Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Describing a New World: Exposition in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

I was chatting the other morning (real chatting, in person, no technology involved) with a fellow writer and friend when an interesting fiction problem came up. How so we, as writers, give the reader the information they need without sounding preachy or like a textbook?

In other words, how do we do exposition without destroying our narrative?

Gary’s choice of genres (sci-fi and fantasy) offers what is perhaps a unique situation for exposition. He is still in the planning stage of his sci-fi story, which means he’s creating an entirely new, alien universe with its own political and social systems, as well as its own technology, all of which is unknown to a potential reader. All these systems must be created and tested before he even begins to write, because even the most strange and fantastic systems still need to have logical consistency. Believe me, if you forget and have something in your story that does not follow your world’s internal rules, your readers will find it.

For instance, if your fictional world involves the casting of magic spells for either good or bad, there must be rules about how this is done and consequences if these rules are broken. The same holds true for interstellar or time travel, vampire hunting, or international espionage. (Haven’t you ever wondered how James Bond ever got any work done, since he was so famous? Every intelligence agency should be plastered all over him as soon as he set foot in the country.)

However fantastic your world might be, it has to have logical rules governing how things work. There must be rules and there must be consequences if those rules are broken.

Which brings us full circle to the original question: how do we explain the rules in the strange world our story occupies without being preachy or interrupting the narrative with encyclopedia entries?

From where I’m sitting I can think of four techniques or ways of addressing this issue: expositional passages sprinkled throughout the work; limited explanatory statements woven into the narrative itself; having one character explaining or instructing another; or we can simple offer no explanation at all.

Expositional passages. Think of these as short to medium length articles inserted into your narrative at various intervals. This is an efficient way to deliver information to the reader (after all, textbooks and reference materials have used factual articles for decades); the biggest drawback is that we risk losing the reader because for the duration of the article, the narrative comes to a screeching halt.

Many readers also pick up a book because they want to be entertained, not instructed. This type of exposition will not win you fans among this group.

Nevertheless, if done well, this technique can be very effective. Herman Melville uses it in Moby Dick, alternating passages of dramatic narrative with almost encyclopedic entries about the business of a whaling vessel. Doing this, frees him to proceed with his story without having to wonder whether the reader will understand what’s going on.

Douglas Adams uses a similar technique in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He uses the entries in the fictional Guide to explain (usually in a very humorous manner) what was happening in the story.

Limited explanations woven into the story. This is probably the most common technique and is usually used for filling in backstory. It can often be used to explain environmental laws we aren’t familiar with, but are important to the story.

A good example of this can be found in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Several times in the various novels of the series, Harry Dresden (the first person narrator) makes the statement in his narration that he doesn’t have a television, computer or other household electronics because electronics have a bad habit of blowing up around a wizard. In the pace of an entire novel, it is a very short sentence, but gives the reader a concrete example of the rules governing Dresden’s world.

Because they’re short they do not interrupt the story as much as even a paragraph of exposition does. However, for the same reason, this technique cannot do justice to anything very complex.

One character explaining to another. Think mentor with rookie. Someone familiar with the situation or technology is tasked with instructing someone else who doesn’t know it and through them, the reader. Gandalf does this with Frodo in Lord of the Rings, especially in the beginning, explaining the significance of the ring and the purpose of the hobbits’ quest. We learn about it as Frodo does.

Again, the problems in this method is that the story really doesn’t move while the instructions are given. It’s like sitting in a classroom while the teacher answers another student’s question. It can be interesting, but it isn’t really exciting. Worse, if the mentor isn’t a character integral to the story, it can come off as artificial. (Wow, look, so-in-so shows up to tell Johnny how warp drive works, then disappears forever. How convenient.)

No explanation at all. This, along with the “limited explanation” option above, is the one I lean toward using the most. This one is simple. To keep with the science fiction motif today, think back to any Star Trek episode you might have watched. (I know, Star Trek is primarily television and film, but storytelling is storytelling. The media is less important than the technique.) One of the standard technologies of the franchise was the “transporter.” Yet I cannot remember a single episode explaining exactly how it worked.

There are explanations out there, but I believe those originated with the series’ fans more than the creators or writers.

The example I used when talking with Gary the other morning, was speculating an alien life form reading a story about us in the present. Suppose we decide to go down to the Mexican restaurant for lunch. We climb into our car and drive to the restaurant. We don’t spend any time explaining how an internal combustion engine works. It just does. (Or it breaks down and we have to find someone who know how to fix it.)

We also don’t explain how modern paper currency works when we pay for the meal, or the distribution system that provides the products the restaurant uses to make our food. Most of the time, people don’t pay any attention to the systems that surround them at all until they break down. Cars just work. You flip on the switch and the lights come on; turn on the television and a program is there to watch. Most of us don’t really know, or care, how the system that creates it works. It just does.

Why should we think someone in the future or an alternate universe would be any different? Joe Smith in 2234 has a portal that takes him instantly from his home to work. Does he know how it works? Maybe. But it’s just as likely that he doesn’t give it a second thought. It’s just a part of his daily life, like a car or electricity is to us.

A story about Joe Smith in 2234 should reflect that attitude, shouldn’t it?

The problem with this method is that if the world described is very alien, the reader will not know what’s going on. Nothing drives away readers quicker than having to wade through jargon to find the story.

We all have to seriously examine our work, both as we’re writing it and as we revise it, and decide what exactly our readers need to know. Do they have to know precisely how our world’s political structure works? Possibly, but possibly not. If they do need to know something, what is the most unobtrusive method we can use to give them that information?

That’s the method we should use.

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