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Thursday, 26 September 2013

How to Exposit correctly

How to Exposit Correctly
(Avoiding Infodumps, 'As you know' and other informational pitfalls)

No, don’t be scared. The title is referring to a writing technique, as much as it sounds like a painful ablution. No, really. The purpose of this post is to take a look at exposition, its value in storytelling, and the right and wrong ways to do it (and yes, 'Exposit' really is a word. I looked it up).

But first, a note on rules:

We talk about (or we will in future talk about) a lot of rules on this blog. Rules for dialogue, rules for plot, characters, descriptions, etc. These are important rules, but it’s useful to note that they aren’t hard-and-fast. Any ‘rule’ of writing can be broken, but the important thing to remember is that you should only break them if you know why they’re there. Show-don’t-tell can be flouted, but only once you know why you should usually follow it. You can write entire paragraphs in sentence fragments, confident that you’ll be understood, but only when you know why you should usually include an object, subject and verb.

These rules can be broken, but you should follow them until you understand how they help writing. Once you understand that, the rules themselves become somewhat crude tools that you’ll be able to substitute with your judgement.

Okay, so back to exposition. What is exposition? Exposition is, simply, telling the reader stuff about the world, characters, macguffin, etc. The reader needs to know stuff about the world and the characters, but the absolute worst thing you can do is to straight-up tell them, because readers aren’t stupid. They can tell when the author is addressing them, and nothing is more likely to shatter suspension of disbelief into so much lost trust.

So how do you exposit correctly? Well, there are a number of methods, and the ones I’ve detailed here aren’t nearly a full sample, but they can be useful for developing your world.

The easiest and most common method of exposition is for characters to talk to one another – if a character is telling another character something, then they’ll naturally explain in a way the audience will understand. However, there’s a BIG potential pitfall here: the ‘as you know’ issue. A character expositing to a character who should logically know what they’re saying doesn’t work; it comes off as obvious exposition, which is something exposition should never do.

There’s a way round this as well, however. Introduce a character who’s new to your world, who doesn’t know anything important, and who characters can believably exposit to, since they need to. The audience’s understanding of your world will grow as your character’s does, and that’s one of the reasons this type of character is usually known as the Audience Surrogate. This is the reason Luke Skywalker, is well, Luke Skywalker, rather than the grizzled general envisioned in Lucas’ original screenplay. It’s the reason Harry Potter is a newcomer, it’s the reason for Ariadne in Inception, etc. The Audience Surrogate can also be the audience’s focus in the world, so they serve a dual purpose.

The other method only really works in a first-person perspective – have the character think about details of the world. This has to be handled carefully; depending on the tone of the story it can work really well – noir novels, or ones with a protagonist who address the reader directly, can do this well, but otherwise it can come off as obvious exposition.

You could try to avoid obvious exposition altogether; instead of explaining every little detail of your world right off the bat, and instead try to mention little things without explanation. Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ does this quite well, letting us fill in the details of his world for ourselves, rather than shoving everything in our faces in a bewildering infodump.

Avoiding doing all your exposition at once is another important skill; a character, and thus the audience, only needs to know what’s relevant to the current situation. Drip-feed your worldbuilding. That way, your readers will have that wonderful sense of discovery that goes along with finding a new world and exploring it gradually.  Maybe have your Audience Surrogate ask a few obvious questions (actually, do this as much as you can without turning it into a Q&A session – there’s nothing worse than long lectures) and then when you’ve got all the information you need across to the reader, move on.

So there it is: my (not at all comprehensive) guide to exposition in fiction. Obviously, there are caveats. Do your exposition comparatively early if you need to explain a plot point, and don’t get hung up on explaining every little detail, but if you follow these guidelines, you should be okay.

Goodbye, and good writing.

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