New Worlds Theory Post: Exposition, Pt. 1

So you’ve put together this lovely, complex, detailed world.

How do you convey it all to the reader, without infodumping?

The first part of the answer, of course, is that you let go of the notion that you can explain it all. Just as with research in a historical or hard science fiction novel, you’ve got to recognize that you may have come up with more fillips and flourishes than are actually relevant to the story. Ideas routinely beget more ideas, and however shiny may be, they probably don’t all belong in the book.

But exercising restraint on what you try to communicate to your readers doesn’t save you from having to communicate some of it. So how do you do that?

Once upon a time you were allowed to use infodumps to accomplish this, lecturing your reader either through an “as you know, Bob” conversation (where one character tells another about stuff they both already know), or through a wodge of expository narration — and you can still get away with that in some contexts, depending on your audience, your genre, your point of view, and so forth. I will happily read Neal Stephenson lecturing me on damn near anything, just because he’s so entertaining in how he does it, and for Tom Clancy’s readers, lovingly detailed description of technology is half of why they showed up for the book.

Most of the time, though, you have to be more subtle. You salt your worldbuilding details through the text rather than delivering it in lumps, in a technique Jo Walton has termed incluing: “the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.”

One way to think about this is to look at how setting information appears in stories that take place right here in the real world, in the present day. If I describe a character typing on a computer, I might say “her fingers flew over the keys;” I wouldn’t tell the reader that each key was marked with a letter of the alphabet, and by pressing them she could input text to the device. If she’s driving somewhere, I’ll say she started the car and pulled out onto the road; I won’t go through every step of opening the door, sitting down, closing the door, putting the key in the ignition to start the gasoline-powered motor, etc.

In other words, you don’t have to explain how a thing works, or all the steps in the process, when the important part is the end result. If I tell you that my heroine plucked the strings of her terna and sang softly, you’ll figure out that it’s a stringed musical instrument; if I tell you she got in her fessti and flew to the hospital, you’ll guess a fessti is some kind of airborne vehicle.

This works . . . in moderation. We’ve all probably had the experience of reading something, or even ending up in a real-life situation, where we felt utterly adrift in a sea of strange terms and concepts nobody bothered to explain. Kate Elliott has said that you can show someone doing a familiar thing in a familiar context, someone doing a familiar thing in an unfamiliar context, or someone doing an unfamiliar thing in a familiar context, but not someone doing an unfamiliar thing in an unfamiliar context: they need something recognizable to hold onto. It isn’t just a matter of keeping the reader oriented; you can also use the known elements to contextualize the unknown ones, which helps you make their significance clear.

Contextualization partly happens on the level of prose. It’s such a small thing, but paying attention to how you structure your sentences can help orient the reader — and can mean the difference between exposition that feels clunky and exposition that slips seamlessly into the reader’s brain.

The clunky approach puts a neon sign on a new piece of information, often in ways that feel like they’re breaking point of view. Some of the key markers to watch out for are phrases like “which was” or “called X” or “known as Y” — e.g. “a six-stringed instrument called a terna” or “the type of vehicle known as a fessti.” If your viewpoint character plays the terna or flies a fessti regularly, they wouldn’t think in those distancing terms. (This is closely related to the more general prose advice to avoid distancing language unless you have reason to need it, replacing “I felt my head spin” with “My head spun.”) Every time I hit a phrase like that, I feel as if the author is waving a flag saying “pay attention; I’m about to teach you a thing!”

You can still teach the reader what they need to know; the trick is doing it gracefully. Rather than saying “I picked up my xat, which was a kind of sword, and strapped it to my hip, then glared at my brother,” say “I picked up my xat and strapped it onto my hip, then rested my hand on its hilt as I glared at my brother.” Hip + hilt means your reader is now envisioning a sword. If you want to reinforce that, find a nearby sentence in which to refer to the sword your protagonist is wearing. Using synonyms in close proximity provides buttressing information; so does working objects into the staging and action of a scene.

The benefit of this isn’t merely that you smooth out the road bumps of exposition. It also usually produces a richer final result. Telling me that ishua is a kind of rice wine gives me a fact: ishua is rice wine. But if your protagonist takes a sip of rice wine and then grimaces because Paugir thinks he can get away with buying inferior rice for his mash and then covering the flaw by flavoring it with cinnamon, I’ve learned that ishua is rice wine, it sometimes comes in flavors, Paugir is a cheapskate, and your protagonist is a bit of snob about her wine.

