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Handling the Exposition

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Creed, Aug 17, 2013.

  1. Creed

    Creed Sage

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    I'd like to start by saying that in this case "exposition" isn't used as the story introduction, but as the introduction to the details of a world (i.e. a magic system). Perhaps "Handling the Explanation" would be a better title.
    I started reading The Way of Shadows a few days ago and I'm on page 467. I'm not about to point out all the things I dislike about it, but I'm focusing on the way Brent Weeks explains things to the reader.
    I maintain it is very badly done.
    At one point the MC is told how magic works by a priestess and it is grossly unnatural in the conversation. She goes off for almost two pages explaining everything.
    I've read three monologues explaining to the reader how this works, and how that works, and they are incredibly out of place. And don't even get me started on Count Drake's six and a half page soliloquy on his past…

    Anyways, this book made me notice just how badly this form of exposition can be done. I suppose the trick is to teach the reader without them ever noticing they're being taught.
    By that logic I'd guess the question posed by this thread is How do you handle exposition? What sorts of tips/guidelines do you follow when introducing a magic system or something like that?
    I think for me I have to resist giving away too much at once, and making sure it's smooth. On the other hand I've never written a massive explanation like Mr. Weeks has.

    Edit: There are many threads on info-dumps, but I think this idea- while overlapping- isn't the same. Instead of a difference between exposition and infodump, I'm concerned with handling it. Especially with the technical aspects of a magic system.
    I just want to bring up Gardens of the Moon here, because I remembered Captain Ganoes Paran's first encounter with a Warren. Keeping in his PoV, he knew next to nothing about them. And even if he didn't give the reader any information about it, he shone light on the system and paved the way for more. On a side note I think Tattersall did a fantastic job explaining how Warrens work, partially because she didn't explain it at all.
     
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2013
  2. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    One way to handle exposition without sounding like an info-dump is to have a character tell a story to another (or a group of characters). Still this has to be handled well. For example, in a scene where conflict and tension is rising, you can interrupt that build up momentarily by having the story telling character start speaking on something everyone in attendance would tune into, a special piece of information surrounded by mystery perhaps.

    Just a bit of an interesting character's backstory, placed in the right spot, can be used to tell a lot of information on histories, magic, whatever you can dream up. To use this technique well though, I think you'll need to have well-developed backgrounds for your setting and characters, and possibly some foreshadowing.

    Above all, this can't feel forced. It's has to seem organic, like the natural extension of the current dialogue which maintains consistency with the story telling character as well as the opinions/reactions of the others toward that character.

    Here's an example of character building using this technique from the film "Saving Private Ryan". If in literature, the effect would be similar:

    Throughout the early parts of the film, the troops joke about where their Captain (Tom Hanks) came from. Was he assembled from body parts of dead GIs? Did he even have a mother? They even talked about having a pool where the wagering soldier could guess where he was from and what he did for a living before the war. It was a mystery to all...including the viewer.

    About midway through the film, the well-liked medic (Wade) is killed when the captain orders the small team to assault a German machine gun nest, even though the bunker's destruction is not part of the current mission. After the action & death, the soldiers want to execute the surviving German captive. Influenced by the translator, the captain decides to let the German soldier go. They can't take prisoners, but he won't execute the man.

    As tensions rise, the Sergeant pulls his pistol on one of the other American soldiers who is about to desert the mission and disobey orders. The conflict almost reaches a peak when Captain Miller speaks. His voice interrupts the chaos by asking what the pool is up to now. $300?

    "I'm a schoolteacher. I teach English composition... in this little town called Adley, Pennsylvania. The last eleven years, I've been at Thomas Alva Edison High School. I was a coach of the baseball team in the springtime. Back home, I tell people what I do for a living and they think well, now that figures. But over here, it's a big, big mystery. So, I guess I've changed some. Sometimes I wonder if I've changed so much my wife isn't even going to recognize me, whenever it is that I get back to her. And how I'll ever be able to tell her about days like today.
    Ah, Ryan. I don't know anything about Ryan. I don't care. The man means nothing to me. It's just a name. But if... You know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home. If that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that's my mission.
    You want to leave? You want to go off and fight the war? All right. All right. I won't stop you. I'll even put in the paperwork. I just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel."

