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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short story

The Volcano (part two)

Continued…

Two days later, I slipped into the City Center Diner to get a hamburger for lunch. The days since Prof. Jenkins had officially identified Little Mac’s pasture as the site of the world’s newest volcanic vent had been insane. Every TV station in Eugene had sent out a media van and reporter to film the front of Little Mac’s house, since he wouldn’t allow them on his property, and interview anyone who would talk to them. Several of the local town fathers were mulling over how best to financially take advantage of the town’s new celebrity. Jason Billings over at the drug store already had a series of volcano tee shirts displayed in the window.

The one person absent from all the hoopla was John “Little Mac” McAllister. The problem was that Little Mac was not a good interview subject and had no interest in becoming one. He’d always been a man of few words. In school, he’d been the jock who never said a word in the back of the class, but always passed. He was a man who preferred to let his actions do the talking and probably his greatest statement was his construction company. In the twenty years since high school, he’d taken the small carpentry shop founded by his dad (Big Mac) and forged it into one of the state’s biggest and most successful heavy construction companies.

But that was history. All I wanted now was a quiet lunch and an hour with no one asking me what I thought about it all. I slid onto a stool at the counter and accepted a cup of coffee from Donna, who had been waiting tables there since the last ice age.

“Gonna have your regular burger?” she asked.

I nodded. “Please.”

“Pretty exciting what’s going on in our little town.”

“I think we’ve had about all the excitement we can stand.”

She laughed and hung my ticket on the cook’s wheel.

“Hey Tommy,” George Sanders slipped onto another stool immediately to my right. “You hear what Little Mac did today?”

I shook my head. George ran the local gas station/garage and was, by all accounts, one of the worst mechanics around. He was pretty good at pumping gas though.

“I heard he kicked all the college types off his land and brought in two trucks of concrete. I think he’s going to try and plug up that crack.”

You’re kidding. I just looked at him. “Where’d you hear that?”

He nodded thanks as Donna handed him a cup of coffee. “From Mary Hanks.”

Mary was the dispatcher at the concrete plant.

I tossed a couple of bucks on the counter and told Donna to cancel my order.

#

By the time I reached Little Mac’s ranch, the second concrete truck was pulling onto the County Road, heading back to town. I parked my car and ran back to the pasture.

Little Mac and a couple of other men were putting the finishing touches on a swath of fresh concrete where the crack had been. George had been right. He’d plugged it up.

I just stood there, staring, absolutely dumbfounded. He’d actually filled a volcanic vent
with concrete.

Little Mac spotted me, stood and walked over. Smears of cement covered his hands and stained the knees of his jeans and his boots.

“Tommy,” he nodded and tried to crush my hand again. “What do you think?”

I didn’t know what to say. The pasture was now a good foot higher than it had been the first time I’d seen the vent. The kind of pressure it took to push solid ground a foot into the air . . . I didn’t see how some concrete would do much to stop it.

“Do you really think it will work?” I asked.

Little Mac gave a little bit of a shrug. “We put six yards in that hole. That’s about four tons.”

I sighed. Maybe he knew something I didn’t, construction was his business, after all, and maybe he was going to make things worse. For now anyway the crack was sealed and for the first time since I’d first come out I couldn’t smell rotten eggs.

#

A couple of days later, Melody invited me to dinner and I accepted, less out of friendship and the allure of home cooking than a deep interest in seeing whether Little Mac’s plug would actually continue to work. It was one of the most interesting dinners I’ve ever experienced. We sat around the dining room table, Little Mac, Melody, myself, and the McAllister children, ten‑year‑old Jason and seven-year-old Bethany, and discussed school and movies and current events. Melody had cooked a beef roast, mashed potatoes, and sweet corn and it all tasted wonderful.

About every twenty minutes throughout the meal, the ground would begin to shake. Plates would rattle in the cabinets and everyone would grab their water glasses to keep them from tipping over. But other than that, and a brief pause in the conversation, it was all taken as perfectly normal. There was no panic, no fear.

“Cool!” Jason would say, when it was over. “That was a good one.”

It was like a weird form of dinner theater.

In between the quakes, I could hear a deep, primeval rumbling, similar to what your stomach makes when you eat something that doesn’t agree with you. Geological indigestion. But we continued with dinner as though it was all perfectly normal.

When we were finished, Melody and the children began clearing the dishes, while Little Mac and I retired to the living room with coffee.

“Have you considered‑‑” I was interrupted by a particularly strong quake. For just a few seconds, it felt like sitting on the deck of a ship in rough weather, rather than the living room of a farmhouse. My chair moved several inches to the right across the floor and a framed painting of a seascape fell off the wall.

Out in the kitchen, Jason cheered.

“Has it occurred to you that it might not be safe here?” It certainly had occurred to me.

Little Mac got up, brushed at the stain where coffee had spilled on his pants and rehung the painting on the wall. “This is my home.”

“And your kids?”

He returned to his chair. “It’s their home too.”

That pretty much put an end to that line of conversation.

Five minutes later, the shaking began again. This time, I thought I could actually see the walls swaying. Nick knacks fell off shelves and shattered on the floor. My coffee jumped out of its cup and onto my shirt, but wasn’t hot enough to burn. I doubt I would have noticed if it had. I was listening to the deep rumbling that seemed to grow in intensity as the quake progressed.

In the kitchen, little Bethany was screaming. I tried to get up, but couldn’t keep my balance. Little Mac just sat there.

The night was shattered by a flash of light and a tremendous explosion.

Everybody screamed then and I found myself on the floor. Just as quickly, the quake ended.

“Mac!” Melody called from the kitchen.

Within seconds, we were both in the kitchen, where Melody crouched in the middle of the floor, clutching her children. Fragments of broken dishes were scattered across the floor around them.

“Everyone okay?” I asked. Little Mac rushed over to physically check his family

“We’re okay.” Melody nodded, though she didn’t sound terribly sure of that statement. She nodded to the window. “But I think you pissed it off.”

Out in the pasture, a fountain of orange flames leaped into the sky.

#

A mile and a half away, on County Road 151, Leroy Jacobsen was heading home from an evening at Fat Man’s when the beer went through him. He toyed with the idea of trying to make it home, but decided against it. His bladder control wasn’t what it used to be. He’d catch enough hell from his old lady as it was without showing up with wet pants.

He pulled his pickup off onto the shoulder, shifted it into park and left it running while he climbed out and staggered over to the scrub to do his business. He was blissfully emptying his bladder when he heard a strange whistling overhead and BANG! behind him.

He turned to see what happened and peed all over his shoes.

“Holy shit,” he whispered.

A huge chunk of concrete had landed smack on the cab of his truck, crushing it like a beer can.

“Martha ain’t never gonna believe this.”

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