What our authors say…
My typical approach is to start the action with only enough exposition to let them understand what is currently happening. If there’s something confusing about the action (why is the sky green? why is everyone offering condolences to John?), that’s a plus as far as I’m concerned. -Matt Weber
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Pounced on this one because it seemed like a good idea. You know, as usual.
I tend not to like explication/exposition. This is for two reasons. First, it’s often boring as all fucking get out. Second, even when the information by itself could potentially be interesting, many authors do not consider how to set up its delivery so that it fits in with characterization, plot, setting, or, especially—this is the biggest victim of exposition—pacing. I don’t care, really, if you think, “Well, as the hero and his mentor ride from village to village, they have nothing else to do but stare at some boring brown landscape, so let’s put the exposition here!” If this is a blah nothing scene you would ordinarily skip because it made the story lag, why is it still there and why are you loading it down further?
1) It does not need to come in lumps.
It really, really doesn’t. Long speeches or lectures by the mentors to heroes, fairy tales heard from random old women which turn out to be the key to saving the world or important “lessons” for the group hearing them, the character’s whole life lived in flashback between one step and the next—it comes in big, sticky lumps that are hard to choke down.
I have never understood why people do this. Often, scenes of intense importance to characterization, or turning points in the plot, do not last ten pages, but the exposition scenes do. Why why why why why?
So. First. Break it up. Give it to your audience in fragments that are easier to digest. Slot bits of it in among the intense characterization and plot turns. Trickle it out in a few sentences here, a sly paragraph here. Make your audience pay if they start skimming. I am someone who skims big lumps of exposition in the sure and certain knowledge that they a) don’t matter half as much as the author thinks they do and b) are boring.
Yes, this means that your audience has to think on its feet. Good. I think authors should trust their audiences more. (I am personally a fan of “sink-or-swim” authors who toss their readers in the deep end and have them start living their world from the very first seconds of it, with the exception of Steven Erikson, because I could not give a damn about his characters, but I know not everyone is). Besides, if the exposition is cordoned off from the rest of the story, it will usually tend to violate other storytelling rules.
2) Stick to what the character would know/think/be interested in/decide.
I almost considered putting this as number one, but in retrospect, I think the sticky lumps are the bigger problem.
Is your character interested in the history of the world? No? What the fuck is he doing listening while the mentor recites it, rather than drifting off into happy la-la land? I could see him being interested in why the bad guys are chasing him, but when the mentor tries to explain the ultimate origin of the war between good and evil and how the gods created the world and says nothing about the bad guys for five or seven pages, I want to know why Mr. Impatient Hero isn’t interrupting to say, “Get to the point, already.”
Your character approaches a city. Would she know who built the city? Would she have a reason to run that over in her mind as she made her way to the gates? No? Bye-bye, history of the city’s founding. Now, this can work if your character is an academic, or someone wetting her knickers with excitement because she’s never seen a town of any size—as long as she does know it, so that there is no omniscient voice suddenly busting in to break the limits of first-person or third-person limited that you’ve been working with so far. But if she has no reason to think of the city’s founding, or no reason to know this story yet, why is she thinking it?
Your character is engaged in a battle for his life, while trying to fight inside a building, around tight corners and up staircases and through doorways. He enters a magnificent room, and finds two opponents waiting to clash with him. Excuse him if he pays attention to them and their blades and the traps they’ve set rather than standing around for a paragraph to admire the murals on the wall and the chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Now, if he’s battle-trained enough to take advantage of opportunities around him and sees the chandelier hanging and wants to bring it down in a trap, then he could do so. But the murals would probably still not have anything to do with it. Save the descriptions for a more leisurely time and place, please. When you want the story to go at a good cracking pace, layering it with endless adjectives is as counterproductive as loading a thoroughbred down with stones.
Stick with your character first and foremost. If she can’t notice it/doesn’t know it/wouldn’t care, you’ll either have to come up with a convincing reason for her to notice or learn it or care, or you’ll have to forego the explication right there and then. I don’t think this is a problem. Point 1, remember? Not everything needs to be explained the moment it enters a story. Most things can wait a while.
3) Setting does not need to be the odd factor out.
There’s a difference between loving your world and falling in love with it. Loving it is when you want to write a story there, show it off, display how it works with the narrative, and so on. Falling in love with it is when you can’t conceive of not telling a reader everything about every minor character, or when you have your heroes trotting around endless miles of countryside because the country exists on a map.
Really, setting is probably the single greatest cause of bad explication/exposition in most fantasy stories, because the authors feel the need to explain their alien worlds to uninitiated readers. Part of this is the same problem as Point 1, because fantasy authors seem to be afraid that readers will start crying if they don’t lead them by the hand, but a larger part of it is just because the setting is usually conceived of as passive, so it must be talked about, rather than talking about itself, as characters do.
Bullshit. The solution to this is simple: Show the setting interacting with your characters, rather than acting as a blank stage across which they tread.
There are lots of ways you can do this. Here, have a dozen:
- Show how characters adapt their lives to extremes of weather/season.
- Show how geography/climate shape architecture.
- Show the effects of time on both human-built places and natural ones.
- Practice body-centered writing—in essence, a more extreme form of characterization. Describe sensations of touch, taste, and smell, not only sound and sight. Know the direction someone faces, and how it influences what they see. Let natural, neutral factors interfere in the action. Sloppy mud in a duel doesn’t care who the hero is, and who the villain; it’s as likely to trip one as the other.
- Bring in some natural disasters that do not turn out to have their origin in the gods or the Dark Lord—plagues, famine, drought, intense storms. People can believe they have supernatural origins all they like, as long as you don’t confirm that, oh, of course, the famine is happening because no rightful king sits the throne. That makes the setting passive again.
