Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sherlockian Exposition: Exploiting the Essential Facts

Starting a story reeks! 
You can develop the most unique concept in literary history. You can map out the conflict/plot in minute detail. You can create characters that outshine Hamlet, Medea, and Forrest Gump. You can have the most significant theme since “Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat.” But brainstorm and outline as you might, the page will still sit there mocking you, daring you, intimidating you. 
The block comes not from lack of preparation, but from knowing that if you don’t grab your audience at the outset of the story, it will be difficult to grab them at all. The resulting dilemma is that too much information may bore them now, while too little may confuse them later.
Hence, your fingers hover over the keyboard, your brain turns to pablum, and you have an overwhelming urge to make a trip to the bathroom. That first step––writing the exposition––is impossible.
For good reason. Exposition is frightening beast. 
By taking on the task of composition, the writer is mandated to establish setting, characters, mood, and conflict. But he/she must first decide how much detail is necessary and how much is too much. Make the wrong choice and the monster will gulp him/her down whole, belching loudly, and patting its gurgling belly.
That’s where Sherlockian exposition becomes crucial. Mastering it will fight off the fiend of inaction.
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his classic Sherlock Holmes stories, he made a point of giving his readers all the information they needed in order to solve the crime right along with the famous sleuth. If the reader paid attention, all the detail one required to appreciate the detective's reasoning, the setting, and the characters––all the essential information––was provided at the beginning of every story.
As we writers begin our stories/novels today, our role is the same. We must decide what information our readers need to know from the outset. Is our female protagonist's Winnie the Pooh tattoo going to affect her ability to combat the unholy alliance of Darth Vader, Lex Luthor, and Jimmy Kimmel? Will the butler's runny nose lead to a terrorist attack by agents of the Teddy Bear Lovers of America? Does it really matter that Congressman Abraham Conklin's orange plaid tie does not match his green polka-dotted shirt?
If those details are integral to the story or to the impression we want the reader to form, we want to use them as quickly as possible. We need to lead the audience where we want them to go. 
Unfortunately, too many facts can be a problem. In Doyle's "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," Holmes points out that “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Maybe that is your goal––deception for interest's sake. However, deception should not be our aim as writers. Unless we want to be known as arrogant poopyheads.
Rather than the quality of misdirection, our detail, like Doyle's, needs import. What Doyle's most famous character proves in every story is not that it's fun to fool people. What he demonstrates is that the most innocuous detail can become the most significant. It is this quality which gives the Sherlock Holmes's tales their appeal.
While reading, the interactive reader will be asking questions like "Why is this person nervous?" "Why is it raining?" "Is it important that this person likes kumquats?" When the reader discovers the significance of these initially trivial details, there is a sense of satisfaction with the realization. Happy readers are avid readers.
For over a century, devoted Doyle readers have tried to outthink the genius Sherlock Holmes by observing as well as he did. They examine every scrap of information, every piece of clothing, every grimace included in the exposition, knowing that everything could be important to solving the case. The gratification from reaching the same conclusion as the great detective is immense.
Due to Doyle's most famous protagonist, the way the cases are introduced and solved, and audience involvement, Sherlock Holmes has become the most dramatized literary character in history. A writer would do well to emulate Doyle's storytelling methods.
Here is a word of caution, however. There is danger if the reader is fooled by detail, even when the deception is due to the reader's own inattention.
Think about the times you’ve scoured every closet in the house for the winter cap that has been sitting on your head ever since November. Remember rummaging through every drawer, shelf, and waste basket for the car keys you already held in your hands. Consider when you asked a stranger for the time while standing under the tower housing Big Ben. 
Do we ever blame ourselves for our inattention in those situations? Of course not. We look for something or someone to blame: Our little sister, our dog, the barometric pressure in Pompeii. Our readers may have the same reaction, blaming us for trying to disgrace them. Not a good idea.
Remember, humiliation is never a good feeling, but recognizing the origins of events, realizing we are the smartest kid in class, is. It's our job as writers to help the readers achieve the latter.
Does this mean we should all be writing mysteries a la Sherlock Holmes? No. It means that description for description's sake is pointless, particularly at the outset of a story. On the other hand, description with an aim is vital, whether our story involves a master sleuth like Holmes or a lonely person gazing out the window of a New York high-rise apartment contemplating whether to eat a Snickers or a doughnut.
The point is, as a writer, we can use the mundane to create some of the most fantastic characters, settings and plots ever conceived with just a little Sherlockian exposition, providing seemingly trivial detail that changes the whole course of your story.
So how do we start a story? Think about what's fun to read. That's how best to write and avoid the paralyzing beast. Plus, Sherlock Holmes would be proud.