New Worlds Theory Post: Exposition, Pt. 2

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

When we first hit the topic of worldbuilding exposition back in May, I discussed the exposition on the level of prose: how to work setting details into your sentences without putting a neon stop sign on them saying “HERE BE INFORMATION,” and how to use the surrounding context to make those details convey story as well as facts. That works on a small scale, but when you get to more complex matters, you often have to think larger in order to work them into the story.

One time-honored way to do this is with a naive protagonist: someone young, inexperienced, foreign, or otherwise unfamiliar with the situation at hand. They don’t have to be ignorant of everything, and in fact it can be annoying if they are — at least in fiction for adults. In kids’ literature and YA, a naive protagonist is often a natural choice. This approach lets you dodge the flaw of “as you know, Bob;” instead of two characters discussing things they both know purely for the benefit of the reader (which breaks the logic of the story), you have one knowledgeable character explaining things to someone ignorant of that information, so that the reader learns alongside the character.

It doesn’t always have to be the protagonist, of course. Sometimes your main character is the knowledgeable one doing the explaining, or it takes place between two secondary characters. Even with those variations, though, the ignorance approach to exposition gets old after a while. So what other options does a writer have?

You can make the setting information a point of conflict. One character explaining things to another risks being boring; all that’s happening is exposition, this time framed as dialogue instead of narration. (And if the exposition is happening between secondary characters, the point of view character isn’t even directly involved.) But if you add conflict, now there’s tension, and therefore more reason for the reader to engage. During one episode of the TV show Firefly, when the titular ship has suffered a massive engine failure and is floating dead in space, two of the characters have the following argument:

Wash: What do you expect me to do, Mal?

Mal: Whatever you have to. And if you can’t do it from here, then get a suit on and go outside on the side of the boat —

Wash: And what? Wave my arms around?

Mal: Wave your arms around, jump up and down, divert the nav sats to the transmitter, whatever.

Wash: Divert the — right! Because teenage pranks are fun when you’re about to die!

Mal: It’d give the beacon a boost, wouldn’t it?

Wash: Yes, Mal, it would boost the signal. But even if some passerby did happen to receive, all it would do is muck up their navigation!

Mal: Could be that’s true.

Wash: Damn right it’s true. They’d be forced to stop and dig out our signal before they could even go anyplace . . . well, maybe I should do that, then!

Mal: Maybe you should!

That’s far more interesting than a quiet, cooperative discussion about whether they can rewire anything on the ship to get the attention of passing vessels. It’s a small-scale example, involving some technobabble that never became relevant again, but the same principle applies to any aspect of your worldbuilding. It doesn’t have to be a heated argument; any point of disagreement gives you justification for bringing details to the forefront. And in fact you can do the same thing with other types of character interaction, like flirtation.

To make that work, though, the worldbuilding needs to be a suitable topic of conflict, or other types of emotional engagement. Which makes this a specific example of a broader point: if you want to tell your reader about some aspect of your setting, then you need to work it into your plot.

This can operate on a number of levels, beginning with the mere act of where you set your scene. I wanted readers of A Star Shall Fall to know that in between the previous books and that one, coffee had become a popular beverage in England; I therefore had a conversation about my protagonist’s marriage prospects take place in a coffee-house, and let the description convey that this was a trendy place to be. Coming up with reasons to shift the backdrop to different locations both conveys exposition and helps you avoid the “blank box” problem of scenes that seem to take place in a void.

You can do more than simply drop events into useful locales, though. If you want to explain religion, make a character religious, then give them a reason to go interact with their faith. (Or make them irreligious, then ditto: knowing they’re either desperate enough to resort to that, or forced into going anyway, adds depth to the character.) If you want to explain magic or invented technology, have the magic or tech do something important to the plot, and provide details about how it operates as the characters go through the process. Bonus points if something goes wrong with it; like a disagreement, that opens up space for you to explain more while also maintaining tension.

And the flip side to the “naive protagonist” approach is that there’s real benefit in having a knowledgeable protagonist instead. Not just because they can teach an ignorant character; when you put them in a scene like I’ve just described, it’s natural to have their thoughts and narration convey information the reader needs. You just have to make sure to scatter those details carefully — try to spread them through the scene rather than dropping them in a wodge at the beginning — and look for ways to give the information some kind of emotional weight for the viewpoint character. Fear for personal safety while going into a bad district of the city, memories of past failure when trying a difficult technique, cynicism over the real actions of a legendary hero . . . there are countless ways to turn exposition into characterization and/or plot as well.

Because in the end, the real flaw of an infodump is that it tends to drop information into the story with all the flavor of an encyclopedia. For the reader to care, the character needs to care, in either a positive or negative direction.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds Theory Post: Exposition, Pt. 2 — 14 Comments

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  2. … and about the only time “the flavor of an encyclopedia” is appropriate is in a parody or satire; it can become extremely tiresome even then (The Hitchhiker’s Guide sort of wears out its welcome after the fifth or sixth entry across the equivalent of a multi-novel sequence). Its cousins the epistolary and — for lack of a better nonjudgmental term — invented nonfiction wear things out even faster, and work perhaps once per novel if that. (Unless, perhaps, you’re inserting Principles of Collective Oligarchy because its purpose is not the information it literally conveys, but the information between the lines and the context of the reading “experience.”)

    • There was a period of time where epic fantasy would do the “fictional encyclopedia” thing as a way of separating out the infodumps, and . . . yyyyyeah, I basically never read those things, because they were just painfully boring. If you can make it funny I’ll take a look, but if you hit that button too often then yes, it’ll lose its effect.

        • I love them too! That is, when done well. Some of the time they’re just painfully not in the style they’re theoretically pastiching. (And I’m afraid that the ones that try to be comedy first and infodump second very rarely work for me.) But I do very much enjoy a good “and now, an excerpt from this encyclopedia/history book/etc,” especially if the author uses that to illustrate something about the putative author’s attitudes and culture while they’re at it.

          • I sometimes like that when it’s brief epigraphs on a chapter or some such. When it’s pages of stuff, that’s when my eyes start to glaze over, and few authors if any are able to pull it off well enough to hold my attention.

          • I’m willing to believe that I’m just weird! When I was a small child I read encyclopedia *for fun.*

            The one I imprinted on was Jane Yolen’s for her Pit Dragon trilogy…

    • > about the only time “the flavor of an encyclopedia” is appropriate is in a parody or satire

      The 1989 Hugo voters disagreed strongly, giving the award to _Cyteen_, with lots of invented non-fiction in between story chapters. I think _Dune_ had something similar as chapter headings, though shorter? Then there’s that Great American Novel, Moby Dick, where half the chapters are entirely “the author tells you about whales and whaling”.

      • I’ll grant you Cyteen; if you do this kind of thing well enough, people can still enjoy it. But Moby Dick was written over a hundred and sixty years ago, when literary fashions were very different, and not many people today read that book outside of an academic assignment. Some, sure — but it isn’t a reliable guide to what readers like and look for today.

  3. I just did a “wikipedia” entry for something in mylatest WIP – it was immense fun, but that is as and of itself an appendix to the body of work to which it belongs. Everything important about the subject is contained in the NARRATIVE, in the story. So yeah. What you said 🙂

    • Any time you’re relying on the reader to pay attention to something other than the narrative itself, there will be people who slip through that net.

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