again and again within ourselves. It is this action, this recreation of events, objects, people, that superimposes the narrative with something shadowy and more elusive. With meaning. With significance. It is why memory always comes with some curious gravity. Krauss demonstrates it beautifully here. “What I knew of love” references the narrator’s previous thoughts about love preceding that moment. “To call it compassion” signifies an argumentative frame. The narrator is making an argument about why this thing she felt in that moment was love and not something else. Note that she uses the present tense “call” meaning that this revelation is true of her now, but perhaps was not true of her then. And so we have captured in this moment of interiority the very act of meaning-making, which is, of course, a consequence of the exposition itself. Because if we had only access to the events as narrated to us, where would this revelation stem from? By what means would it be articulated to us? The exposition is what makes this moment possible.
One of my favorite bits of interiority comes from Anne Petry’s The Street. In this passage, we follow Lutie Johnson’s thoughts and impressions about working for a white family. Petry’s novel is masterful for a great many reasons—the precision of her portraiture, the dynamism of her scenes, the sweeping scale of point of view in this novel—but this passage demonstrates her at the height of her powers. Here, Lutie is reflecting on some crude comments made about her by one of her employer’s friends:
It was, she discovered slowly, a very strange world that she had entered. With an entirely different set of values. It made her feel that she was looking through a hole in a wall at some enchanted garden. She could see, she could hear, she spoke the language of the people in the garden, but she couldn’t get past the wall. The figures on the other side of it loomed up life-size and they could see her, but there was this wall in between which prevented them from mingling on an equal footing. The people on the other side of the wall knew less about her than she knew about them.
She decided it wasn’t just because she was a maid; it was because she was colored. No one assumed that the young girl from the village who came in to help when they had big dinner parties would eagerly welcome any advances made toward her by the male guests. Even the man who mowed the lawn and washed the windows and weeded the garden didn’t move behind a wall that effectively and automatically placed him in some previously prepared classification. One day when he was going to New Haven, Mrs. Chandler drove him to the railroad station in Saybrook, and when he got out of the car Lutie saw her shake hands with him just as though he had been an old friend or one of her departing week-end guests.
Note the grounding and situating phrases at the beginning of the passage: she discovered, made her feel, she could hear, she decided. Petry roots the observations and subjectivity in Lutie so that we know we aren’t just drifting out in space. We are in a particular mind at a particular time looking at a particular set of people. But the observations aren’t happening in real time. They aren’t experiential. That is, the events recounted in the passage are not happening in the plane of the narrative. They are recreated within Lutie’s mind. Her consciousness. And therefore, they are charged with her subjectivity. Yet, we aren’t siloed off from the world. She continues:
When she was in high school she had believed that white people wanted their children to be president of the United States; that most of them worked hard with that goal in mind. And if not president—well, perhaps a cabinet member. Even the Pizzinis’ daughter had got to be a school-teacher, showing that they, too, had wanted more learning and knowledge in the family.
But these people were different. Apparently a college education was all right, and seemed to have become a necessity even in the business world they talked about all the time. But not important. Mr. Chandler and his friends had gone through Yale and Harvard and Princeton, casually, matter-of-factly, and because they had to. But once these men went into business they didn’t read anything but trade magazines and newspapers.
No. They didn’t want their children to be president or diplomats or anything like that. What they wanted was to be rich—‘filthy’ rich, as Mr. Chandler called it.
These are not merely thoughts for the sake of thoughts. Note how Petry characterizes Lutie and the people she is observing, the Chandlers, yes, but white people in general. Petry fully understands that any act of observation and consideration tells the reader, a third party in all this, something about both the person looking and the person being looked at. It’s almost as if the interiority itself is not merely the mode but the subject of observation.
