Let us consider THE TERMINATOR as an role model for expository technique


I am annoyed. And bored. What, you wonder, is annoying and boring me beyond all the things that bug me every day, like the day job or whatever? Books that are supposedly thriller with action and violent clashes, where the author decides it’s vitally, vitally important to explain shit to me.

What about THE TERMINATOR? Let’s see what explanations we get in this movie:

Arnold appears in a blast of unnatural energy, butt naked. He demands random strangers give up their clothes. Stranger stabs him, to no effect. Arnold plunges his hand into the guy’s chest and pulls out his heart.

What has been explained so far? Nothing. But things are happening.

Kyle appears, but is obviously not so superhuman. Linda Hamilton appears as a normal (but stunningly hot) woman, and Kyle starts looking for her. Silent guy steals a bunch of guns from a gun shop (murdering the owner, too) and starts killing every Sarah Conner in the phone book, even showing up at Hamilton’s apartment and gunning down her roommates [1]

Kyle stalks Hamilton, and shoots Arnold. Arnold takes two shotgun blasts to the chest and doesn’t die.

And so on. What has been explained so far, in the manner of “As you know, professor…” exposition? Nada. Among the guns Arnold wanted was a futuristic plasma rifle. Kyle has a nightmare about massive war machines rolling over piles of human skulls. The Terminator-cam shows machine-like readouts.

All that establishes that it’s science fiction(ish) but you don’t hear the whole thing about Skynet, time travel, John Conner, until the car chase is well underway.

Here’s the trick: First, they show the crazy stuff. Then they explain it.

Here’s what they don’t do: They don’t introduce the Terminator by having him describe who and what he is. They don’t have Kyle arrive two days before the Terminator does to chat with Sarah Conner about this threat to her life that’s going to come later. They don’t have a second Kyle-type person show up just after to do the same thing. They don’t open the story by making Sarah face a half-dozen Terminatinos–weak, non-threatening baddies who don’t pose a serious challenge even though they’re armed and she isn’t.[2]

No, they show the weird and the scary, then they explain it.

Now, (obvious-alert!) movies and books aren’t the same thing. They don’t have the same requirements, the same pacing, the same inputs. They’re linear in very different ways. Also, novels can be much more digressive and can spend much more time with setting and secondary characters.

And those are good things. I love that books have this flexibility. But really, if you’re going to write about conflict, fights, action, then don’t spend a bunch of page space expositing without making me interested first.[3]

Simply: Don’t tell me about shit if I don’t care about it yet.

[1] And I’m going to take that song lyric “Ya ya ya ya It’s a mistake” to the grave.

[2] No, I’m not going to name the book.

[3] Yeah, it’s easy to get this wrong. The scenes that were supposed to make a reader interested in teh exposition might not be all that interesting. Maybe the exposition comes to late, or there isn’t enough of it. Some readers think I don’t have enough exposition in Child of Fire [4]; that’s fine. There are no hard and fast rules.

[4] They’re wrong, but I love them anyway.