Friday, September 25, 2015

Exposition versus Description

I saw the unthinkable yesterday. Someone gave my story, "Harvest of War," only 1 star. :( They quoted the first two lines and said "It doesn't get any better." Then they later referred to the writing as "boring and banal." They did, however, indicate that it was a personal preference and that if others are tempted they should have a look at the sample of the story. I appreciated that. I then found a second 1 star review, but I have the suspicion these may be by the same person since both are "jonsomething" and both indicated they like Amish themed fiction. That can't be all that common.

Honestly, I'm not very hurt by this. People have different tastes. I am, however, immensely curious. Why did this individual judge those first two lines as being so bad? I actually think they are rather good. I began to wonder if it might have to do with different preferences for level of description, exposition, and dialogue. The opening of "Harvest" has no dialogue. It depicts a battle scene to set up the story. 

But now I have a question that perhaps some of you might be able to help me with. I've quoted the opening paragraphs to "Harvest of War" below. No dialogue as you can see. However, would you consider this section to be more description or more exposition? I have to confess that I don't quite understand the difference between these two. Exposition appears to me to mean "explanation." Description gives visual and other sensory images. To me, there is some exposition below, but mostly this is description. However, I have heard this section of the story described as "classic exposition" by another reviewer, who liked the overall story very much. 

Can you help me understand this concept?


Across a snowfield that lies red with dawn, the Orc charge comes.

And is met.

Axes shriek on shields. Swords work against armor into flesh. The tips of spears are wetted. Gore dapples the snow.

For a moment, the human line holds. Then the center wavers. In a frenzy, an Orc squad punches through. More Orc pour in. The gap widens. The human forces fold back in desperate defense to either side of the breakthrough. Victory rewards the most brutal.


Across the field of now trampled snow, a new army appears—human cavalry mounted upon chargers of black. Banners unfurl. Horns skirl. Only too late do the Orc realize they’ve been tricked.

The mounted charge comes crashing. The hooves of warhorses hammer the ground to icy slush as lances headed with black iron are couched. The rear of the Orc army falls like wheat before that scythe. 


pattinase (abbott) said...

Amish-themed fiction? That must be a small group. Maybe just the one or two of them.

Unknown said...

I am not going to "judge" your imaginative writing, even though I teach English composition, and I think only authors are best qualified to judge their own efforts.

However, at the same time, especially since I have lately been reading Hemingway, I would -- if I were a writer, or if I were advising an imaginative writer -- be comfortable following Hemingway's example; in other words, choose and show only the 1/8 of the iceberg, and let the 7/8 remain beneath the surface. Less is better than more. Perhaps Hemingway's "iceberg aesthetic" would be instructive to all writers.

Still, authors must make and be satisfied with their own stylistic choices, and anyone not writing Amish-themed fiction should not concern themselves very much with trollish criticisms from fans of that sub-genre.

sage said...

The word "except" in the middle of your opening confused me for a moment. I would saw the opening is a description of the battle (but then I would see exposition being more used in non-fiction). I don't know if that helps...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I have two reviews of one of my books on Amazon that I'm sure are from the same person just using two different accounts. Why do people do that.
Agree with Sage - the word except tripped me up. Maybe move it down as the start of the next paragraph.
And I don't know the exact difference between the two either.

Paul R. McNamee said...

If someone gives a 1-star review and then claims to enjoy "Amish fiction" then I would say they are a troll.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, yes, I imagine it's a pretty exclusive club

R.T., I'm gonna start reading Amish fiction and find out how to write good! :)

Sage, I tend to think of exposition as primarily related to nonfiction as well, although in fiction perhaps an "info dump" might qualify

Alex, yeah, the two reviews from one person makes very little sense to me. Not sure how or why that would happen.

Paul, their other big enjoyment was BDSM

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I remember liking the opening line of this story and sitting back to enjoy the rest of it, which I did. I think, authors have the creative licence to stretch their imaginations both in style and substance.

Peter Brandvold said...

The problem with the writing here is not that it is expository. It is uninvolving. Place a point of view character in the midst of all this action and description--have him or her see this, and feel both physically and emotionally--and you will instantly involve the reader in the scene. The reader will care about what is happening because he will care about your character. What you have is very distant third person. The reader is looking down from high above, not part of the moment. I see it all the time in writing, and I avoid writing and reading it, because it does nothing for me.

A word about exposition: There is nothing wrong with it. All fiction includes exposition, but it is balanced with dialogue and action and description. The key is finesse.

Charles Gramlich said...

Prashant, it's definitely good to try different approaches. This is actually a pretty unusual opening for me, particularly as it is in the present tense.