Does this take more time and effort? Yes. Novels these days are longer for a whole host of reasons, but one of them is that we’ve largely eschewed the straightforward infodump in favor of incluing, where your sentences have to bear the weight not only of simple exposition but also characterization and ancillary worldbuilding and good prose, too. All that stuff takes more wordage.

But this is only part of the story (literally and figuratively). Contextualization of the type I just described works great for physical objects and other relatively simple things. Abstract concepts and complex ideas aren’t so easily conveyed with a sentence or two. When the next theory post rolls around in May, I’ll return to this topic and dig into the ways you can structure your scenes and your plot to let you integrate your worldbuilding into them.

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New Worlds Theory Post: Exposition, Pt. 1 — 14 Comments

    • Character-based approaches to worldbuilding will be in Part Two. 🙂 (And I honestly won’t be surprised if there wind up being three parts to this discussion, but we’ll see.)

  1. Pingback: New Worlds Theory Post: Exposition, Pt. 1 - Swan Tower

  2. As a resident Master Grouch (Oscar is just an apprentice)…

    On one hand, the (for lack of a better term) elegance in integrating character, plot, setting, and theme is part of what distinguished between “literature” and “entertainment” a century ago at the dawn of formalized speculative fiction. And it still does: Compare the integration of even hard things like “abstract doctrine” into the text in, say, The Sparrow to almost any other first-interstellar-voyage work. Russell integrates things so that exposition is also doing character and thematic development, and sometimes plot development. The Clancy example above shows how not to do it elegantly (especially for anyone who actually knows the difference between “military hardware” and “military usefulness,” but that’s for another time).

    On another hand, certain kinds of necessary exposition — primarily of the cultural-assumption-above-everyday-interaction type, such as “just how worried should that noble teenager be about not getting an invitation to the Prince’s Ball, and what does that have to do with slippers and chargirls?” that the reader cannot be expected to know because the reader isn’t a member of that social grouping — often do require “As you know, Bob” to get the information across to the reader. The noble teenager has had years of atuning himself or herself to the cultural significance of silence in that particular context, or of putting one’s hand on the hilt of one’s sword when conversing with a family member (it means something different in Shakespeare’s Verona than in a Regency drawing room). The reader hasn’t… and even if the reader had, the reader also brings other expectations in to spoil the party. It seems to me that the key is choosing the right Bob, and omniscient narrator as Professor and reader as Bob is almost never workable (even if there isn’t a quiz and the material won’t be on the final).

    On the third hand (and explaining how I got that third hand would require an infodump in itself), there’s a limit to how many stupid and ignorant Bobs there can be. Bob can be ignorant of specifics, but can’t be stupid; that’s the difference between Russell (in which all of the characters are very, very bright) and Clancy (in which all of the characters are… not).

    • On another hand, certain kinds of necessary exposition […] often do require “As you know, Bob” to get the information across to the reader.

      I either disagree wildly, or else we’re using “As you know, Bob” in different senses; I suspect the latter, given how you end that paragraph. Very little exposition if any requires you to have one character lecture another one about things they both already know, which is what that term specifically means. Other kinds of expository narration are different, and may be fine. In fact, a “stupid and ignorant Bob” is one of the tools I’ll be talking about next time — though it does have its limitations.

      • The real problem with the “explain the kewl tech stuff” variant of “As you know, Bob” — extending back to, and even before, S.P. Meek (Capt. U.S. Army (ret.)) — is that it always treats Bob as a duality: The lecture is primarily intended to show how much more the author knows about that kewl tech stuff than does the author (or, for that matter, the Establishment) while it is clothed very thinly in a veneer of demonstrating the intellectual superiority of the author’s avatar to all of the other characters. Especially to the character(s) stuck listening to the exposition in the rescheduled 7:30am lecture.

