Exposition can be one of those things that drives me bananas, especially in the last few stages of revision, when I know everything about the story and can’t understand why no one else sees it. (This is also the part where I usually inform my husband that they called me mad, mad I tell you, but he’s used to that.) It’s also a problem that’s particularly thorny for science fiction and fantasy writers, since we’ve got to introduce an entire world to the reader without bringing the story screeching to a halt.
It’s possible for large lumps of exposition to work — the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy runs on this, and it wouldn’t be the same without those asides — but writers are usually told to stay away from the infodump. For good reason; nothing kicks me out of a story faster than two pages of dry history before the action even happens. But dropping a reader in medias res can also backfire, especially if so much is going on that the reader’s left in the dust. I don’t often put down books that frustrate me in this way, but there have been a few that left a very bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the book.
The crux of it, for me at least, is balancing what the reader needs to know, what the reader already knows, and what will slow down the story. The first part’s easy to stumble over, especially in first drafts, because usually by that point I’ve come up with so much backstory and worldbuilding details that I just really want to share them all! I worked so much on it, why not add that twelve-page summary of Character X’s family history? (Well, because twelve pages will not make anyone care more about Character X, but will probably make anyone who did care stop.) I’ve poked fun at myself about this, such as in “A Serpent in the Gears,” where Charles stops himself from giving “the full explanation of merged versus autonomous citizenry and the Aaris monarchic system.” And yes, I’d actually written the full explanation in the first draft, changing it to that little jab when I realized what I was doing.
But this also works the other way (and this is often something I have to go back and fix in revisions, particularly in the Evie novels); there are certain things the reader needs to know early on, so that later events will have the significance needed. Building a mystery, particularly from a tight first-person perspective, involves a lot of this sort of information seeding, especially the kind where the reader doesn’t notice that they’ve got a vital piece of information yet.
On the other side of the equation is deciding what the reader already knows. Some of this is easy — if I’ve just made up the entire town of Thanapont and its rituals concerning the dead, then no reader is going to know a damned thing about it, and I can elaborate as much as I like (within reason; see below). But stories that are partly set in a recognizable world, or that draw on established mythology, are more difficult. This is where I often have trouble, especially if I’m playing off of a folktale as in “Goosegirl” or “Sparking Anger.” I tend to write my first drafts as if all of my readers will be familiar with my source material, and only later realize that I’ve made it completely incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t familiar with that source. The temptation to pause for a lecture is strong here as well, because at this point I’m usually so enamored with what I’ve learned that I want to show all my research.
This can also trip me up with some cultural expectations; if making a reference to “the happiest place on earth” is important to discovering the mystery, then I’m assuming everyone knows I’m talking about Disney World. Or, for another example, that everyone will know what the Curse of the Bambino was supposed to be. I often have to go back and decide what assumptions I’m making about my readers and what information I’ll need to provide. (In terms of serials, it’s another matter entirely — how much does the reader need to know about Evie from book to book? I’m still learning my way around this problem, and as I start in on revisions to Soul Hunt I’ll see how well I’ve tackled it.)
When I’m trying to write exposition, these are the two factors that come into play — but neither is as important as whether it will slow the story down. I try to do a lot of weaving exposition in around everything else (in the worst case, this can result in pausing a fight scene to discuss technique, which aaaargh drives me crazy and is why I don’t watch a lot of shonen anime.) And when working from a tight first-person perspective, if my narrator doesn’t know something, then I either have to show her learning it or use her ignorance as something for the reader to notice. For that matter, if she does know an important piece of exposition, then finding an excuse for her to remark on it becomes a new problem. There’s less of the “as you know, Bob” issue here and more of a “as I know, reader,” neither of which works well.
What exposition works for you? What knocks you out of the story, or makes you start skimming through in hopes of getting back to the action? Are there stories where the lack of exposition frustrated you? And, most importantly, what kind of exposition will make you stop reading?