I wrote this as an exercise in breaking up an exposition lump. The lesson itself is from Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin, which features the most rewarding studies and technical workouts I’ve ever tried in a book on writing. In this one, Le Guin gives you several paragraphs of summary and your job is to relay as much of that info as possible in a scene without clogging it up. I’m not going to post the original chunk of exposition (go buy the book, it’s pretty great!) but here’s what I came up with.
Footsteps echoed through the stairwell as Khale reached the door at the top of the tower. The door was a sturdy, wooden, iron-fastened thing; quite old-fashioned. The soldier reached for the ring of keys dangling from his belt, then paused. It was always him doing Jussa’s dirty work. The Minister wouldn’t go anywhere near this tower if he could avoid it.
‘Queen’s Guardian’, my arse, thought Khale as he fit the key into the lock and pushed the door open.
Afternoon sunbeams poured through an open window, a cool breeze whistling through. It was a cozy room, outfitted with an array of shelves that sagged with the weight of books and a writing desk loaded with stationary and pens. A white rug from Umbrioch stretched across the floor. A fine leather chair sat upon it, a relic from a wealthier era. Camped in the chair was another of these relics: Dialpha, Queen of Harath. She peered over the top of the book she was reading. “Sir Khale,” she said, unsmiling, “so kind of you to grace my study.”
Once, Dialpha had been the image of innocence and beauty in the kingdom, even after King Pell had disappeared in the first war against Ennedi. Now she was a figurehead without a husband to rule and a decade civil war had eaten away at her youth and carved lines in her features. She was a husk, a shadow of the woman she had been
“There are rumors, My lady. Rebels in the palace,” Khale said, not one to stand on ceremony nor small talk. “I’ve been assigned as your full-time warden until Minister Jussa believes you are safe.”
The queen’s expression didn’t change. She slapped the book closed. Dust flew, sparkling in the sunlight. “A warden? How kind of Minister Jussa to think of me in these troubled times.”
“You safety is paramount, my lady.”
Dialpha rose from the chair and went to the shelves, replacing the volume and idly poking through several more, running her fingers across their spines, tilting one here or there to peek at the cover. Khale stepped into the study, gaze flickering back and forth. Locked up in the tower, the queen fended largely for herself aside from her meals and she kept no handmaidens. Not that Jussa could afford them, anyway. Khale had never heard a word of complaint from her. She was probably happy enough to be alive at all. Or, the warden mused, she had given up all hope of freedom and was already dead inside. Save for the furniture and the two of them, the study was empty. Khale went to the window, one hand resting on his dagger hilt. You could never be too careful these days.
The south side of Harath stretched out beyond the horizon. First, the white palace walls, then thatched roofs of the city houses, then the walls of the city, and specks of forest and rolling fields beyond all that. In the city below, people busied themselves on the streets, shoving aside the beggars and the sick and the grievously wounded who seemed to grow in number with each passing day. It was hardly the city Khale recalled from his youth. He could catch the rank stench of the streets, even all the way up in the tower.
The warden turned his attention to the tower itself, running his gaze and his fingers across the wind-worn bricks and discolored stones beneath the window. Khale frowned. There were scrapes and scuffs and even ragged holes in the stones beneath the window. The wall had felt the bite of metal.
“Are you to stay by my side at all hours, sir Khale?” Dialpha asked. Book shuffled.
Khale still stared at the damaged wall. “Until the rebel threat is quelled, my lady,” he said.
“Ah. I’ve come to enjoy my privacy, you know.”
“Who has been here?”
A pause. “Pardon?”
Khale whirled to face her. The queen had frozen, hand lost within the shelf. “Someone has been climbing the outer wall. Who was it?”
Dialpha drew her right hand from the shelves. It held a dagger. She launched herself at her warden. For such a frail woman, she was quick. Her attack dragged across him, laying open his tunic and carving a line of blood into his flank. Khale grabbed her arm and grappled until the dagger clanged to the floor. Pain exploded across his side and his ears rang from her screaming.
A shadow blotted away the sun. Something crashed against Khale’s skull and he hit the floor in a daze. A few throbbing instants stretched into what felt like years and the world tumbled in his vision. He staggered to his feet. The queen was gone.
“Tits of the nine,” Khale swore, stumbling to the window. Nothing below. But, above… Khale craned his head in time to see a dark shape climb onto the roof. He heard sounds above. Footsteps. A deep squawk Four palace guards burst into the study, wielding short, stabbing spears. They gaped at the injured Khale, the bloodied rug and the distinct lack of Queen in the room. “The roof, the roof,” Khale said, clutching his wound.
The brightest of the guards pointed to a trap door in the ceiling, and they dragged the writing desk underneath it. Khale pushed them aside, climbed up and unlatched the door. Blue skies streaked with white met him on the other side. Grunting with effort and pain, the warden hoisted himself onto the roof. Wind whipped at his face. He was just in time to watch a trio of black, winged shapes gliding toward the mountains. The queen’s red train of hair floated from her perch atop the central flier.
Khale’s stomach folded. Queen Dialpha was heading east, towards Ennedi.
How did I do? Furthermore, if this were a scene in a novel, would you want to read further?