        Too often — and Clancy is an excellent example of this — “As you know, Bob” just reveals that the author is a dilletante who knows something in depth and nothing of context. An awful lot of military-oriented stuff does that; the fantasy-world million-creature army, for example, never considers what it’s going to take to feed and water that million-creature army, and doesn’t acknowledge the famine that will follow both at home and on the prospective battlefield(s) even if there’s no battle, or what happens to the rest of the nation when all of its finished metals are appropriated for weapons, or…. But a million-creature army allows the author to show off that he (or occasionally she) is a better battle-planner or tactician than Lee or Grant or Napoleon (let alone Haig!) without considering that non-military technology drove their approaches. But

        So perhaps we are using “As you know, Bob” in different senses. I’m more focused on the consequences of the choice to use it, and the implications for the rest of the storytelling. Especially the implications for this simple possibility: What if Professor Superscience (or, as is all too often true, Professor Marysue) isn’t the smartest person in the room, and more particularly is less informed than the reader? It can be more than a bit pernicious, especially when the author is treating the reader as that stupid and ignorant Bob via descent into allegory.

        • Sorry about that, two-year-old nieces make for poor proofreading… it should be “how much more the author knows about that kewl tech stuff than does the reader” (first paragraph) and that hanging “But” in the second paragraph should be a sarcastic “But war never occurs as part of the milieu of fiction, it’s a completely separate thing!”

        • Too often — and Clancy is an excellent example of this — “As you know, Bob” just reveals that the author is a dilletante who knows something in depth and nothing of context.

          That can be true — but you can equally have that lecture about made-up material. It still generally isn’t good writing, regardless of whether the subject matter is badly handled, meticulously researched, or b.s. from one end to the other.

          So perhaps we are using “As you know, Bob” in different senses. I’m more focused on the consequences of the choice to use it, and the implications for the rest of the storytelling.

          I am also focused on the consequences — but as I said in a comment above, I’ll be looking at character-based techniques for exposition in the Part Two essay come May. An explanation delivered to a naive character falls into that category.

          It can be more than a bit pernicious, especially when the author is treating the reader as that stupid and ignorant Bob via descent into allegory.

          But the author cannot in most cases assume that the reader already knows Subject X well enough not to need the exposition. If it’s truly common knowledge, sure; they’re not going to explain airplanes or the internet, because it’s reasonable to presume that the average Anglophone reader knows that. But something like military knowledge is not equally widespread. So while it may annoy you to read exposition on that point, other readers do need it. And if the exposition is shallow or wrong, that’s a failure of research, which is separate from the question of how the exposition is delivered. A 100% accurate lecture from one general to another general about the basic organization of supply lines is still bad writing, even if it’s good research; more elegantly-delivered exposition that misrepresents some points of military logistics can be good writing, albeit undermined by bad research.

    • “It seems to me that the key is choosing the right Bob, and omniscient narrator as Professor and reader as Bob is almost never workable”

      Disagree. I prefer “a wodge of expository narration” to characters explaining things they should know, and it often works quite well. Tolkien has bits of it through his main stories as well as Prologue and Appendices to the LotR. Cherryh used prologues a lot, Cyteen had in-universe encyclopedia or news clips in between story chapters. Pern books have a short context-setting prologue.

      And the Great American Novel, Moby Dick, is kind of like an SF novel (describing a somewhat exotic way of life in an alien environment, with a ship chasing a monster), and is also like 50% infodumps, whole chapters that are just Melville telling you about the whale penis and other fun whaling facts.

      Or beyond that, Always Coming Home, which is like 90% infodump and 10% story.

      • As I said, a good enough author can get away with damn near anything — where “good enough” is modulated by what the readership is looking for in that book. But giant wodges of infodump are kind of a “professional driver on a closed course; do not attempt” kind of gamble. 🙂

  3. One of the best ways I’ve seen the “As you know Bob” variant in use was played regularly between the two main characters of a series. One was a sorceress, the other a swordsman. Before they met, he’d never needed to know more about magic than when to duck so he would ask for details when the audience need to know more. The thing that made it work for me was how his background FIT this. A mercenary swordsman doesn’t usually need to know the technical details of how human magic derives from gods and demons. Contrariwise, a sorceress rarely needs to know the technical details of muscle memory and how exactly a sword works- even the magic sword held by her bodyguard. I think it worked because both sides periodically needed an explanation in what was not their field. Also, he rarely needed an explanation on anything that was not about magic- except for something regarding the layout of a particular city that he; being from the opposite end of the inhabited lands and several countries away would have no reason to know about.

  4. BTW, IIRC a 1st season episode of Babylon-5 really did have “As you know Garibaldi,” followed by something like “all Earthforce ships have a transponder…” Good job, JMS!

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