Writing for Comics, Part 4 : Exposition or No Exposition?

When writing a new story in comics – regardless of whether you’re employing the use of old characters, or brand-new ones – a consideration all creators have to make involves an exposition.Wikipedia refers to it as an “info dump”, and that’s exactly what it should be thought of. In some cases, it heavily detracts from the story; in others, it takes things to the next level.

Here are three of my absolute favorites (two in comics, one not in comics):

All-Star Superman #1, Page 1
http://forbiddenplanet.co.uk/blog/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/all%20star%20superman%20_1%20origins.jpg

Origin stories, by definition, are an exposition of character – in this way, Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly recant the Superman mythos in four panels and eight words. The strength of the visual economy is staggering, and the brevity of description even more so.

Blade Runner
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbWNZkoQHuE&feature=related

(1:32 in)

Blade Runner happens to be one of my favorite movies, but what the exposition accomplishes here – in a under a minute – sets you up for both the premise and the central issues of the movie. Here are these robots that are so advanced, they can almost be human – better, even – and we have special groups of people assigned with the task of hunting them down and “retiring” them. So good, it gives me chills.

Of course, you don’t have to write expositions. A good writer can feed the reader morsels of it, string them along, and reward them with the plot as a result. This is sometimes preferable; most readers read for enjoyment and to disconnect, rather than to be overwhelmed with three pages about the state of affairs in Neutron City.

An informed approach to deciding “exposition or no exposition” involves taking a good look at your own storytelling preferences and models. What are your favorite movies, comics, stories, and more importantly; how do they begin?

Do they all tell you, flat out, the basic details of the story – in the same way you’d give brief, intriguing summaries to friends of something they haven’t seen or read – or do they throw you in the thick of it, allowing the flow of action to bring you along?

Chances are they’ll hit a happy medium.  You won’t get the “info dump” very often, nor will you be thrown into the thick of it – unless it’s a movie that requires little anticipatory investment (an action movie, a comedy – anything with a basic, predictable premise).

In that vein, I introduce to you what I believe to be the “happy medium”, and my third example  –

Preacher #1 – the entire issue. http://www.dccomics.com/media/excerpts/1645_1.pdf

You’re introduced to the three main characters – Tulip, Jesse, and Cassidy – you learn the premise through a series of compelling events, rather than an introduction, and lastly, you see the gist of the adventures to follow. While it’s not as brief as the others, you have to consider the length of the story you’re telling. Are you getting the audience ready for the long haul, or, as in Spaceballs, do you have to settle for “The Short, Short, SHORT version”, because of the brevity of your story?

It’s all up to you.

-Brian

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