Exposition : Trying to introduce a reader to your invented world w/o boring them?

Titus Groan

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#1
Hello All!

I am currently tackling the dreaded Expository Part of The Fantasy Novel In Which Many Places, Things and People are named.

Now, as those of you who have read Gormenghast can guess from my username, I love exposition. Lots of readers complain that it interrupts tension and bogs down otherwise interesting books, but I can't get enough of the stuff. (Tanith Lee and Mervyn Peake both do it BEAUTIFULLY) Consequently I find I have to reign myself in when it comes to detail so that I'm not just infodumping and neglecting the plot.

My expository scene begins in the SECOND chapter after an action scene, and several mysteries have been seeded. I'm hoping this is a good place to bring the tension down a bit and have a look around.

Does anyone have any favorite exposition scenes they can recommend?

Any ideas about how to make exposition stand out as part of a story, rather than something a reader will feel they have to 'tough out'?

Any and all advice is welcome!

Yours,
The Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast
 

Brian G Turner

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#2
It's pretty normal for new writers to try and explain everything they can about their world. But the truth is most never needs to be in the story itself.

Humans are natural puzzle solvers, so spreading unanswered questions at the start of the story - not least about the characters, world, and setting - can help draw a reader deeper into a story until they have the answers. At which point, other questions would ideally be raised to help draw the reader on further.

Really, exposition and explanation in great depth aren't really suited to a modern novel. Gormenghast was first published over 70 years ago, which may not be a template to write to - unless you plan to be published in the 1950's. :)
 
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#3
Does anyone have any favorite exposition scenes they can recommend?
It's not fantasy, but Neal Stephenson rather famously features long, detailed sections of exposition that are interesting and as much reason to read his books as the main action or characters. They are their own stories presented as essays, histories or stolen emails.

I think that exposition is something that can be wonderful to read, unless you're trying to slip it in seamlessly and you pack too much into too little excuse for it. Casual exposition needs to be relatively short to blend into the scene. But if you drop the pretense of trying to hide it in the flow of the action, you can write something that stands on its own.

Neither is easy to do, but I don't believe exposition is bad. The problem with most exposition is that it ends up being facts and figures, rather than a compelling 'story' of its own.


In your case, if there are "compelling mysteries", make those mysteries their own story within the story. Maybe a famous detective met his fate investigating them, so there's a story. Don't just list the facts and figures of the Sword of Omens as if you're reading off an RPG rulebook page.
 

Ihe

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#5
Exposition is all about timing. The most interesting info written at the wrong time will diminish its significance and also ruin the scene enveloping it. Choose carefully the when, making sure it is actually important information and above all, plot-RELEVANT, either for current events or as meaningful foreshadowing.
 

zmunkz

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#6
I agree with the above. I’ll just add, the more you hook the reader, the more leeway you earn to break best-practices without leaving them behind. Chapter 2 is pretty early to have earned much.

If you particularly enjoy crafting the prose of exposition, perhaps you could try writing in 1st person. You could transfer some of the prose style onto the character’s narrative voice, even when you aren’t strictly doing exposition.
 

James Bridie

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#7
I'd have thought it depends on what your motive for writing is. If 'creating worlds' is YOUR thing then why not make a thing of it? and/but don't try to disguise it as a conventional story.
 

Biskit

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#8
Don't just list the facts and figures of the Sword of Omens as if you're reading off an RPG rulebook page.
Onyx has the essential point here - you're telling a story, not writing a shopping list. If you tell the reader something, it needs to be interesting, and a part of the story, whether a key plot feature or a piece of background information to add depth or colour.

You ought to practice the art of being the rambling-but-interesting elderly relative (my grandmother could take twenty minutes to tell an anecdote, apparently wandering off at a tangent only to come back to the original point when I least expected it), telling a tale with digressions and snippets, all of which are part of the story and hold attention.
 

Jay Greenstein

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#9
Keep in mind that only you can hear life in the voice of the one giving the lecture. That means that the subject matter must be so interesting, in and of itself, that they're glad to read it.

Next, think about why we read fiction. Is it to learn or to be entertained? History books are filled with the kind of thing we love about fiction. There's love, exploration, betrayal, adventure, and much more. But how many buy them as entertainment? The size of the history book section in the local bookstore will tell you that.

So what's the difference between history and fiction? History is an outside-in retelling of immutable events, presented in overview. In other words, there is no uncertainty in a history book, only the flow of facts. But fiction takes place in that tiny slice of time the protagonist calls "now," presented from the inside-out. So as in life, what happens next is both impossible to predict, and, important to the protagonist's future (if it's not why include it?). It's that uncertainty that keeps the reader turning pages. As silly as it may sound, readers love to worry about the protagonist. A reader who's made to say, "Oh no... What do we do now?" is a happy reader. So:

• Interrupt the action for an info-dump of data and it's like a commercial break dropped at random into the action. It kills all immediacy and momentum. So the place for such intrusions is between scenes, sewing them together.

