Putting the Story on the Road: The Profluent Expository Paragraph


The most effective way to understand the profluent expository paragraph is to contrast it to the simple expository paragraph.

  • The simple expository paragraph presents information that raises story expectations but does not initiate story momentum. It’s like a fish bowl filled with fish. Though it may contain action, its action does not trigger reactions outside the fish bowl.
  • The profluent expository paragraph presents a character via a small action by that character. In keeping with its expository nature, it also presents information that pertains to one particular aspect of that character. It raises story questions and initiates a sequence of cause-and-effect story momentum. The profluent paragraph is like a fish bowl with a cat sticking a paw in it. Oh-oh. Anyone who’s watched Saturday morning cartoons, knows this action will have consequences.

The simple expository paragraph is a static collection of information. It does not contain cause-effect action that moves the story forward. For example, this expository paragraph that opens chapter 3 of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby:

Fog came to that place in wisps sometimes, like the hair of maiden aunts. Hair so thin and pale it went unnoticed until masses of it gathered around the house and threw back one’s own reflection from the windows. The sixty-four bulbs in the dining room chandelier were no more than a rhinestone clip in the hair of the maiden aunts. The gray of it, the soil and swirl of it, was right in the room, moistening the table linen and clouding the wine. Salt crystals clung to each other. Oysters unfurled their fringes and sank to the bottom of the tureen. Patience was difficult to come by in that fuzzy caul and breathing harder still. It was then that the word “island” had meaning.

Within this paragraph, the fog affects many things: it causes windows to reflect the interior of the house, it diminishes the chandelier to a rhinestone clip, it moistens the table linen and clouds the wine, clumps salt crystals, unfurls oysters and sinks them to the bottom of the tureen, strains patience and ability to breathe, and gives meaning to the word “island.” But none of this action on the part of the fog causes an inevitable reaction on the part of a character that will start the sequence of cause-and-effect that propels the story forward.

John Lescroart’s opening paragraph of The Motive illustrates again how a simple expository paragraph does not contain cause-effect action that moves the story forward:

By location alone, a block from Fillmore Street as it passes though the upwardly challenged Hayes Valley, Alamo Square would not be among the sexier neighborhoods in San Francisco. But one of the most popular and recognizable posters of the City by the Bay captures a row of beautifully restored and vibrantly painted three- and four-story Victorians that face the park on Steiner Street—the so-called “Painted Ladies”. The poster created a certain cachet for the area such that the cheapest of these houses now go for three-plus. Million.

Fiction writers often use simple expository paragraphs to open chapters and scenes, to set the stage, the mood, the problem, the theme, the diction and tone, tension, the nature of a character, usually conveying information about several of these elements in tightly-related content. They raise story expectations but they do not contain a character that moves the story forward through his actions.

It’s rare, these days, to find a sequence of simple expository paragraphs, unless they’re one-sentence paragraphs, because, despite the intrigue of the information they set forth, readers read for story and story doesn’t appear until a protagonist, a leading person in the story cause or contest, comes on stage.

We must be cautious when inserting a character’s action into an expository paragraph because the wrong combination of exposition and action will take the paragraph off focus. So, if we want to introduce a character within an expository context, we do so with a profluent expository paragraph in which the character makes an appearance through some small, limited motion along which the exposition is aligned. In this way, action and exposition are organically related and the paragraph is focused.

Robert Ludlum opens The Bourne Ultimatum with a profluent expository paragraph:

Darkness had descended on Manassas, Virginia, the countryside alive with nocturnal undercurrents, as Bourne crept though the woods bordering the estate of General Norman Swayne. Startled birds fluttered out of their dark recesses; crows awoke in the trees and cawed their alarms, and then, as if calmed by a foraging co-conspirator, kept silent.

Unlike the simple expository paragraph, this profluent expository paragraph contains a character whose action, though limited—Bourne crept—moves the story forward. The reader knows Bourne’s creeping through the woods will have an inevitable effect in paragraphs to come and she reads on to see why he’s sneaking around General Swayne’s estate. Thus, Bourne’s action in this paragraph initiates the scene’s profluence, that “causally related sequence of events” (John Gardner, page 55 of The Art of Fiction) that put the story on the road.

While introducing the character, this Ludlum paragraph also does its expository work and sets the scene, the mood, the clandestine nature of the story. The paragraph is focused. The darkness, the nocturnal undercurrents, the birds’ arousal are directly related to Bourne’s presence in the woods.

Robert Ludlum’s prologue to The Chancellor Manuscript also opens with a profluent expository paragraph:

The dark-haired man stared at the wall in front of him. His chair, like the rest of the furniture, was pleasing to the eye but not made for comfort. The style was Early American, the theme Spartan, as if those about to be granted an audience with the occupant of the inner office should reflect on their awesome opportunity in stern surroundings.

The character, even though he’s only a dark-haired man and his only motion is staring, gives the paragraph profluence because some event caused him to go to this office and his going to this office will cause a subsequent event. The reader has story questions: Why is he there? What is he going to do next? Ludlum cleverly chose the chair to represent that aspect of the character he wished to emphasize—the man is about to talk to someone powerful, the discussion will likely be as uncomfortable as the chair.

Although the profluent expository paragraph sets the story in motion within a fine bit of immediate detail, it does not allow the writer to expand the topic as elaborately as does the simple expository paragraph. In the profluent paragraph, the character, despite his small role, is focal and all expansion is bound to that character in that moment.

