The Skill List Project: Exposition Execution

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, we began with some theory about writing exposition. This time, we’ll look at actual practice: how do you make exposition so painless, the reader may not recognize it for what it is.

Asides

The quickest neatest most ubiquitous type of exposition is the aside: a brief insertion into the flow of what’s going on. Most of the time, these come so naturally you don’t even know you’re writing it.

Once this quarter of the city had been great; now it was a
ruin inhabited only by the desperate poor. Richard walked
down the street trying not to step in any of the reeking
deposits strewn across the pavement.

The first sentence is exposition—it’s not describing what Richard sees, but what he knows about the place’s history. Arguably, we could deliver the same information entirely through description by showing tangible evidence of the quarter’s previous magnificence now gone to seed. However, that might require a significant amount of verbiage, so we have to ask whether it’s a good idea.

In some cases, the extra verbiage would add to the story, giving the reader a vivid picture of exactly what the quarter had been and what is was now. In other cases, it might detract from the story. If, for example, Richard is thinking about how he will kill someone he’s going to meet, then he may not be thinking about what his surroundings used to be; describing them would be a violation of his viewpoint and might take the reader out of the story. The aside shown above tells the reader about the place’s history without distracting from the story’s forward movement.

Asides can be slipped into dialogue too. “Hi, I’m Allie. Remember we met at the art gallery? Did you ever manage to sell that painting?” This sort of insertion can be done badly, making the character’s speech sound artificial. However, it can often be done quite naturally, avoiding lengthier explanations of how these people know each other.

Wait for the Reader to Want It

For information that’s too extensive to handle with asides, an important rule of thumb is to hold off on exposition until the reader wants it. Equivalently, I might say you should make your readers want what you’re going to tell them. This means setting up a situation where readers are eager to understand what’s going on and will therefore be happy for you to take the time to tell them.

How can you get readers to demand exposition? One tried-and-true way is to set up a mystery: something striking happens without an explanation. Readers will be keen to discover the underlying rationale, especially if you draw out the suspense. We can see this principle at work in the classic Agatha Christie style murder mystery—after a lot of perplexing incidents, readers are ready to listen to the long final “reveal” when the detective explains whodunnit. This is often pure exposition, with all the suspects and other characters gathered in a single room and the detective doing what amounts to a monologue.

A detective-reveals-all scene is an extreme example, but it illustrates the principle: instead of just dumping information in the reader’s lap, create a situation where the reader demands the information. We might call this back-loading instead of front-loading:

  • Front-loading means talking about things in advance. It’s true that readers sometimes need to be prepared in order to appreciate certain developments of the plot. However, this is easy to overdo—you can spend a lot of time on set-up when it would really be better just to plow in.
  • Back-loading means explaining things once the reader is involved. At that point, readers won’t just grudgingly sit still for exposition, they’ll demand it.

When you front-load information, readers may well ask, “Why are you telling me this?” When you back-load, you don’t have that problem.

If it’s absolutely necessary to set up information in advance, try to do it with asides as much as possible. Also, ask yourself if it really is necessary. Sometimes it is; often it isn’t.

A Field Trip is Better than a Lecture

Whenever you give exposition, try to dramatize the delivery. After all, when a tough-guy detective beats up a thug to get information, that’s actually exposition: the thug is a vehicle for telling readers something they don’t already know. However, the exposition is done in an interesting and active way, as opposed to a “talking-head” conversation.

I call this principle “A field trip is better than a lecture.” Whenever possible, exposition should be presented in a dramatic scene rather than just talking. As noted in a previous posting on scene design, this means there should be some sort of intention and resistance between the characters in the scene. One character has a goal; another opposes the first character’s intention; they bump heads until they move the plot forward.

The same rules apply in a scene whose main purpose is exposition. Instead of a flat conversation, you need goals and resistance. This doesn’t have to be as blatant as a detective beating up a thug; for example, your protagonist might be trying to wheedle information out of a scientist who’s trying to protect a corporation’s trade secrets. The person with information may be scared, hostile, bored, or simply busy with other things. Whatever the reason, resistance turns a straight question-and-answer session into something more dramatic.

If you can’t think of anything else, at least give your characters some props to work with. Suppose, for example, you need to give the reader some details of a family’s history. Instead of doing that with two people chatting away in easy chairs, have the characters walking through the family manor looking at portraits and other mementoes. Furthermore, don’t make this an aimless tour—your characters should be going somewhere, not just ambling. They might be strolling through the manor on their way to obtain some important object (the goal) and as they go, their conversation is influenced by things they pass. Ideally, the end of the walk should serve as a small climax to the subjects under discussion.

“You’ve seen some of our family’s treasures, but here is the greatest of all: the Book of the Final Days.” Keller opened the door to the library…and that’s when we smelled the smoke.

Leave Them Wanting More

One last principle of exposition: quit before you’ve exhausted the reader’s patience. On that note, I’ll leave this subject and move on to something new…and since the last few posts have dealt with some topics that scare me, howzabout that next time we talk about research. See you next month!

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  1. 1. Mary

    One thing that really helps with lectures is having an engaging and interesting voice in them — the sort you would like to read just for their charm.

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Author Information

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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