My first exposure to Diana Wynne Jones came through Hayao Miyazaki. I was entranced by Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which remains one of the greatest examples of an organic plot I’ve ever seen, and couldn’t wait to see his next feature film, Howl’s Moving Castle. While the film is beautiful in its own right, I soon learned it does not have the Jones flair I fell in love with by, oh, page 1 of her novel Howl’s Moving Castle.
After reading twenty-some of her books (I still have a long ways to go), my writer’s self gets stuck on one particular aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle: its first several pages are exposition.
Now granted, it’s a different world. She establishes that in the first sentence in a fantastic way: “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.” Not only does she present the fantasy-aspect, she snags the reader’s attention because you just know she’s going to write about some such eldest of three and that something bad’s bound to happen to that person.
She goes on to describe protagonist Sophie’s life and situation for five pages, then pauses for a mini-scene that seems to establish the character’s fate, and…goes on describing life until page seventeen.
Now as writers, are we not to avoid loads of exposition? We give scenes, conflict, details and information placed in strategic tidbits of dialogue and mini-exposition. Not page after page of talking about things. I may as well dial up my aunt and hand the phone over to you.
How to justify this?
The prose is not first-person; it is third-person limited, with Sophie’s perspective as the focus. Through Jones’ exposition, we receive a clear sense of Sophie’s personality pre-adventure: bored but resigned to a bland future because she is the eldest of three. We get a glimpse of her daily life in the hat shop, as tedious a place as one can imagine, and wonder if this character’s got the spine to actually go out a do something worthy of a story.
Then the other bits of exposition come, inter-mixed with Sophie’s hat shop life, thanks to visiting customers and rumors and other things that float around a small town. We learn about two potential villains and their supposed powers. We get foreshadowing of Sophie’s hidden talents, hidden so well that Sophie has absolutely no clue they exist. We also receive a quick foreshadowing of the curse inflicted on Sophie that forces her out of the hat shop and into the dreaded Waste.
Lengthy exposition has always been considered an audience-killer for any story, especially when placed before the story itself truly begins. Yet Jones took this idea, buried it, and transformed it into a tactic that works. With a careful balance of setting, character, and information dropped from passers-by, Jones whips through several years and at the same time establishes the major aspects of the world necessary for the story to take place.
Would I try this tactic in one of my own stories? Maybe after the twentieth book. Until then I will enjoy meandering about Jones’ writing and worlds, eager to learn from one of the most fantastical children’s writers of the past century.