Exposition [ek-spuh-zish-uh n]
1. a large-scale public exhibition or show, as of art or manufactured products: an exposition of 19th-century paintings; an automobile exposition.
2. the act of expounding, setting forth, or explaining: the exposition of a point of view.
3. the bane of my existence for the past month
So I made this world up inside my head. It’s this kind of high-speed collision between a combustion-based industrial revolution and Japanese feudal society, set against a backdrop of diminishing resources and exponentially aggregating pollutants. And I wrote a book about it. And some nice folks liked it, and agreed to print it, because they thought other people would like it too. But after the hangover wore off, I was sent these long and wonderfully detailed letters, that, in addition to a couple of other things said this:
“You know how this world works. And you are assuming your reader does too. But we don’t. Explain yourself, bastard.
So that’s what I’ve been doing on STORMDANCER recently. Lots and lots of explaining myself. Problem is, unless you’re smart enough to write your protag as an audience surrogate (I am not), you’re going to have to find lots of different ways to explain yourself over the course of your book. Because the last thing on earth you want in your novel are constant breaks in the narrative to make room for huge chunks of exposition. There’s a reason why they’re called info dumps after all. (You know. Because they’re crap… oh, you got it. Very good. Carry on, then.)
So here’s a few of the ways I’ve (hopefully) managed to explain myself without being crap. Maybe you can use them and we can alllll drink lemonaaaaaaade. THE END.
- Arguments. There’s little worse than reading two characters talk about a topic they already know inside out in order to let me in on the idea. Can you imagine two men talking to each other about how beer works? No. Because men already know how beer works, and men aren’t considerate enough to take the garbage out, let alone realize there might be some pan-dimensional being listening in on the conversation wondering what the fizzy urine-like substance they’re drinking is.
But men will argue at the drop of a hat. Particularly men drinking beer. And they will even argue about stuff they already know everything about, because, you know, they know everything.
So, have some characters get into an argument about the way something in your work works. A disagreement about the mechanics or the philosophy or the motivations behind this Thing Your Editors Told You To Explain. We all know somebody who argues for the sake of it. (Note: To people with Irish or Dutch friends, this scenario will ring particularly true.)
- Children. Kids don’t know jack. Ask your five year old if he understands why the sky is blue. Or when the Mongols ruled China. He’s got no idea, does he? No. Because he’s a kid. And kids don’t know jack.
Kids are also
precocious little bastardsquite inquisitive as a general rule. If they see something they don’t understand, their instinctive reaction is to ask you about it. Right now. Despite the fact that you’ve been trying to kill the end boss in Prototype for 40 minutes straight, and all the joy has gone out of the deed, but by God, you’re going to kill it anyway.
“How do the people fit inside the television set?”
“What does “little whoreson” mean?”
“Why are you choking me?”
Kids are the ultimate audience surrogate. They know nothing. So when one asks how something works, it will ring true to your reader.
- The Red Shirt. Also known as the “The Pippin”. This guy is particularly useful in life-threatening/deadly situations. You need to establish that the huge pointy spiky thing plugged into the glowing battery scrawled with glowing sigils and shrieking like the souls of the thrice-damned is bad? Have someone in the group touch it. Press the big red button and get eviscerated. Better yet, get someone else eviscerated. Then Sir Ian McKellen can be all like “Confound it all Billy Boyd, you’ve beheaded Sean Astin, who the bloody blue blazes is going to hold Elijah Wood’s hand in Mordor now?”
I love Sir Ian McKellen. He is so awesome.
- Naturally Occurring Exposition. This was a technique Alan Moore used in Watchmen before he went completely bananas and started living like a hermit in the woods of Shropshire. Moore bookended chapters with excerpts from a minor character’s autobiography, newspaper clippings and media interviews with other characters, as well as reference materials (encyclopaedias, magazine articles). It gave his world a greater feeling of completeness to know that these objects existed within it, and simultaneously allowed us to learn more about the world by reading them.
Douglas Adams named his first book after his exposition device. A book named after an info dumper. And the info dumps were hilarious. Genius, I tell you.
Garth Nix bookended a few chapters in Shade’s Children with audio-taped dialogue recorded by characters within the story, explaining aspects of the dystopian world for the benefit of “future generations”. While they were essentially info dumps, I found them to be the most artfully written and enjoyable parts of the book, because the characters were talking to me.
But yeah, overuse of this technique might see you ending your days living like a hermit in the woods of Shropshire. Or at the very least, growing an enormous crazy homeless person beard.
- Acknowledging the reader. Really only works in first person PoV. The protag assumes you (the reader) don’t know anything, and his explanations seems less forced within that context, because he/she is already essentially “speaking to you” by telling the story in the first place. (note – I didn’t use this technique in STORMDANCER , it’s not a 1st person PoV narrative)
- Poetry. You can only pull this off in a fantasy. And it can’t be contemporary fantasy either. And anything over six lines, you’re coming off as a) A novelist who wishes they were really a poet, b) A complete tosser, c) Both.
But hell, if Rothfuss can get away with it, you can too. #1 NYT bestseller, folks. He ain’t playin’.
Oh, additions I forgot I used. Thanks to Kate!
- Reminiscence. People get together and talk about the good/bad old days all the time. The older I get, the more I find myself having to resist the urge to yell about how music was better when I was a kid wtf is up with tv shows these days christ that kid looks ridiculous in the those drop-crotch jeans damn punks get off my lawn. In my experience, talking about how things “used to be better” is natural human instinct, so running your exposition through this device will ring true.
- Flashbacks. Essentially, FBs are live action reminiscences. I’m a big fan of FBs. It’s a great way to quickly revisit pivotal moments in your character’s lives and give some quick insight into why these people are the way they are. Quick structural note – Jumping into an FB without introduction (as I often do) can be disorienting to your reader unless you give them a hint they’re no longer living in the main narrative. Italics are your friend.
Hmm. That’s all I’ve got. Of course, there are going to be points in your book where you simply have to spill. During some big crisis point, you can’t have Billy the precocious six year old urchin pipe up and ask why the Tentacle Beast seems in any way attracted to the Japanese Schoolgirl , given they are different fucking species and all. At which point you just have to write your ass off and try your best to make it interesting and brief.
PS: Any explanation about tentacle beasts and Japanese schoolgirls can never be the former, and should always be the latter.