Peter Brandvold, Thanks for visiting the blog. I appreciate the input. That may well be the issue that particular reviewer was turned off by. Hadn't really thought of it. Most of my stuff does begin with a point of view character. "Harvest of War" was definitely told in a different style for me. Personally, I often really enjoy narrative openings like this in stuff I read, as long as it has some poetry in the language. I was rereading some Robert E. Howard this week, from his crusader stories. "Lion of Tiberius" has this kind of opening. "Lord of Samarcand" has a bit of it. "The Sowers of the Thunder" starts with characters. Most of his Conan stories begin with characters certainly and they are strongly compelling. Two of my favorite pieces of writing from Ray Bradbury are almost strictly narrative, "Rocket Summer" and "The October Country," but they are of course full of poetry, almost prose poems. Maybe my opening in "Harvest" doesn't have enough of the poetry to achieve this kind of thing. You gave me quite a bit of food for thought. Thanks.

Oscar Case said...

It's beyond me, description-exposition, intertwined.

Chris said...

I've given this some thought, Charles. I would call what you are doing in this story (which I enjoy, and am a fan of the stylistic choice you've made in the opening, mainly because you are then consistent throughout) description. There is a scene happening, and you are relating it to the reader. Nor are you going overboard with it. You aren't describing every little detail of the heraldry of the cavalry, etc. Many writers lose me when they describe every scene, every detail, down to the tiniest detail, leaving nothing to my imagination.

Exposition is more background information, and that's where I think writers really screw themselves, especially if they do so via big info dumps, or, even worse, if they use dialogue to do it. It would be like if your story started out with the orc character in his cage, and two guards basically describing that exact scene. "Gee, those orcs were sure kicking ass when they..." "Yeah, but when that cavalry charged and turned the snow to...." That kind of thing will make me want to toss a book.

I don't know that this helps, but that is what comes to my mind.

Ty said...

Across a snowfield that lies auburn with dawn, the Amish charge comes.

And is met.

Axes shriek against wood. Hoes work against snow into dirt. The tips of sickles are wetted. Wheat dapples the snow.

For a moment, the Mennonite line holds. Then the center wavers. In a frenzy, an old mule kicks through. More animals and Amish pour in. The gap widens. The Mennonite forces fold back in desperate defense to either side of the breakthrough. Victory rewards the most brutal.


Across the field of now trampled wheat, a new army appears - Mennonite cavalry mounted upon work horses, all named "Bessie." Bonnets unfurl. Only too late do the Amish realize they've been tricked.

Those mounted come crashing. The hooves of farm horses paw the ground to icy slush as pitch forks of black iron are lowered. The rear of the Amish army falls like wheat before the scythe.

Ty said...

Not my best effort, but it's late and I'm tired.

Charles, don't worry about the 1-star reviews. Likely a troll or someone with too much time on their hands.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, that is the funniest thing I've read in a coon's age!

Charles Gramlich said...

oscar, finished reading and reviewing "Stranger from the valley." Good stuff.

Chris, description is how I thought of it. I was looking through some of my favorite fantasy tales by other writers and I found "Lion of Tiberius" by Robert E. Howard, which has a very similar kind of opening. And I remember reading that and thinking how much I enjoyed it. the opening scene here is basically a kind of necessary prologue, it seems. I agree, it wouldn't have worked with opening with dialogue and the orc already in the cage

Riot Kitty said...

What an asshole. I agree with Ty, sounds like a troll to me...a student you flunked, perhaps?

the walking man said...

What's being exposed? That man and orc are at war and engaging in battle and the way it is described makes it come to life.

Snowbrush said...

I would say description, but then I don't even see why it matters which it is.

X. Dell said...

Sorry to hear you lost the Amish market.

Someone once told me that for every action there's an equal and opposite criticism. By now, I think you know what you're doing. There's nothing that one can do to avoid one-star reviews or for that matter haters. Start worrying about them, and those who like your work will start to miss out.

Charles Gramlich said...

Riot kitty, humm, i never thought of that.

Mark, so it seemed to me.

Snowbrush, it probably doesn't matter. I'm just a bit pedantic in this kind of thing.

X. Dell, I sure imagine the Amish market is huge!

jodi said...

Charles-#1, I love your clear and simple description. #2, there will always be some naysayer with a negative opinion. The fault he made in your writing didn't even make sense! Those people hold no power and use 'ratings' to make themselves feel better. Keep on with your style. It's good!

BernardL said...

It has nothing to do with your writing, my friend. There is a phenomena in the Amazon market place where people for whatever reason will do what I think of as a drive-by hit piece review. I'm not sure what triggers it other than a smallness of being, but it's definitely not something to spend much time mulling over. I know you like the subject of psychology and the reasons behind this behavior are probably complex... so complex the rest of us rational human beings don't have a clue what provokes it. :)