What I mean is that, what the reader takes away from this passage is in one sense Lutie’s thoughts about the people she works for and her whole way of life. But in another sense, what the reader takes away in a sense of Lutie herself. Her interiority, not so much the thoughts she thinks, but her way of looking and hearing and thinking and feeling are what is captured by the interiority. We have a sense of the motion of her consciousness, character in action, so to speak. The subtext of the interiority, in other words. If asked to describe Lutie Johnson, we wouldn’t give a list of thoughts she’s had. We’d try to capture that feeling we get when we watch her thoughts in motion, in action. What is revealed about her. That she is an astute judge of character, that she is curious about the ways of the world, that she can handle herself, that she knows what to keep to herself and what to let others have access to. She is watchful, and quite funny. And how do we know this? Because the motion of the interiority has summoned some sense of the woman. That is the power of a well-functioning interiority. A subtle, indirect revelation of a character’s mode of thinking and being.
When it comes to interiority, it’s not just about what the character thinks, but the internally coherent system of intelligence created in aggregate. The vibe, so to speak. The sense of a person evoked by careful observation of their observation.
Speaking of observing the observer. One of my favorite passages of exposition comes from The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James’s wonderful novel about agency and how getting what you want can ruin your life. In this passage, the narrator compares Isabelle Archer, our original and willful young heroine with a recent friend of hers, the older and refined Madame Merle. It’s a comparison that has many implications much later in the plot, but here, we can sort of imagine the tone being that of an awed young person gazing at and trying to comprehend an older, alluring figure:
When Madame Merle was neither writing, nor painting, nor touching the piano, she was usually employed upon wonderful tasks of rich embroidery, cushions, curtains, decorations for the chimneypiece; an art in which her bold, free invention was as noted as the agility of her needle. She was never idle, for when engaged in none of the ways I have mentioned she was either reading (she appeared to Isabel to read “everything important”), or walking out, or playing patience with the cards, or talking with her fellow inmates. And with all this she had always the social quality, was never rudely absent and yet never too seated. She laid down her pastimes as easily as she took them up; she worked and talked at the same time, and appeared to impute scant worth to anything she did. She gave away her sketches and tapestries; she rose from the piano or remained there, according to the convenience of her auditors, which she always unerringly divined. She was in short the most comfortable, profitable, amenable person to live with.
I imagine that this kind of going-on-and-on, telling, not showing though with a slight twist, is what people imagine when they think of classic novels. There is, yes, something old-fashioned about the kind of narrator who knows all of these things about Madame Merle, and who dispenses them with perfect clarity. This narrator also has access to Isabel Archer’s impressions of Madame Merle, and all of this knowing can feel oppressive or even beside the point. You might think, okay, get on with it. What’s the big deal. So she’s great. Who cares? But then, there’s a subtle change in the narration:
If for Isabel she had a fault it was that she was not natural; by which the girl meant, not that she was either affected or pretentious, since from these vulgar vices no woman could have been more exempt, but that her nature had been too much overlaid by custom and her angles too much rubbed away. She had become too flexible, too useful, was too ripe and too final. She was in a word too perfectly the social animal that man and woman are supposed to have been intended to be; and she had rid herself of every remnant of that tonic wildness which we may assume to have belonged even to the most amiable persons in the ages before country-house life was the fashion. Isabel found it difficult to think of her in any detachment or privacy, she existed only in her relations, direct or indirect, with her fellow mortals.
I found this passage thrilling and electrifying because it captures something that is so common to life but so hard to get right on the page: a character changing their mind or wrestling with their conception of something or someone. Isabel finds Madame Merle interesting and beyond reproach and beautiful and admires how she knows how to do all the right things and say all the right things, yet, Isabel also realizes that this is perhaps a flaw. Or, no, not a flaw, something else. Etc. Look how the sentences tumble over each other Isabel tries to justify her thoughts to herself. Tries to reconcile her adoration of Madame Merle with what might be a difference in personal philosophy. We discover later, of course, that the very thing that makes Madame Merle such a perfect companion is the very thing that makes Osmond, the real villain of this tale, not desire her. And it’s Isabel’s inability to perform all the perfect rites and rituals expected of her—or, not inability, but a lack of desire to perform them—that makes Osmond desire her. In this bit of exposition, we see captured Isabel’s ambivalence, the true ambivalence really liking someone, and really seeing them, and feeling a little conflicted about them. Liking and disliking something about someone at the same time.
