So I’ve been reading Michael J Sullivan’s novel Theft of Swords in between epic bouts of pre-semester preparation and a titanic move that seems endless. The story is passably engaging, the characters fairly familiar takes on the same old tropes, and has a few winning moments. I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any further in the series after this one, but it has got me thinking about a particularly onerous and prickly aspect of writing science fiction and fantasy–exposition.
One thing I like about spec-fic is the immersion in a new and alien world (I describe this affection in more detail here). When you first start reading, you don’t understand the world, its rules, its history, its culture–nothing. You need to learn this as you go. Furthermore, the more intricate the plot and the more convoluted the intrigue, the more work the reader needs to do to figure out what’s going on, what the stakes are, and where the tension lies. The way writers need to help the readers along is with the use of exposition. The funny thing is, though, is that exposition is atrociously boring to read. No matter how necessary it is (and in a fantasy novel, it is very necessary), reading giant walls of text wherein the meaning of this or that thing is revealed is, well, dull. If you’re anything like me, you start hearing the voice of the teacher in all the Charlie Brown specials (“wah wah, wawah, woh WA wa wah”). Anybody who’s read The Fellowship of the Ring probably knows exactly what I’m talking about–those two chapters in the middle (“Many Meetings” and “The Council of Elrond”) are DREADFUL reading. I think I’ve read that book four or five times now, and I still nod off during those things.
It’s easy, as a writer fully invested in your own fantasy world, to forget how boring exposition is. We sort of expect
everybody to be as fascinated in the minutiae of our imaginary kingdom’s foreign trade imbalances and pottery exports as we are. We need to remember that this isn’t so. I could go on and on and on about the politics involved between the Guild Lords and Barons in the Duchy of Galaspin and how this has affected the history of Freegate, but I know none of you really, truly care. The reader only cares insofar as it is related to the story, and that’s it. My primary problem with Theft of Swords is how often the bad guys sit down, drink brandy, and spend pages after pages chatting aimlessly about their stupid plans–conducting conversations no real person would ever have–simply for the obvious and naked purpose of making sure the audience is keeping up. Ugh.
So, if you’re writing fantasy and you need lots of exposition to get people on the same page as you, but exposition kills reader interest, narrative momentum, and dramatic tension, how, then, do you do it well? Well, keeping in mind that I’m just a poor unpublished author with an MFA, here are my humble suggestions:
- Trust Thy Audience: Don’t assume your readers are idiots who can’t keep up. You don’t need to spell every single thing out for them, nor should you. Keep it understandable, sure, but don’t hold their hands. They are smart people–they’ll figure things out through context clues faster than you think. Holding their hands too much makes them roll their eyes. Of course, there is a careful balance to be kept in check here. When I figure that balance out myself, I’ll be sure to tell you.
- Spread it Out: Under no circumstances should an author infodump the whole she-bang in one indigestible lump. In the first case, nobody really talks like this and no one allows themselves to be talked to in this way. There is literally no one I have ever met who will let me explain the full concept of reality-tweaking from The Rubric of All Things in just one sitting. There’s too much to be said, and it gums up a person’s mind. Don’t do this to your audience–explain a piece at a time over a long period. Trust the audience to remember–they will!
- Explain Only What is Necessary: Always remember that characters aren’t going to have conversations about stuff they consider to be everyday, normal things. We don’t explain how the subway system works to each other each commute because it is, to us, utterly normal. To do otherwise is artificial and weird, and it reads that way, too. Therefore, exposition should always be strictly curtailed by what would naturally be discussed by the characters in question. Don’t talk about irrelevant stuff, either–stick to the point.
- Keep Exposition Tied to the Plot: Only exposit what is needed for the audience to understand and follow along. If it isn’t important, it gets almost no space to be explained. Don’t spend pages explaining how a magic ritual works if it doesn’t come up later in some important capacity. The minutiae aren’t all that important.
- Have Something Else Happening: Don’t pull the old Isaac Asimov trick of having two men in a room talking their heads off while sharing coffee. Exposition is no excuse to eliminate tension or conflict–have your characters explaining things quickly, on the fly, during something interesting or dangerous. Granted, there is a point at which a character shouting ‘no time to explain’ gets annoying (eg Lost), but equally annoying is being forced to eavesdrop on an artificial conversation that is constructed solely for the reader’s benefit.
So, there you have it. Those are my rules, as they stand. I think I’m following them, but it’s not easy. Exposition is a delicate balance that even the best fantasy or scifi authors have trouble handling. It is, arguably, one of the most challenging aspects of the genre.
My friend Marc Hirsh drew my attention to this article by Tasha Robinson which he thought hit on some of the themes explored on this blog. I agree with it wholeheartedly, and feel like a lack of attention to the ‘rules’ in scifi/fantasy/horror is one of the great weaknesses in the genre as it tends to be shown in film (and, as Marc pointed out in our discussion, in a lot of comic books, too).
I explore this problem partially in my critique of Dr. Who, as well, and it mostly boils down to the fact that, if you don’t handle things right, the audience feels cheated. This is uncommonly easy to do in a scifi or fantasy setting, since the rules are pretty much all subject to being violated. As a scifi/fantasy author, it is part of your responsibility to establish new rules and to keep those rules sacred, only violating them when something truly extraordinary happens (and in those instances it ought to be treated as something truly extraordinary). Dr. Who does a particularly bad job at this much of the time and, hence, I don’t particularly love the show.
It is interesting to note, however, that most of the stories cited by Robinson in her article are film or television iterations of the ‘speculative’ genres. The one she holds up as consistent is a book. Granted, she is writing for the AV Club, but I think the difference is important beyond that. Exposition in scifi/fantasy is, for me, the most challenging aspect of the story. I might know how I want my world to work and have my rules all laid out, but conveying those to the audience in a way that isn’t just a massive info-dump of soul-killing expository narrative is rather difficult. As a result, exposition takes time–it gets spread out over chapters, not pages, and it takes a while before you feel at ease in the world (this is something I’ve discussed as well, and as a chief aspect of the genre that I enjoy).
In books, laying out exposition over a significant period of time is fine–you’ve got the space and the time. In a movie or a TV show, you don’t have that luxury. You can’t easily spend 15 minutes of a film explaining the nuance of some minor point of an alien culture which comes up later. You can do it, sure, bit it’s often quite difficult and, for the purposes of TV/movie executives, unneccessary. They aren’t making movies so they’re internally consistent–they’re making movies so they’re exciting and will sell well both here and overseas. The screenplay or teleplay is a tightly paced entity, and only exceptionally clever writers are going to get their exposition onto the screen and not see it left on the cutting room floor. For every one of us who saw Transformers and asked ourselves ‘what the hell is going on?’, there were probably 15-20 people who answered ‘what do we care? Things are exploding! Yay!’
So this problem (and a problem it is) is partially economics, partially lack of skill on the part of the authors, and partially laziness. That doesn’t make it excusable, but that, in my opinion, is why it happens so often. We (or ‘I’, I suppose, depending on who’s reading this), as scifi/fantasy authors, need to be constantly aware of Chekov’s Gun. We need to create a world where the audience can follow along and understand the action, otherwise we’re just cheating. We’re using the opposite of Chekov’s Gun, which I might as well dub ‘Batman’s Utility Belt’.
I know I, myself, obsess over the consistency of my own work. I’m constantly finding tiny ways in which I’m violating my own rules, and it drives me crazy. I try very hard to remove them, but I think I’ll always find ways I think it could be better. That, I guess, is the burden I carry if I want to create new and fantastical worlds for my readers to experience.
I think, on balance, it is certainly worth it.