The Skill List Project: Exposition Preliminaries

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said that we’d begin looking at the E-word: exposition. So let’s get to it.

Opening Exposition

Exposition means conveying background information so that the reader can understand the story. A famous (and blatant) example of exposition is the Star Wars crawl at the start of the first Star Wars movie: “It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire…”

This directly tells us some of the movie’s backstory. For example, we’re told that the Empire is evil. We would have known that soon enough anyway, when Darth Vader shows up and callously kills one of his own men. However, there are many aspects of the war that would be hard to convey through action alone. How long has it been going on? What are the relative strengths of each side? The crawl answers such questions. Perhaps more importantly, the crawl establishes that this is a civil war: Vader and company aren’t an invading army, they’re the reigning dictatorship. The movie is going to be about rebels fighting back.

These points could all be established through dialogue: “How is the war going?” “The rebels have just managed their first victory.” But that’s clunky and time-consuming. The crawl is simpler and faster. (It also makes the movie look like an old science fiction serial, thereby setting the tone…but we’ll talk about “tone” in some future posting.)

SF novels and stories often have passages that are as direct as the Star Wars crawl. We’ve all read books where Page 1 is an italicized prologue that provides details about the world. This approach isn’t used as much today as it once was—there’s been a backlash against prologues, probably because they were used too much in mediocre fiction. I’ve also heard people say that expository prologues are lazy: isn’t it more sophisticated to deliver background information within the flow of the story, rather than addressing the reader directly? That’s a fair point, but I don’t like hard and fast rules. Sometimes a brief direct prologue is the most effective way to get the job done; it can save a lot of dancing around later on.

Interior Exposition

If you only needed to do exposition at the start of a book, writers wouldn’t agonize so much about how to do exposition well. However, exposition is usually needed all through a story, especially in science fiction and fantasy. SF worlds are often quite different from our “real” world, and understanding those differences is crucial for understanding what’s going on. SF also tends to draw on areas of knowledge that readers may not be familiar with: specific facts of science, history, geography, etc. You may have to explain these facts to people who don’t already know them.

How much do you have to explain? That’s a judgment call based on your view of your audience. If I’m writing for Canadian-only readers, I don’t have to explain who John A. Macdonald and Louis Riel were. If my writing will be read by non-Canadians, I have to give background details (unless I’m on the web, in which case I can just put in links to Wikipedia).

It’s impossible to spell out everything that a reader may not know; inevitably, you have to say things like, “I’m going to assume that readers know what the Crusades were. Anyone who doesn’t know the basics just isn’t in the audience for this story.” Even so, you can’t assume that readers will know about, say, a particular battle during the Crusades. If the details are important, you’ll have to provide them.

Let’s also agree it can be effective to leave some things unexplained—The Lord of the Rings worked perfectly well even if you didn’t know any of the background information that appeared in the appendices and the Silmarillion. However, if a reader can’t understand your story unless he or she knows a particular fact, you have to explain that fact.

This happens over and over again in the course of a novel. Since I’ve mentioned The Lord of the Rings, think of how much back-history had to be explained in the trilogy: recent events like Bilbo’s acquisition of the ring, and ancient events like Sauron losing it. Readers also need to understand the social structures (or lack thereof) in various parts of Middle Earth, the nature of magic in that particular world, and all kinds of smaller specifics (such as Gandalf’s friendship with eagles).

Significant characters almost always have details in their backgrounds that the reader must grasp in order to appreciate the characters. The majority of these details can be introduced through the character’s speech and actions. For example, you don’t have to say, “Christine is a brilliant scientist.” You can just have people call her “Professor” and show her running an experiment in a big physics lab…

…but that right there is exposition. As soon as someone calls Christine “Professor”, you’re giving the reader a vital clue about the character’s background; and if you show Professor Christine doing physics rather than chemistry or biology, you’re giving additional information for understanding the character and the story.

The vast majority of background details can (and should) be delivered so naturally that even the writer doesn’t see them as exposition. Let’s go back to the start of Star Wars, and the scene where Darth Vader chokes the underling. Did the writers think of this scene as exposition? More likely, they saw it as a dramatic introduction to Vader: he’s bad and he’s powerful.

But importantly, the scene illustrates what the Force can do. Vader doesn’t shoot the man or strangle him with bare hands; Vader chokes him with the Force. That dramatic demonstration shows the audience what the Force can do. It’s a memorable moment, but it’s also a great example of exposition—from this point on, viewers understand that the Force is a powerful quasi-magical ability that can defeat mere military strength. Until you understand that, you can’t appreciate the rest of the movie.

Explaining Myself Away

I’ve spent this entire post talking about the nature of exposition, but I haven’t addressed the skills involved in doing exposition. How do you provide the reader with necessary facts while avoiding clunky horrors like the famous, “As you know, Bob…” We’ll begin on that next month.

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There are 3 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    Jane Austen also went for the opening lump — in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey — and more artfully than Star Wars. She did it so eloquently (and with a good leavening of irony in Abbey) that it was a pleasure to read in itself.

  2. 2. Kevin S.

    I’m pretty sure Vader physically choked that rebel at the beginning of the film, and the first person he actually force chokes is the Imperial officer in the conference scene. That scene may even occur after Obi-Wan gives Luke the big explanation about the Force, but it still serves as a concrete demonstration of what you can do with the Force.

  3. 3. Karsten

    The person Vader chokes at the beginning of Episode IV (the first movie) is not an underling, but the captain of the starship he was pursuing. And he uses his hands for that. Later in the movie, Vader does choke (but not kill) a colleague with the force. The first time we see him kill an underleague by choking him with the force is in Episode V (Empire Strikes Back).

    Your points validity is hardly touched by these facts, but it helps getting the story right ;-)

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James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.



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