Yes, this could have occurred in a scene. And note James brings us back to a moment, to an actual spoken exchange. But what exposition and this interior moment open up for the story is a space for Isabel to turn over these thoughts and to sort out her complicated feelings. It doesn’t feel static at all. It feels as vivid and dynamic as a scene. As a narrative in motion. It represents a crackling inner life both for Isabel and for the story itself. It is in such moments that a character springs so richly to life. In capturing the way that our feelings about ourselves and others roll over each other, crash and remake each other, one has achieves a dimensionality to storytelling that goes beyond mere efficiency and productivity of scene-making.
It’s not that scenes are not important. I personally believe in the primacy of scenes. The rapidity of dialogue and the directness of character confrontation. Scenes provide an exteriorization of the internal concerns of characters and story itself. Consider this passage from Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” in which the narrator describes the complex delusion of a character who is never actually in scene. Here, seemingly, the doctor, and the young man’s parents (the main characters of the story) converge into one narrative voice to discuss another character’s subjectivity. But what strikes me most about this passage is that it seems to represent a pure, unmediated contact with the story’s unconscious:
The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in a scientific monthly, which the doctor at the sanitarium had given to them to read. But long before that, she and her husband had puzzled it out for themselves. “Referential mania,” the article had called it. In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. All around him, there are spies. Some of them are detached observers, like glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others, again (running water, storms), are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not! With distance, the torrents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility. The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther away, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up, in terms of granite and groaning firs, the ultimate truth of his being.
This isn’t interiority exactly. It’s a second or thirdhand accounting of another character’s interior state. But it isn’t narrative. That precedes and follows this passage is the parents going into the subway and exiting the subway. So this passage exists out of the narrative stream, in the perpendicular of exposition. Yet, there is nothing static about it. It is not blandly explanatory. It provides information, yes, but it also feels like a primal screaming coming up out of some deep, dark place in the story. It’s a howl.
I think we have to change the way we approach exposition. It feels that the term has accrued this reputation as a thing that bogs down story or slows down plot or else, as a thing that dryly explains and extols. That sets up plot and explains away complication. Exposition, too direct, too neat, too much information, oversharing, just there to get the readers caught up on everything so that we can get to the real stuff.
I think exposition is a manifestation of the very unconscious of story. The underdark. Where characters confront, not each other, but themselves. It is the story thinking about itself. About its own intentions. Its own meaning. Exposition does more than explain and situate and organize. It exerts on a force upon all of the material that falls within its domain. Anything passing through the underdark enters the narrative charged. A symbol is an object of the story’s unconscious which also participates in the narrative. That is symbols draw their power from the underdark. A symbol has meaning and power in a story because it is a citizen of both worlds. It represents the underdark within the narrative.
I suppose a short way of saying all this is that exposition is a channel through which meaning flows from the hidden, mysterious realm of the underdark into the world of the narrative. Another way still: it is the voice of that other world, speaking to you directly.
As an ex-biologist of sorts, love this about science's approach to evaluating an idea, and applying that to literature: "to take the thing I hold most true (a primacy upon scenes) and assume the opposite view and interrogate my belief with extreme skepticism until I arrive at something much more like the truth. Or a sincere clarity of vision."
This has probably been said better elsewhere, but it occurs to me that the well-worn examples of the victory of show over tell (e.g. the "baby shoes for sale never worn" stuff that's supposed to make the reader gasp without backstory) may only work because the reader is (ideally) supplying the unconscious backstory for the action. But when the character in question isn't a universally adored object (a baby vs Isabelle Archer) or the social context isn't immediately obvious (parents put an add in the paper, vs the social customs of the former age), then, like, you probably need some backstory. Need to fill up the tank of the unconscious before gesturing at it, or something. Or as in Persuasion, leave the reader looking for the backstory as a way to drive the narrative forward. Anyway, using this Freudian framework to think about exposition is really fascinating -- thanks for this.
Thank you. Very helpful, both as a reader and a writer. Made me think of the wonderful dinner party scene early in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, when he mixes together back story, interiority, and the real-time narrative conversation, and, for me, reaches the height of his creative power.