    Now, this information, delivered in another way, at another time, could feel clumsy & forced. But here, punctuating a terrific moment with the calm leadership of Captain Miller (consistent with his character) just feels right. Further, it lends a lot of insight to his character and enables the story to continue past a moment where the mission could have fallen apart under the stress of Wade's death. Embedded within this well-placed exposition is a lot of information on the Captain, but it also gives insight on the mentality of men in war, the importance of the mission, and how the troops truly feel about their leader.
     
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2013
  3. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

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    My guideline is that, usually, people don't mention the facts. They leave the facts assumed and only say what's a step beyond them, their guess about what will happen next or what to do. That erases 95% of traditional lazy exposition, :).

    That leaves the trick of presenting those "proposed next steps" so that readers can understand the unstated facts behind them. Of course people have different reasons for backpedaling and giving some of the facts after all (emphasis, rambling, persuasion) or sometimes there's someone there who really doesn't know it-- the only problem with "so just tell him" is that everyone's used that method. But in any case, why and how someone steps back to clarify the facts is a chance to characterize: which person does it because he shouts, who lectures, etc.

    Another rule of thumb, that works well with this or on its own: for an excuse to explain something, have it break and need fixing (or maintenance). Or, people debate doing something different with/about it, that lets them hash out its nature and why that plan would or wouldn't work. Again, these are known exposition tricks, so they shouldn't be an excuse to ramble or lose track of who'd really say how much.
     
  4. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Another method that should probably mentioned in this context is from the other end of the scale and it's what Steven Eriksson does in the Malazan books. Essentially, he doesn't explain anything at all. Things just happen and it's up to the reader to piece things together based on actions and context.
    It's interesting in that it gets you thinking and wondering about what's actually going on. The question I'm asking myself now a few years after I read those books is how well it actually worked. While reading them I eventually developed some kind of semi-instinctive feeling for how things worked, but I wouldn't for the life of me be able to explain it to anyone else.
     
  5. shwabadi

    shwabadi Minstrel

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    Fortunately for me, my MC hasn't had much exposure to the world outside the town he grew up in so I let the reader learn about the world as he learns about it. Mostly through stories and the MC seeing things first hand.
     
  6. Creed

    Creed Sage

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    I couldn't agree more with this. For the most part there's no explanation at all, and the reader just gets emersed in it. The only awkward explanation I can think of is with Quru Kan in Midnight Tides- but that was after we knew everything about the system. A piece of brilliant explanation is when Quick Ben is sneaking into Bauchelain and Korbald Broach's estate in Memories of Ice- he uses a variety of warrens and literally showcases how they can be used.
    On the other hand it's a simplistic- but still very nice- magic system. Many books have more technical aspects that need to be reviewed, and it's these that are often left hanging loose and awkward in the book. Wordwalker said that we don't really need to "mention the facts". But there are some facts that do need to be mentioned, and can't (or maybe shouldn't) be left out.
     
  7. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Ok...first off, left to my own devices, I have a tendency to infodump. I'm working on it, but I still have relapses (witness the last 'Toki/Hodk-Nar' tale).

    Things I try:

    'Written Visual Aids': At one point in 'Labyrinth', the MC is shown a series of murals outside an estate. Each comes with a one or two sentence description of what he's seeing, and another sentence or two of dialogue/explanation by the person with the MC, along with a bit of internal monologue. Collectively, they depict events from the past of the MC's family. By the time the MC's companion finishes explaining, it is real clear to the MC he is walking a path dangerous in ways he hadn't anticipated.

    'Stoytelling': Later in 'Labyrinth', the MC is an uneasy 'guest' of a friendly, yet unstable barbarian chieftan. Said barbarian and MC take a walk. Along the way, the barbarian describes how his people came to be in their current situation BUT he's also explaining/apologizing in advance for what he's about to do to the MC. 'This is what happened before, so I must do this'

    'Example and analogy': In another tale, I have a wizard attempting to show a 'untalented' the rudiments of how magic works. At one point he does this literally: both throw pebbles at a difficult target. The 'untalenteds' stone misses, but the wizard hits, and this gets into a discussion of 'odds' and using magic to 'cheat' (not real thrilled with that).