- Show people’s dependence on animals, including ones you’ve created. They are usually sadly lacking in most fantasies, except for horses, and they’re treated like machines.
- Show people’s dependence on plants. Do more than list their names, or make them undifferentiated “herbs” that a witch carries in her pouch.
- Have weather not coincide with the pathetic fallacy all the time. Perhaps it rains at one point when the character is crying, and at another it rains when she’s mostly just grimly determined to get things done. Similarly, beautiful sunsets do not need to happen exclusively when heroes die.
- Have characters use natural advantages in battle when possible—the geography of a particular area to stage an ambush, for example, or the sun at a certain time of day to flash into an opponent’s eyes during a duel.
- Give every place its own sense of personality, not just the protagonist’s final destination. Even the homes or beginning places of heroes who claim to be very much attached to them often aren’t fleshed out. And as with all exposition, keep it moving; stick in bits of description here and there, not just one sticky lump when the heroes arrive and nothing ever again.
- Let intriguing minor characters enter the tale and then depart again, without appearing just to become hidden heirs or mouthpieces of important plot coupons.
- Describe the local food. This is something many people often don’t do, or every place’s food is “bread” and “meat” and “cheese” and “stew.” Food is a great way to demonstrate cultural variation.
Do all this, and your setting becomes an inextricable part of the story. As such, it doesn’t need to be decorated with odd lumps of exposition, the only part of the narrative that is, or painted cardboard scenery that could be New York as easily as a fantasy world.
4) Give the exposition more than one purpose to fulfill.
There is a third reason for hating those long sticky paragraphs, beyond the boredom and the slaughter they do to your narrative’s pacing. Paragraphs of exposition often do nothing but provide a potted history of this character or this god or that religion. They don’t advance the plot—unless one bit of it shows up later as the key to the plot, but in that case, what is the rest of the chaff doing there? They don’t demonstrate character, because authors will snap the constraints of characterization, as shown in point 2, to get their history across. They don’t comment on the setting; they tell you about it instead. They don’t provide the answers to mysteries the reader has long awaited; they usually show up too early in the story for that, or introduce something totally new instead.
So, decide. Why is this here? Why are people saying/thinking this? If you have an omniscient narrator who decides to announce it, why? No, introduction or explication is not enough. Choose another reason.
I find that I enjoy writing conversations, because I concentrate on the people speaking them. I like choosing words other than the most straightforward or ornamental ones; I try to choose words that fit the mouth they’re coming out of instead. I like to write about people forgetting important details because they didn’t get enough sleep, mumbling around mouths full of food, saying the wrong thing and making the other partner storm off, being too careful and rousing suspicions in the other person, lying by omission, interrupting each other. All of this is much more interesting than a monologue that goes on for pages.
I think characterization is definitely the easiest secondary purpose to assign to exposition. So assign it. And, above all, I think it would work better to remember the context of the explication—for example, friendly banter or interrogation—rather than have one character ask for all the details of how the gods made the universe and then listen in silence as the other one recites them.
5) Characters’ motives/emotions often need less explication than you think they do.
Read the following paragraphs, please:
Corinna flicked the orange to the west, down the gorge. Atthis followed the track of the fruit, and winced when she saw it smash to pulp on a projecting rock.
“Are you sure—”
“Oh, yes. Quite sure.” Corinna spun hard enough to nearly send herself down the gorge, too, and stomped away up the path. Atthis swallowed and wrapped her arms around her chest. She tried to keep from peeking at the orange, but it was difficult; the flesh stood out too well on the gray and white of the rock.
Now, imagine if this went on:
Atthis was afraid of Corinna’s violent temper. Corinna was upset that morning, and Atthis resolved to keep away from her for the rest of the day. She could smash like the orange. Corinna obviously didn’t want to speak about what had happened, given the way she’d interrupted Atthis, so Atthis also resolved to keep silent.
That doesn’t need to be there. I think Atthis’s and Corinna’s emotions are pretty damn clear from their gestures and their conversation, as is the symbolism of the orange. An author who intrudes to explain every single reaction is crippling her own story, and proving just how much she doesn’t trust her readers, by leaving less for them to explore. Besides, perhaps we’d like to judge for ourselves whether Corinna’s temper is violent or not, and whether Atthis is afraid of her or simply wary, depending on what happens next in the story.
Watch it whenever you’re tempted to characterize through explication. I bet you that at least fifty percent of the time, showing will work better than telling.
6) Let many voices sing.
If there is no way around it, and you must have explication/exposition, tell it in different ways. Thus, perhaps the hero recalls one part of his life in terms of strict facts, because it bores him or nothing much happened. In another, he infuses it with color and gaiety, a living scene, as if he stood there still, because it’s an important or special memory. In one, he can let a whole year slip past without comment, but he knows exactly how many days passed between the time he first saw his wife and the time he married her.
This is embedded in characterization, of course, but it takes into account limitations as well as advantages for telling the story. If you make one character an academic just so that she has an interest in the history of the world and seeks out the tale of the founding of every city she enters, then make her uninterested in other things. If her passion is history, why in the world does she listen as intently to the description of how to make a sword? Her passion’s not metalsmithing. And if she can’t stand false interpretations of history, have her not just show off her intelligence by talking about the right one, but bossily correct the people who support those false interpretations. She could be wonderfully passionate at times, dull as dry dirt at others, and somewhere in between when she wants to teach a class.
I think the biggest cause of boring, stupid, or pointless exposition is authors wanting to get across information, and not caring how they do it.