Friday, May 30, 2014

What to learn about Exposition from Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files

Preface: I’m not gonna say much about the quality of Skin Game: A Novel of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Of course it was phenomenal. Butcher always brings the goods. If you like Urban Fantasy, you need The Dresden Files. But given that the book came out 3 days ago and there are already over 200 reviews, once again I’m not needed to help sell this one either.1  So instead, I’ll use it as an example of how to do exposition right. 

Warning: From here it’s spoilers all the way down.

Butcher is a master of exposition. We’re fifteen novels into this series and his fantasy ‘verse is VAST.2  Butcher views world mythology like a giant treasure vault that he’s got the keys to, so pretty much anything can show up. 3 As this book brought back a lot of old characters for a big multiplayer heist narrative (They knock over the Vault of Hades. It takes like three days because Harry’s a badass.) Butcher was free to bring a lot of past stuff in.

One thing he brought in was The Genowska, one of the Forest People. Now, I’m an avid reader, but I didn’t remember them at all. I was wondering if I’d missed a book, and it turns out I had. The Forest People were introduced in a short story published in an obscure anthology I haven’t read.4 However, because Butcher is a master of exposition, he managed it subtly.

(Presumably the Zombie T-Rex has it?)
We’re introduced to The Genowska subtly. In the abandoned slaughterhouse being used as a base there’s a pen containing eleven goats.
Then ten.
Then eight.

Something’s eating them, one at each meal. We get about 170 pages to worry about what terrible, invisible monster Dresden’s employer is feeding. Dresden, being tactful as a jar of live bees, gets tired of being in the dark.

“Whatever big, ugly, stinking, stupid thing you've got hanging around in here with us probably doesn't deserve to be in this company. Given our goal, I don’t see the point in taking along a mindless mound of muscle.”

But then the Genowska removes its veil. We get a good paragraph of description of a big, hulking thing, like the side of a mountain, growling at Dresden’s rudeness. But it’s not the size, or the growl, or the eyes “glinting like an assassin’s knives from a cave’s mouth.” It’s that Dresden stops being a wiseass.

“An ogre?” Ascher asked. 
“Not an ogre,” I replied immediately.5 “He’s one of the Forest People.”

Dresden then launches into a description of a Forest Person tearing through “about twenty ghouls in a fair fight.” However, note the technique: Butcher doesn’t just tell us that the thing mighty, but gives us an example of exactly how mighty. We’ve seen Dresden struggle with just three ghouls a few chapters back, so this is an impressive juxtaposition.

To reinforce that he’s worried enough about this thing to be respectful, he apologizes to it. “Sorry about what I said earlier. I figured [my employer] had a troll stashed around here somewhere. Didn’t realize it was one of the Forest People. I’ve done a little business with River Shoulders in the past. Maybe you’ve heard of–”

And then the Genowska punches Dresden across the room.

"The Ice that should have entombed him just...drained away..."
“Consider this a friendly warning. I am not one of the whimpering Forest People. Speak of me and that flower-chewing groundhog lover River Shoulders in the same breath again, and I will devour your offal while you watch.”

This is what's called “The Worf Effect.” When you have something badass, if something else beats that thing up it proves how dangerous it is. Here we have the Genowska calling something that can tear through a score of Ghouls “Whimpering” and “flower-chewing.”

And thus we have a dangerous and powerful foe established, juxtaposed against characters the reader hasn’t met (if they didn’t know about the short story, like me) and a mythology built up around them, all done through a single scene that builds on a history that, for all I knew, could have been only in the author’s head, but I still understood all of it.
The "Dean of contemporary
urban fantasy." – Booklist

In this single scene, we learn enough a suitable amount about

  • The Forest People 
  • How dangerous they are 
  • The Genowska 
  • How much more dangerous he is

To review, Butcher built up this monster by

  • Hinting at its presence several times 
  • Revealing it visually 
  • Showing how a character reacts to it, to give context 
  • Gives it an action and a line of dialogue

At no point does the book flat out say “The Genowska is dangerous.” We learn that through action.

Exposition can very easily bog down a book, especially a fantasy book. The lesson here is that when introducing something important to the novel, give it its own scene, show how it interacts with the world in action, as opposed to exposition.

If you want to learn more about how to write good fantasy, go pick up these books. It’s one of he best choices an aspiring fantasy author can make.

This isn't really related to writing, I just wanted to remind everyone that
this is canonically part of the Dresden Files now.

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