Thursday, 19 January 2012

Action Versus Exposition

I’m always looking for new authors, and two recent fellows (Guy Gavriel Kay, who wrote Tigana, and Douglas Hulick, who wrote Among Thieves) have recently caught my eye. I liked them both a lot, and raced through their books in a few days each.

What’s quite interesting is the contrast between their writing styles. Obviously, both books are very different (third and first person, long-term revolution versus short-term underworld struggle) but one of the greatest differences is the approach to exposition and action.

Tigana had a lot more exposition than I’d expected (or have been used to, recently), with characters’ backstories and motivations revealed and explored in more detail than is often the case. Regular readers will be aware that my attitude to romance is the same as my attitude to getting caught in my zipper: it is to be avoided. However, in Tigana I found myself not unlike a slightly drunk chap being handcuffed to a bedstead and enjoying it almost against my will. I really liked the way that the characters were presented as flawed (sometimes acting in an anger-fuelled and idiotic fashion, for example). The concubine in particular was a very well-written conflicted soul, torn between loyalty to a cause and to an individual who was the greatest enemy of that cause.

Among Thieves was a delightfully blood-soaked romp through the underworld, with plenty of violence, murder and treachery. The people in it had their character revealed more often than not by their actions, and although the history of the world and individuals was explored somewhat the meat of the story was its fast-paced plot and exciting, bloody action. Now I come to think of it, Among Thieves also had a difficult moral choice near the end.

There’s not an either/or choice between the two basic approaches of lots of exposition or lots of action. Tigana had a great big battle and numerous killings, Among Thieves had an intriguing approach to imperial succession and the history of the Kin [criminals].

Overdoing either can lead to pitfalls. Exposition’s probably easiest to get wrong as too much or too boring can lead the reader to find the work tedious, whereas too much action can be ok if the reader doesn’t mind something a bit shallow.

Violence is delightful, but the more it’s used the more accustomed to it the reader becomes. I tend to try and show an individual’s character by a combination of dialogue and behaviour, and focus less on thoughts and backstory (excepting the leader character). So, Bane of Souls is somewhere between the two (and if it’s as well-rated as either I’ll be thrilled).


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