    And sometimes, I'll have a character whose just plane nosy: Toki flat out quizzed Hock-Nar about his race (hobgoblins) during their first meeting. Theodora, in 'Empire' is a bit of a snoop (in a refined way).

    What I try to shy away from, save in rare one or two sentence doses is description/exposition that is NOT part of a dialogue, or something that a character see's or hears or maybe reads.

    If a character is looking at a map attempting to plot a course for a ship at sea, then a bit of muttering about possible landfalls is in order: 'can't go north, thats pirate country.' Jabs finger on eastern coast. 'This city would be a good bet, if the wind is favorable...but whose in charge now? Wasn't there a coup a few years ago?' Traces another section of coast that turns into a dotted line. 'Hmm...not well charted. But whats this city here? Didn't the old empire have an outpost in the region?'
     
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  8. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    A good rule of thumb is that where possible, you should use the feel of the setting or the situation to aid in your exposition. Take this, at the very beginning of the manual for the video game Myth:

    This is actually exposition! From the very first lines, we understand that humans are fighting against some kind of monsters, that the monsters are capable of using weapons and tactics, and that the humans are losing badly--and because it's not presented flatly, but made a part of the setting's "hopeless" feeling, it doesn't make the reader's eyes glaze over.

    Edit: Just noticed that Creed said that "exposition" in this thread refers to fine details, not more basic facts about the world. Still, I think the example can often be extrapolated to smaller facts--say, revealing that a nonhuman is herbivorous by having him react with shock when seeing one of his travelling companions cooking meat.
     
    Last edited: Aug 18, 2013
  9. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    My first tip is: the reader probably doesn't need to know as much as you think they do.

    My second tip is: the reader probably doesn't want to know as much as you want to tell them.

    I think the key to good exposition is twofold:

    1. There has to be a story reason for the character to be doing the explaining.
    2. The author needs to give serious consideration to how much exposition is needed.
     
  10. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    When building your character, also define his awareness. A soldier isn't going to notice the fine quality of a painting, unless he was an apprentice to a master artist but was enlisted in the army.

    I sell wireless phones. It's one of the first things I notice when I meet people. I also evaluate what kind of case they have on their phone, the condition of both items, and the carrier they use. I'm also a child of immigrants. I try to attach a country to any accent I hear, I look for signs of their well being, compare it to what I commonly believe to be the average level of happiness of Americans, to see if other countries are doing it better than us.

    Writing from the character's PoV determines what you will share with the reader. It also reveals facets of your character that would require pages of infodumping anyway, so why not use exposition, in this case the things your character notices, to do that. As an added bonus, you get a more fleshed out world.
     
  11. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    Oh, I love this. This is how I do it in my writing--so maybe one day I'll be able to tell you if it works, ok? :) But I prefer being allowed to guess. If its done well, there will usually be evidence throughout the story letting me know whether my guesses are being backed up or not. I think its all part of the mystery and wonder of fantasy. Like all things, there must be balance. But I detest info dumps and in fact, I might just get enraged enough to put the book down. I'm not here for a lecture, I'm here for a story.

    Granted, in my own writing, I think sometimes I could explain things a bit deeper. When I get that feeling, I know its time to open up to the reader more. Mystery, yes, but not leaving them in the dark either.
     
  12. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I loved how Steven Erickson did that, but your summary is only partially true. What he does is write from the tightest character PoV I've ever seen. He spaces out the events from the people that know about the events, often times having these characters refer to the events in cryptic sentences.

    If someone where to dissect the entire book, isolate events and characters, than string them back together again in chronological order, or by logical order, you would have 75% more understanding of the twisted mind residing in Erikson.

    My opinion, the guy is a master at the trade.
     
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  13. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    I have to disagree to an extent about Erikson. He DOES have long expositions/infodumps.

    Example that sticks in mind is the female prisoner who spends a page and a half reciting a history lecture.