• Provide information the reader has not been made to want/need and it's a lecture, delivered by someone unknown.

• It's easy to fall in love with our characters and their history. But in general, readers want story, not history. So unless that info-dump is both necessary, and not something that can be given context via the action and necessary conversation, it's usually best to avoid it. A good rule of thumb is, "is it happening or am I talking to the reader? And if you, someone neither on the scene nor on the scene are interjecting yourself into the protagonist's story...

Your mileage may differ.
 
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#10
If you particularly enjoy crafting the prose of exposition, perhaps you could try writing in 1st person.
This is a good point. Heinlein's use of 1st person allows Starship Troopers to be almost half exposition. The narrator is telling you about his world, and the story is a thread woven through a description of his life and times.

But writing in 1st person feels a little to homey for many writers, so they choose the more challenging 3rd person to try to fit their exposition into.
 

Jay Greenstein

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#11
The narrator is telling you about his world, and the story is a thread woven through a description of his life and times.
The person, and even the tense you write in is an authorial choice and for the most part, irrelevant. Remember, for us in life, and for the protagonist in the story, real-time is first person, present tense. So the POV we use refers only to how the narrator talks about that character. They're living the story, and reacting in the moment they call now. Without that it's a history lesson on a fictional character. Is there really any difference between:

"I walked to the garage to get the car and pick up Mary."
and
"He walked to the garage to get the car and pick up Mary."

Neither are in the viewpoint of the protagonist. It's a comment by the narrator, who is neither in the story nor on the scene (the narrator in a first person story lives at a different time than the protagonist living the story, so they can't appear on stage together any more than can a third person narrator. And because we can't hear the narrator's voice, their words are inherently dispassionate.

In the protagonist's viewpoint, the fact of walking or trotting, and where the car was parked is irrelevant. It's there and he's getting it. That protagonist is focused on their short term goal, with the trip to the garage serving only to give the reader the feeling that time is passing. So in the protagonist's viewpoint the line would focus on what matters to that character in the moment he calls now. Perhaps something like:

As I walked to the garage I thought about what Sam said, and how that changed things with Ellen. Could I..."

My point is that it's not first, second, or third person that matters. It's viewpoint that makes a character unique. How they view, and respond to, the events they experience is what makes them real to a reader
 
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#12
1st person narration is a story element, not just a choice of pronouns. Certain types of 1st person - especially the kind told in pass tense, makes the "ramblings" of the narrator as natural as a conversation or interview. The expectation of a 1st person storyteller is that they will not be professional, unlike the 3rd person who is the invisible author. 1st person should include character eccentricities, which includes traits like being discursive.

None of which makes poor exposition forgivable, but holds the door open for much more naturalistic forays into sidebars that are heavily revealing of the character that is telling them, rather than information that the 3rd person narrator must impart without valuation or emotion.

"The fortress was old and in poor repair, with 1600 steps up to the top that Roger had grown tired of climbing."
-vs the personalization of the information through the narrator's emotional connection:
"I hated that crumbling pile of bricks - it wasn't the first time I had worn myself breathless climbing those Godforsaken stairs - though the caretaker insists there are less than 2000 of them. I think he just can't count."

For those into film, you could compare 3rd person narration to Continuity Editing, which is designed to be largely invisible to the viewer. 1st person is purposely conspicuous, with every assertion loaded with the character's worldview. 3rd person never has the "excuse" of an inappropriate fascination with seeming minuntia that an actual character might.
 

The Big Peat

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#13
This one's a tricky one. Like, Holy Grail tricky. It's something I've been struggling with a lot, although I tend to undershoot. And I've had too many betas demand more information - and have asked for more setting background as a beta myself - to say you should put in as little as possible. This is real Goldilocks territory - it has to be just right. And I'd agree there's a lot of big modern authors who frequently have a lot of exposition.

Two big things I've got though are:

Make it entertaining. Have an entertaining person narrate it, dress it up in story form, stick it in beautiful prose... the more people enjoy the exposition, the more you can get away with it.

And even more important, the correct time to tell the reader what X does is after they're going "Huh, what's X" and not before.

So it sounds like you're on the right path - and further than that, you'll have to see how your beta readers like it.

The size of the history book section in the local bookstore will tell you that.
Bigger than the Fantasy/SF shelf in most of the ones I go to!
 

