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Some Advice on Exposition in Writing

Updated: Oct 11, 2023


I spoke last year to some students and Sci-Fi lovers at UCC (University College Cork) - find them

here - and was asked at the time for some advice on exposition in writing – or info-dumping, as some call it – and how I might approach this essential element of worldbuilding. I’m not entirely sure I gave a comprehensive answer, but I’ve learned that my ability to express myself under pressure usually suffers at the chokehold of my anxiety. Perhaps this is why I’m a writer and not a speaker – I need time to consider what I say, to articulate it in a structured way and to ensure I’ve covered all bases. When eyes are upon me and the panic sets in, it’s difficult to keep track of what I’ve said or where I was going with it. Or, as someone who knows me might say, ‘You know how you are, Ron’.



You see, that’s what exposition is – an appeal to knowledge shared within a given context; in the above case, a real one, in the case at hand, a fictional one. In a conversation with a close friend, their saying that I know how I am is perfectly clear to me – the context is there, and I know what they mean. They don’t need to spell it out – there’s no one else listening! In a fictional setting, where two characters are talking and there’s no one else listening, why would they need to explain every contextual or implied appeal to shared knowledge?


I’ve never believed in spoon-feeding my readers. Exposition presented in terms of reams of background information is monotonous and off-putting. My characters live in a world where the background information you’re looking for is their history, their present, their hopes and dreams for their future. The knowledge is commonplace or there to be learned within the context of other commonplace knowledge. Where exposition is in the prose narrative, it’s often delivered in the context of setting up a character’s backstory or the circumstances in which they find themselves or in which we are invited to meet them. Where it’s in the dialogue, it doesn’t require any ‘fourth wall’ delivery or condescension of the surrounding characters. My analogy has long been the situation in the crime lab in CSI: Miami (although I think all the CSI shows were guilty of this): despite all these experts having taken the same studies and achieved the same qualifications to be at least at the basic skill level to take the job, they always seemed to be explaining to each other how every machine worked or what every analytical process would provide. In the real world, anyone in that situation would say something along the lines of, ‘Yes, I know. I was sitting next to you in that class, remember?’



Characters in a fictional world share the commonplace information available in that fictional world – they don’t need it explained all the time. They refer, they infer, they imply…what they don’t say about something you don’t know is what those around them already know. So, how do you educate your readers? How do you tell them what you feel is necessary for them to know to immerse them in your fictional world and connect them to the experiences of your characters?


Well, first you need to ask yourself exactly what is necessary. As I said, big info-dumps are tedious, and you need to find a way to ‘colour’ the necessary with minor or frivolous information intended simply to bolster the credibility of your worldbuilding. You also have to balance what’s necessary with your own self-indulgence. No matter how engrossed in this fictional world you might have become, most people don’t feel the need to know the minutiae that you’ve plastered your plotting wall with!


Perhaps, then, we could consider an approach to exposition in terms of reader perception, and we’ll have two approaches, called ‘passive’ and ‘active’. Let me explain:



PASSIVE EXPOSITION


For me, passive would include much of what I’ve said above. You allow your character interaction to build the world for your readers, entrusting worldbuilding – from your readers’ perspective – to their piece-by-piece construction of a world within which your characters live and share knowledge and history. Everything your readers learn is inferred or implied through conversation and/or their thoughts. Flashbacks and dreams are fine here – when you ‘colour in’ the flashbacks, you’re adding credibility to the world recalled by your characters. Overall, this method quickens your pace and focuses on action and interaction, moving the story forward with your reader learning about the world without having to think about it. This was my primary approach in Gods of Kiranis, wherein the rapid pace was heavily character and dialogue driven, with short appeals to prose narrative for context where I felt it was necessary.



ACTIVE EXPOSITION


So, we’re back to info-dumps. Well, maybe. In my Prologue for Pawns of The Prophet, for example, I took the reader through a hundred-year setup to the ‘current’ situation, but I did it through the eyes of the character I was introducing – Samuel Vawter – articulating a legacy foundation whereby his grandfather and then his father had created the circumstances in which he found himself. I ‘padded’ their progression through this rapid history with peripheral interactions that not only informed the reader of other historical events, but also set the stage for reference to them later by other characters.



I refer to this sort of exposition as ‘active’ because I purposely set about describing what had happened up until a certain point in time, knowing that to avoid doing so would have my readers in literary limbo, with a sense of dislocation that would make this second book of Kiranis feel like it bore no relationship to its predecessor.


Some active exposition in the works of other authors reads like a history textbook, moving from one period to another to lay historical foundations. The question is why is this needed? Is it simply to indulge in worldbuilding for the sake of it – some people like this, both writers and readers, so who am I to judge? – or is it because later events will use these foundations to justify actions and to legitimise conversations? Think about that before you undertake a ‘textbook’ approach.



Now, I’m just one writer among many, many, many writers. Why should you take my advice over anyone else’s? Well, you shouldn’t – at least, not blindly. But if you read my work and you like it, maybe the above advice will help you understand how I put it together. I hope to expand on this discussion in video format, preferably with other authors, but for now…thanks for reading.



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