    And Karsa Orlong and company, on their way out of their homeland, who spend several pages puzzling over a runic inscription of their peoples history.

    And quite a few others
     
  14. Daichungak

    Daichungak Minstrel

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    Right on the nose!
     
  15. Creed

    Creed Sage

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    There were definitely parts like that, but when I read them they were few and far between- he had me engrossed in the story and I was happy when I learned more, and I read right through it. They're my kind of book, but I guess those things stick out for others. Anyways, it's explanation and not Erikson this thread's for (though I do appreciate the examples because I think he's good at it).
    The problem with his use of magic vs others is, as Feo said, the "finer details".
    A magic system like Erikson's is painted with very broad strokes and is general. Now I liked Warrens a lot more than Allomancy from Mistborn, but that's a system with nitty gritty details. For the most part Brandon Sanderson keeps his explanation nice. It's not too technical.

    I like ThinkerX's examples. They're tactics which can't work for every situation, but they're no doubt useful. I especially appreciate the use of analogies for explaining- that's how I understand physics and bits of the quantum world, and it would certainly work for the metaphysical too.

    This seems like pretty good advice, although I'm certain those first two tips will have a plethora of exceptions. The two numbered points are much closer to the sort of prerequisites for explanation, and are the basic things we should keep in mind, even if we forget them and go off on wild tangents.
     
    Last edited: Aug 19, 2013
  16. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    There are plenty of examples of how to do exposition well. One is the brilliant novel "The Sand Pebbles". It concerns an engineer on a gunboat going up a river in China. We get very detailed explanations of how a ship's engine works. I recommend a read (it's a great novel anyway).

    Closer to our field, there are any number of science fiction books that have to do exactly this. Especially books from the 1940s and 1950s, or really any hard SF. I would go to the masters (Asimov, Clark), but I'm sure any of you could find others. In these cases, the infodump is crucial to the story. Rather than trying to hide it off stage, authors generally bring it front and center. If your exposition won't bear up under that weight, chances are the information's not all that important anyway.

    I mention these examples simply to point out that it's not always necessary or even right to try to avoid or to hide exposition. It's all about what's right for the story, which means it's really up to you, which means this advice isn't all that helpful. When I was learning to be a programmer I would ask more experienced programmers how to code a particular task (write to a db, instantiate an object, whatever) and their answer--invariably, and from many different programmers-- was: there are lots of ways to do that. Just give me *one*!!! Well, it depends. Augh.

    I'm finding it's much the same when asking for specific guidance in this business of writing. Augh here, too.
     
  17. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I think that the modern standard is that such a method constitutes an infodump. If you choose not to follow this standard, as with the decision to adhere to any guideline, that is up to you. I think it's important, however, to understand that a) it's not the standard and b) there are consequences for not following the standard.
     
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I tend not to think of them as infodumps. Many novels, particularly in fantasy, use a good deal of exposition at times. If they're handled skillfully, that's fine. To me, they become 'infodumps' when they aren't handled well. Maybe the negative connotation only exist in my mind - do any of the rest of you view that word as implying something negative in and of itself?
     
  19. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    The key here is "necessity" & "handled skillfully". An info-dump is only an info-dump if it feels forced, like the reader is being spoon fed great blocks of information instead of being allowed to discover.

    Discovery is almost always a better option. It enhances the experience by allowing the reader to be an active participant. However, I do believe there are occasions where some exposition is, not only the right choice, but adds to the reader's enjoyment. Chances are, everyone involved in this thread has read a decent amount of exposition that could qualify as info-dumps, yet they went unnoticed. Why? Because they were delivered with skill, in the right way, at the right time. The exposition seemed natural.

    So yes, the term info-dump carries a negative connotation because it implies a forced unloading of information the reader should've been allowed to uncover and piece together over time. Exposition, on the other hand, doesn't have to be one and the same.
     
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2013
  20. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    The word has a negative connotation for me. In my mind, it implies that the author went outside the story to tell the reader something.

    Is it the worst thing that a writer can ever possibly do? No. In most cases, most readers won't know or care.

    Is it something to be proud of? Probably not.
     
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