Stuart Woods in The Prince of Beverly Hills wrote a masterful profluent expository paragraph that introduces his protagonist, his protagonist’s immediate situation, and provides backstory:

Rick Barron heard the howl of the engine from at least a block away. He was not happy to be sitting in a patrol car at the corner of Sunset and Camden at two A.M. on a summer evening in 1939; he was not happy to be wearing a badge with the rank designation of Police Officer, instead of the detective’s badge he had worn until the day before; and he was not happy to be in a uniform, instead of a suit. The stiff, new cloth itched.

Rick’s motion is small: “he heard”. What he heard, “the howl of the engine”, raises questions, who is coming and what will happen next? The following two sentences pertain directly to Rick’s state of mind and the demotion that caused it.

The profluent expository paragraph, besides opening stories and scenes, frequently follows a simple expository paragraph. The simple expository paragraph sets the stage; the actors arrive in the profluent expository paragraph as in John Grisham’s second chapter of The Runaway Jury:

Simple Exposition:

The beach house was modern and sprawling and built without the benefit of a beach. A white-board pier disappeared into the still and weedy waters of the bay, but the nearest sand was two miles away. A twenty-foot fishing boat was moored at the pier. The house had been leased from an oil man in New Orleans—three months, cash, no questions. It was being temporarily used as a retreat, a hiding place, a sleep-over for some very important people.

 Profluent Exposition:

On a deck high above the water, four gentlemen enjoyed drinks and managed small talk while waiting for a visitor. Though their business normally required them to be bitter enemies, they had played eighteen holes of golf this afternoon, then eaten shrimp and oysters off the grill. Now they drank and looked into the black waters below them. They loathed the fact that they were on the Gulf Coast, on Friday night, far away from their homes.

As the previous and following examples show, there is nothing formulaic about these profluent expository paragraphs. Their only commonalities are their function and protocol. They function to position a character in the story, start the chain of profluence, and provide story context. They follow the protocol of restricting the character’s action, keeping it slight and unremarkable so the paragraph will not be pulled off focus.

Perri O’Shaughnessy’s prologue to Unfit to Practice:

After being dropped off at a filthy parking lot underneath a gloomy concrete overpass, Nina Reilly stopped in for coffee at the Roastery on the corner of Howard and Main streets. A river of chilly air flowed through the tunnel-like streets around the skyscrapers of the Financial District. The buildings seemed to lean in at her, threatening. She had her pick of caffeine oases, not that it mattered. She was not here by choice. Any black bile would do.

Robert Ludlum’s The Holcroft Covenant:

“Attention! Le train de sept heures a destination de Zurich partira du quai nomero douze.”

The tall American in the dark-blue raincoat glanced up at the cavernous dome of the Geneva railway station, trying to locate the hidden speakers. The expression on his sharp, angular face was quizzical; the announcement was in French, a language he spoke but little and understood less. Nevertheless, he was able to distinguish the word Zurich; it was his signal. He brushed aside the light-brown hair that fell with irritating regularity over his forehead and started for the north end of the station.

Stephen Coonts’ The Minotaur:

Terry Franklin was a spy. This afternoon in February, in a small cubbyhole in the basement of the Pentagon, he was practicing his trade. It was tedious work.

Toni Morrison followed her simple expository paragraph from Tar Baby that focused on the island fog—likening it to “the hair of maiden aunts”, with a profluent expository paragraph in which she accomplished the remarkable feat of bringing four characters into the scene. She does this through the point of view of the servant, Sidney. The paragraph focuses on the dynamics of the servant and the trio of characters at the table. All the character movements are subtle, yet establish tension. At the end of the paragraph, the reader understands Valerian and Margaret (and possibly Sidney) are in conflict. Margaret’s action leads to Valerian’s reaction in the next paragraph. The paragraph initiates the scene’s profluence.

Jadine and Margaret touched their cheeks and temples to dry the places the maiden aunts were kissing. Sydney (unbidden but right on time) circled the table with steps as felt as blackboard erasers. He kept his eyes on the platter, or the table setting, or his feet, or the hands of those he was serving, and never made eye contact with any of them, including his niece. With a practiced sidelong glance he caught Valerian pressing his thumb to the edge of the soup plate, pushing it an inch or so away. Instantly Sydney retraced his felt steps to clear the plates for the next course. Just before he reached Margaret, who had not yet touched anything, she dipped her spoon into the bisque and began to eat. Sydney hesitated and then stepped back.

All these actions are constrained. Jadine and Margaret “touch” their cheeks. Sidney “circles” the table and never makes eye contact with the diners. Valerian “presses” his thumb to his soup plate and pushes it an inch or so away. Margaret “dips” her spoon into the bisque. Margaret and Valerian’s actions are at odds. A consequence is in the offing and the story has gained profluence.

As we’ve seen in the profluent expository paragraphs written by Toni Morrison, Robert Ludlum, Perri O’Shaughnessy, John Grisham, John Lescroart and Stephen Coonts, the basic structure of their paragraphs is consistent from one writer to the other, but does not, in any way, limit their power of expression. In fact, because the form dictates focus, their paragraphs are more powerful because of it.

To write a profluent expository paragraph, keep the character action small and align all detail to the one aspect of the character or characters that your story vision dictates for this paragraph. Do this and your story will love you.