Exposition Done Right

The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge
Publication: Traditional
Genre: YA Steampunk
Verdict: Yes

Last week I blogged about a book with a disappointing lack of exposition, which prevented me from becoming truly engaged with it. This week I’m flipping the bit, and talking about a book that does a lot of exposition, and does it very well: The Iron Thorn, by Caitlin Kittredge.

Just from reading the back cover copy, you know that a big draw of The Iron Thorn is going to be its setting. That’s because it takes place in the city of Lovecraft. The city of Lovecraft! And as we move into the story, it’s clear that Kittredge has created a complex world, and has a lot of information to convey about it. This is tricky.

Because despite my assertion last week that readers are more interested in exposition than you may think they are, you still want to slip that exposition in smoothly. You want the information to come across as the character’s natural thoughts, not as the writer’s deliberate efforts. You don’t want to be seen standing behind the curtain.

That is very much what Kittredge manages, as in this passage, in which the narrator, Aoife, sits beside her mother, Nerissa, in a madhouse:

I picked up the mirror and ran my thumb over the backing. It was silver, and it had been pretty, once. When I was a child I’d played at being beautiful while my mother sat by the window of Our Lady of Rationality, the first madhouse in my memory, run by Rationalist nuns. Their silent black-clad forms fluttered like specters outside my mother’s cell while they prayed to the Master Builder, the epitome of human reason, for her recovery. All the medical science and logic in the world couldn’t cure my mother, but the nuns tried.

There’s a lot of information here: religion, for one, is not like we know it in our own world. The nuns in the city of Lovecraft don’t pray to God the way we understand him, but instead to a Master Builder. Reason, not kindness, is considered the ultimate virtue. And it’s all conveyed very naturally through Aoife’s point of view, focusing on the thing that is most important to her at this moment: her mother’s insanity.

After Aoife leaves her mother to return to her boarding school, we get a few more glimpses of Lovecraft:

Dunwich Lane ran under the feet of the Boundary Bridge, the iron marvel that Joseph Strauss had erected for the city some thirty years before…it was the model we practiced drawing schematics with, until we were judged competent to design our own. If you couldn’t recreate the Boundary Bridge, you had a visit with the Head of the School and a gentle suggestion that perhaps your future was not that of an engineer  There had been three other girls in the School until that exam. Now there was only me.

Again, while we’re learning about the world, we’re also learning about Aoife’s relationship with it. From this paragraph, we know that she’s isolated in her school, and perhaps more talented or tenacious than the other female students. In nearly every expositional passage, Kittredge makes an effort to tie in Aoife’s interests and feelings.

I also think it’s worth noticing how much space is invested in these paragraphs. Each takes up about a third of a page, no small sum of words. And in the case of the Boundary Bridge, it’s not even critical information. In fact, this paragraph exists for nothing more than local color.

Does this mean the author would be better off cutting them, that we should go ahead and get to the chase, find out where this plot is taking us?

Not on your life. An intriguing plot is worth its weight in gold–but you cannot sacrifice readers’ interest in your character for their interest in your plot. Nor, when you’re writing a deeply setting-driven book like this, can you sacrifice reader interest in your setting.

So when Kittredge takes her time to paint a picture of Lovecraft with expositional brushstroke after brushstroke, it’s absolutely the right decision. Her investment in expositional text is large–but it’s one that pays off.

I’ll be reading The Iron Thorn. Even though I can’t seem to stop calling it The Iron Throne.

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