Exposing Exposition

Bard

Say you have a story you want to tell. For argument’s sake, let’s further posit that this story doesn’t take place on Earth in the year 2010. It takes place in 2055, or on some other planet, or back in the Renaissance. Provided you’ve done your research or laid a good foundation in terms of notes, sketches or perhaps audio logs some post-apocalyptic adventurer will stumble across when our oil runs out, you know who’s who in the world in which your story takes place.

The reader, unfortunately, is likely not as acquainted with the setting as you are, especially if you made the world yourself. If that’s the case, nobody should know the world better than you. Until they start writing fanfiction – and if they do, my friend, then you’re doing just fine.

What I’m getting at is that sooner or later, you’ll need to introduce the settings, concepts and ‘rules’ of the realm in which your tale takes place. That means exposition. Expository writing isn’t really all that hard, as it’s mostly rattling off things already rattling around in your head. However, to the reader, the things you find so fascinating about the distant lands of Yourworldia can be downright boring if you don’t do it right.

Tolkien

I’m a big fan of Tolkien. I’ve talked before about how his descriptions can be a bit dry. The Silmarillion, something of a history of Middle-Earth, is basically a collection of his notes on the subject of how the world came to be and some of the myths and legends that propel the characters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It’s about as fascinating as it is dry and difficult to read. The point is that it’s a novel-length exercise in expository writing.

Good exposition, in my experience, is woven into the plot, not set aside and served up as a very dry appetizer to the main course. It detracts from the flow of the plot and bores the reader.

More on this later, perhaps.

2 Comments

  1. I agree, particularly with your example of Tolkien. I enjoy his works, but just like the belabored begats in the Bible, parts of it are just sooo difficult to get through!
    I hate to say it, but I have it easy as I write for games…I write the exposition and if the players want to read it-they do! Otherwise they’ll just have to find out in game.

  2. Good exposition, in my experience, is woven into the plot, not set aside and served up as a very dry appetizer to the main course.

    Yes, this. As a reader of speculative fiction, nothing takes me out of it more than obvious infodumps. Whenever two characters have a lengthy discussion about a topic with which they would both be intimately familiar, or, better still, the main character devotes a page of internal monologue to something that should be mundane to them… yeah. SF is plagued by a lot of ugly exposition in that vein, and it inevitably hurts your immersion and the credibility of the characters. When I start my car, I don’t usually think about the history of the internal combustion engine. I don’t drive along talking to my girlfriend about why gasoline became the fuel of choice.

    Now, I do have those discussions, mind you… but it requires a lot of careful craft to put a character in a situation to discuss something they take for granted, or even think about it in depth. Characters in literary fiction don’t say “I unlocked the door by inserting a shank of irregularly carved metal into a slot designed to receive it, behind which the hills and valleys of the key jostled a series of tumblers into place against their spring supports, allowing the cylinder of the lock to turn a gear which would then slide the bolt inside the door free of its receiving slot in the doorjamb, allowing me at last to turn the knob, remove a second bolt, and enter my home.”

    No. They take out their keys and open the door. More SF characters need to just take out their keys and open the door.

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