Exposition on a need-to-know basis

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?

8 Responses to “Exposition on a need-to-know basis”

  1. 1 auntielou
    April 7, 2010 at 11:45 am

    What I hate most is when writers take part of the last or all of the next-to-the-last chapter to review the plot so far and add commentary. Editors who let that kind of thing pass should be, well, fired, I guess.

    Everybody tells me to write a book about Japan (where I lived for 15 years, as you know, Margaret) and I’ve tried. But consider this scene told from the point of view of a 7-year-old girl hiding a kitten in her closet. Your typical Japanese closet is very different from your typical American closet — in size and shape and contents — and it’s important to me that the American reader “see” the closet with some accuracy, but why would the narrator take time to describe it? Why would she even notice it? She wouldn’t know it was different from anything else. It’s exhausting, figuring this kind of thing out scene after scene.

  2. April 7, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    I’m actually pretty open to exposition as long as it’s interesting and at least marginally relevant to the story. Which is why I can have a hard time figuring out when I’ve used to much. This is especially true when I’ve done a whole lot of depth for a story, and I’m trying to decide just how deep the reader should be to know what’s what.

    I don’t mind a lack of exposition either. For example, I loved being thrown in Steven Erikson’s Malazan books before I could swim, even though I’ve heard a lot of people complain about it.

    Once I’ve bought the book, it takes a lot to make me stop reading. There has to be a major tagent or digression, and it has to be boring. If it’s interesting, I might stay with the author forty pages until he gets back to the main story. Which is, again, a reader trait that doesn’t cross over very well to being a writer.

  3. April 7, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    I’m definitely the type of reader that would prefer not to be told too much — until it becomes painful NOT to know.

    That said, as a writer, I’m really striving for the right balance. I’m trying to paint the world as my characters explore it, which *should* mean that the reader is discovering it at the “right” pace as well. Talk to me again in a few months and I’ll let you know how it worked out. ;P

  4. 4 mlronald
    April 7, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Auntielou, really? They pause the last chapter for a “the story so far” moment? Urgh.

    As for the scene you describe, I can see the problem. I think for that it’d be a matter of being careful what words you use to describe her actions — what she has to move to make room, where she puts the kitten, what she has to be careful about. It’d be possible, I think, to give a sense of the difference through her actions alone, without pausing to outright describe the closet. (But yes, this sort of thing is exhausting. I tend to gloss on my first drafts and then go back and figure out what I left out.)

    Atsiko, I like how you put it — that is a trait that’s stronger for the reader-mind than for the writer-mind. And you hit on the key point: if it’s interesting, you’ll stay with it. I don’t mind digressions and exposition so long as they entertain me, although if they turn out not to be relevant I might get ticked off later on.

    It does take a lot for me to stop reading, even now when I have less time for it. The author usually has to do something to piss me off (killing off the first interesting character, for example). But if I’m already struggling, I’ll have less patience, sometimes without good reason.

    I love when infodumps are done well or in an unusual way — in The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, there are character sheets for several of the characters, juxtaposed with the sections from their point of view. I wouldn’t have thought that would work at all, and yet it makes perfect sense in the story.

    And Kristan, good luck! Yeah, I’m trying to balance it in a pair of short stories right now, both set in very different worlds and with very different assumptions. And you’ve got the right word for it: “discovering” the world is really what we’re trying to evoke.

  5. April 8, 2010 at 10:40 am

    As a reader, if I like the character, I’ll happily sit through quite a bit of exposition (as long as it fits in with the style of the book).

    As a writer…well just had feedback from a beta. Apparently there’s a time and place for backstory (I was deluded in thinking I could get away with my several paragraphs of backstory. There was action in between them!)…and in the middle of an action scene isn’t one of them! I have figured out where it could logically be placed further on in the novel.

    It’s a hard line to tread.

  6. 6 mlronald
    April 12, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    (Ack, sorry for the late response!) Nayuleska, I sometimes run into that — particularly if I’m writing the scene on the fly, away from my well-thought-through and now abandoned outline. I’ll want to stop and explain why such and such happens or makes sense in context, and I have to wrench my mind back to the flow of the story instead of explaining. Revising usually catches it, or at least sometimes catches where I’ve dropped exposition in precisely the wrong spot. And then there’s the back and forth of too much, too little, put it here, leave it out there…yeah.

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