Success only flourishes in perseverance -- ceaseless, restless perseverance.
--Baron Manfred Von Richtofen

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing Speculative Fiction: Part IV--Exposition

I'm going to do a series of posts on speculative fiction for a class I'll be teaching at an upcoming writing conference. Hope you all will find some value here!

Exposition, or the explaining of things, is a tricky part of any genre, but with speculative fiction it presents some unique challenges. You've created a whole new world here. There is so much that the readers won't know about it and need to understand in order to get the story, right? History, customs, culture, magic systems or advanced technology, not to mention all the back story that brought your characters to the point where the story starts.

You may think it's necessary to dump all this information on your readers right up front, so you can get the story going once they're up to speed. Not so. You must resist the urge to info-dump on your readers. Nothing kills a story dead quicker than opening with a bunch of exposition and no action, characters, nothing.

There are better ways to handle this dilemma. I've discussed some of them in a previous post, if you'd like to see some specific ideas. It's a fine line to walk, though, because you also don't want to leave your reader with too little information to figure out what's happening. You have to learn the art of dropping in tidbits here and there, like bread crumbs on the path. As I mentioned before, speculative fiction readers like to discover these things for themselves without having it spoon fed to them. It has to be handled with finesse, and the best way I know of to learn how is to read a lot and to practice a lot. The more spec-fic you write, the easier the exposition becomes.

Do you have any favorite techniques for imparting information to the readers?


Shallee said...

Welcome back to blogging! Hope you're feeling better.

This is one of the trickiest things for me as a writer. I think the key is to remember that the reader DOESN'T need to know everything right away. What do they need to know at that moment for the story? That's the information to communicate.

I usually prefer to do things with "incluing" rather than info-dumping-- introduce the information in context of a scene so they understand it without you having to explain it. Brandon Sanderson does a great job with this.

Laura Josephsen said...

I had to deal with this big time in Rising, my speculative fiction book that comes out this month. I wanted the world and the characters and the history to be presented as naturally as possible, so it was exactly like you said--laying a trail of bread crumbs. It's a hard balance to find--figuring out what readers need to know, what they'll figure out as you go, and what information to give and in what order. I've found that sometimes an offhanded comment or a single line about something can tell the readers a LOT about the way the world is or works, and it can be done in a way to easily fit in to the story without it coming across as a random line that shouldn't be there. Everything should make sense.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

This is one of the things I struggle with the most as a spec fiction reader...I really lose interest when I have to learn a lot of details about a new world, or species, or whatever.

I don't really know HOW she did it, but I think JR Ward did a great job with her Black Dagger Brotherhood books...They are vampires. They aren't the "regular kind", but we don't have to spend a lot of time learning the specifics...I guess because, in the first book, as a "human" transitions to vampire, we learn along with Beth what the rules are... a little at a time.

And it's not fancy. Keep it simple, so us stupid readers can remember the details!

T. M. Hunter said...

Sprinkle it in amidst dialogue, and convey it via insinuation and observation on the part of the characters.

Angie said...

Teri, that's a great way to give the information. Have an outsider character who needs to learn. Look how well that worked for Harry Potter too.

Todd, you're right. I think a little bit goes a long way.

Taffy said...

The books I've LOVED showed me their world through actions, scenery, language, dialogue, people, and the five senses. Readers are not stupid. They will pick up on the things authors want them to without info dumping.
Can't say I know what I'm doing when I'm writing tho! :)

ali cross said...

Man, I've been missing out. I'm gonna have to go back and look at your previous articles. You are awesome!

Brandon Barr said...

This is great. Info dumps are the enemy.
I like to focus on the characters so much, that the world they live in is more peripheral.
Lots of new fantasy writers find the world almost more intriguing than their characters.

Lyn Perry said...

Trust that your readers can infer.

Angie said...

Brandon, that's a great technique. And that's so true, Lyn. Readers are a smart bunch!