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You can’t spell Urban Fantasy without exposition

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I used to think I liked Urban Fantasy, but now I’m not so sure.

I like the concept.  A world of magic and mystery just beneath our own, adventures in the city where mythical creatures come to life and secrets unravel.  It all sounds so exciting in theory.

So I’ve been reading some Urban Fantasy of late, because I thought I had written an Urban Fantasy novel.  A girl hitchiking from Toronto to California, encountering subtle magic and finding the magic in herself, sounds pretty UF right?  Apparently not.  I am missing one important factor in my novel to make it Urban Fantasy it seems, exposition.

Whether it’s Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’, Doyce Testerman’s ‘Hidden Things’ or TV’s ‘Lost Girl’, they all share one important feature, massive amounts of exposition.  I have to admit I had to put down American Gods because it was too obvious for my tastes, I like my magic subtle.  What possessed me to finish Hidden Things I can’t say as it was pretty unbearable, but I did get it from the library which provides a magic motivator for me to get through it as it won’t stick around forever.  In terms of Lost Girl we gave up on it in the second season as we felt they were treating us like morons by explaining every last bit of what was going on.

So what is it about Urban Fantasy that inspires people to hand hold and spell out absolutely everything?  Shouldn’t it be obvious to readers/watchers that magical creatures are coming to life without having to say it aloud?  Do we really need to explain the fundamental magical underpinnings of reality in all its convoluted detail?

It turns out I don’t really like Urban Fantasy all that much, I like Magic Realism.  Although the differences could be debated eternally, to me it’s about the obviousness of the magic and the use of magic as metaphor.  The magic in Urban Fantasy seems to take a front seat, becoming the star of the show, whereas with Magic Realism it becomes a part of the backdrop, an element mixed in to add flavour and metaphorical meaning to the world and the lives of the characters.  The magic in Magic Realism is typically accepted, without need for endless explanation and exposition, it just is.

I don’t want the magic of the universe to slap me in the face, proclaim its awesomeness and try to show me how clever and inventive it is.  I want it to support the cast or characters, add meaning, metaphor and a bit of mystery.  I want to fill in the blanks myself, not have some over-explain-y character do it for me.  I want to use my imagination to create the connections, to do the work.  I believe that sometimes there are things that are better left unsaid.

Another problem with exposition in books where mystery is a strong component is obscurity.  The balance of explanation and obscurity can be hard to strike without just being plain annoying.  For example, in Hidden Things the main character had a ‘guide’ to the world of magic, but there were many things that the guide refused to explain.  So we got part of the story and the rest was written off as ‘something unexplainable’ by the guide.  He obfuscated, confused and tried to act mysterious and because of this it simply came off as annoying.  You can’t have it both ways, you’re either explaining it all or you’re not, but to try and walk the line is just unbelievably obnoxious.

I don’t do exposition.  The magic in my novel just is.  It is only very occasionally remarked upon by the protagonist, but overall it’s just a part of the world, like traffic and streetlights and fresh cut grass.  This leads me to believe that my story is not actually fully Urban Fantasy, but Magic Realism with a hint of UF.  I’m certainly open to other interpretations though.

So at the end of the day I feel like all the exposition in UF ruins the mood for me.  I don’t want to know exactly how and why magic is there, sometimes it’s just enough that it is.  I’d love to read more UF with a Magic Realism slant, but I’m not entirely sure how to look for that.  I don’t want my hand held or some character yapping in my ear telling me about the veil between worlds or the hierarchy of gods, I don’t want all the secrets unravelled for me.

I haven’t read a load of UF, so I certainly can’t comment on every book out there, but there seems to be a growing trend in the things I’ve read and watched that I’d like to veer away from.

Have any suggestions for more Magic Realism based UF?  Think I’m dead wrong about exposition?  Let me know!

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A Good Read

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I read a lot.

I guess that makes sense, because they say a writer ought to do that, but as much as I read, I’m also pretty picky.  I want a lot of things from a book and I have my preferences (just like you do I’m sure) and I’ve lately been finding what I’ve been able to get into and what I haven’t interesting.  For example, despite my love of urban fantasy, I just can’t get through ‘American Gods’ (by Neil Gaiman), I enjoyed some of his short stories in an anthology of his I read, but there’s just something about American Gods I don’t like.  ‘Gone Girl’ (by Gillian Flynn) however caught me and kept me reading until late in the night and there’s not a hint of magic in that book.

So what is it that keeps me reading and makes me loathe to put a book down?

Let’s see here…

Emotional over physical

I like a style that gives more personal and emotional information than information about the environment and appearance of the characters.  I often try to do that in my stories and I’ve been told in the past that I don’t put in enough physical detail (someone told me once they didn’t like that they had to work to imagine the environment), but I like to use my imagination.  If I’m drowned in detail I get bored pretty fast because it slows down the pace and does all the work for me.  I also like to know what the characters are thinking and feeling as well as their emotional history, this gets me involved and makes me feel like they’re real.  I want to feel like the characters have an impact on the world and the story isn’t just taking them along for the ride.

Cheese factor & exposition

Contrary to popular belief, it is easy to be cheesy.  Exposition and info dumps are the bane of a good story’s existence.  I don’t like a story where things are constantly explained or dumbed down.  Cliche also falls into the cheese factor camp.  Unfortunately things are cliche for a reason, because they are true or good ideas, so sometimes one can’t avoid it altogether but it’s best to try wherever possible.  The stories that keep me up all night are the one’s with high amounts of realism (this can be achieved even in fantasy) and low exposition.

Keep moving

I love a story that moves swiftly.  I want to be pulled along on an adventure, I want to get lost in other worlds and learn new things.  Good pace is essential to keeping my attention.


Defying expectations

I’m currently trying to read Game of Thrones.  It’s a bit of a slog for me because it’s so rich in detail.  High fantasy has always been a tough nut for me to crack because of that, but what I love about the concept of Game of Thrones is that Mr. Martin writes with the specific intention of defying expectations.  I like that.  I want to be surprised, shocked and even horrified.  I want to experience things and think about things in ways I never would have thought of myself.  Because that’s the joy of reading to me, exploring the depths of other people’s minds and lives.

Solid Characters

If a character is solid enough I’ll care about them even if they’re sitting there eating cheese and playing solitaire.  Good characters are the foundation of a great story.

A little love

I like a little love.  If it’s all war and politics and business it eventually gets boring to me, and unrealistic.  Love is all around us, it motivates us and permeates the fabric of our existence.  Without a little love in our lives, things tend to fall flat.

Those are a few of my thoughts on what makes a good read…tell me about yours.

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This is a post for www.writesofluid.com’s blog writing challenge.  One blog post a day for all of June!  Check it out at the website or on twitter: @sofluid or #wpad!