Jay Greenstein

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#14
The expectation of a 1st person storyteller is that they will not be professional, unlike the 3rd person who is the invisible author.
Telling is telling. A change in pronouns grants no license to the narrator to talk to the reader. And the author wearing a wig and makeup to pretend to be the protagonist at some later time is no more the protagonist of the scene than is a third person narrator. Both are interrupting the action. And to quote Jack Bickham, To describe something in detail, you have to stop the action. But without the action, the description has no meaning.”
"The fortress was old and in poor repair, with 1600 steps up to the top that Roger had grown tired of climbing."
-vs the personalization of the information through the narrator's emotional connection:
"I hated that crumbling pile of bricks - it wasn't the first time I had worn myself breathless climbing those Godforsaken stairs - though the caretaker insists there are less than 2000 of them. I think he just can't count."
What you give as a third person version is exposition—telling. So it's not a fair comparison. In third person, in the viewpoint of the protagonist, it would be more like:

Jack plodded upward, grumbling as he went. "Only two thousand steps to the top of this damn pile of bricks, the caretaker says? Well that's a bunch of crap, because the man obviously can't count."

I left out that this is not the first time because if the reader knows that it's not worth mentioning, and if not it's irrelevant to the moment he calls now. I also left out the breathless because every reader knows how they would feel climbing that many steps. Why tell them what they already know. But be that as it may, that data could be included as well, in his viewpoint.

First person is no less, or no more passionate and real than is second or third person. And the fact that the vast majority of books are presented in third attest to that. Yes, first person is more popular in certain genres, And it has both certain strengths and weaknesses. But person and viewpoint are very different things. Person is an authorial choice. Viewpoint—how the protagonist perceives what matters to them in the moment they call now—is the parent of action, is unique to them, and is what makes us relate to the character. That first person narrator is not and cannot be on the scene, any more than the third person narrator. They both live at a different time and place from the protagonist, and it's the protagonist who's living the story. So anything that stops the action and places us at another time with a speaker whose voice we cannot hear kills all sense of realism, stills the scene-clock, and with it any momentum the scene may have acquired.

The narrator can only interject as an emotion free voice because while we can say that a character speaks a line with a smile or a shake of the head we cannot tell the reader how we speak, and they cannot hear our voice, rendering it emotion-free other then what punctuation and word choice provide.
 

Brian G Turner

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#15
And the author wearing a wig and makeup to pretend to be the protagonist at some later time is no more the protagonist of the scene than is a third person narrator.
I think the discussion is getting a little too hung up on what is either a technicality or semantics with POV use. The opening post was simply about use of exposition - let's see if we can move forward focused on that. :)
 

night_wrtr

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#16
As someone who enjoys The Wheel of Time, I don't have a lot of issues reading through chunks of exposition. Saying that, I'll second @The Big Peat that it needs to be entertaining. Robert Jordan hid most of his in storytelling, like gleeman's tales at the taverns, or dropping in bits that are immediately relevant about a specific place or thing, which usually comes back to being useful info when solving a current problem(or ones that appear a few books down the road! :LOL: ). It helps that most of the main cast are younger and have to learn a lot about things outside of their normal life, so the reader learns at the same pace as the characters.

That being said, plenty of people don't like that style of exposition either. I can tell you now that I don't have it figured out, and I think it will always be a constant struggle to get that perfect mix.
 
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millymollymo

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#17
Was just about to point to WoT - a good example of reader/writer relationship there. You knew what was plot and what was "infill" but knew both to be relevant. Especially the openers where the wind and Wheel wills.
Telling is needed sometimes. Tell what you need, but only when you need to. Know what you need to tell :ROFLMAO:
 
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#18
While I advocate for exposition, a good tool is for the author to rate the importance of each exposition data point to decide if the story can be understood without it. That doesn't mean anything extraneous must be eliminated, but whether this section of the book requires that data right then. If not, that factoid could be sprinkled in somewhere else to avoid clots of exposition.

What I think is interesting is that the difference between boring exposition and a major plot twist is timing. Imagine if Vader being Luke's father was in the opening scroll of Empire Strikes Back instead of in the last 10 minutes. The film would be the same, but our reaction to it completely different.
 

The Big Peat

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#19
Re WoT - Moraine's story about Manerethen still remains one of my favourite examples of "blatant exposition done so well my only regret is it ended when it did". It's not even like it was hugely important to the story.

I'm not sure every WoT fan enjoyed it as much as I did, but enough could overlook it for WoT to be gigantic.
 

Guillermo Stitch

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#20
It's pretty normal for new writers to try and explain everything they can about their world. But the truth is most never needs to be in the story itself.

Humans are natural puzzle solvers, so spreading unanswered questions at the start of the story - not least about the characters, world, and setting - can help draw a reader deeper into a story until they have the answers. At which point, other questions would ideally be raised to help draw the reader on further.

Really, exposition and explanation in great depth aren't really suited to a modern novel. Gormenghast was first published over 70 years ago, which may not be a template to write to - unless you plan to be published in the 1950's. :)

I agree with this. I would be careful about expository world building for your reader and advise you (since you asked - no, you definitely asked) to bear in mind that what is important for you to know about the world you're building isn't necessarily at all important for your reader to know.

At least the consider the "drop them in it and let them enjoy the scramble of keeping up" approach. It can be thrilling.
 

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