If you’re a writer, something you’ve probably heard time and again is ‘understand your characters.’ This means having full and intimate knowledge of your character’s backgrounds–where they went to school, who their best friend is, what they like, what they don’t like, who their favorite actor is, what their favorite color is–even if you don’t use all the information in the story. The same holds true with the world you’re creating, whether it’s modern day New York City or another planet. The more you know about the people, places, and background, the more rich the story is, even if you don’t reveal all the information.
Once you know the details, you have to pick which ones to put in and which ones to leave out. And after all that, after you’ve hashed out the finer points and figured out which ones to give the reader, you arrive at the hardest part: how do you put that information into the story?
Exposition must be handled delicately. You don’t want to dump a bucket of information on your reader’s lap via long narrative and you don’t want your characters having “As you know, Jim…” conversations. So how do you tell the reader what they need to know without butting in and making it obvious you’re there?
I read an article recently about sci-fi and fantasy world building. The article pointed out in situations where the world is foreign to the reader, the author often inserts an everyman character, be it the main character or a secondary character. This character knows little to nothing about the world they’re in, so the other characters have to explain things to them, thereby explaining things to the reader. I didn’t even realize how often this happens until it was pointed out. In famous examples, Harry Potter knows nothing about the wizarding world and learns from the other characters; Sookie Stackhouse knows nothing about supernatural creatures (apart from vampires) until they start invading her life; in the Twilight series, Bella knows nothing about vampires until she meets one and he has to explain his world to her.
I freely admit I did this in my Siren Song series, too. June is paranormal but has deliberately avoided the paranormal community her entire life, so when she gets thrust into the heart of it, the other characters have to fill her (and the reader) in.
This is a good ploy for sci-fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, and other fantastical genres, and clearly it’s tried and true. But maybe you don’t want to take that route, or maybe you’re writing a contemporary piece set in a New York City ad agency and you still need to tell the reader what’s going on. What are some other ways to do it? After all, no one walks around thinking “I sure do like my job at the ad agency where I started working in 1996,” or “The sky is pink on this planet because of the composition of air molecules reacting to our sun-star’s radiation.”
Here’s a few other ways to impart information to the readers:
Simply tell us. In short bursts at the right time. The information doesn’t have to be given in huge, overwhelming narratives. If we need to know Cindy started at the ad agency in 1996, this can come up in her mind when she meets a fresh eager new intern or considers what her life was like before she had the job.
Work it into a conversation. As I said above, we don’t want to be having “As you know Jim…” conversations. (“As you know Jim, the sky is pink because of the air molecules…”) But some conversations can be appropriate and non-intrusive and deliver the information you need them to. Cindy takes the intern to lunch and the intern asks how long she’s been working there. “Oh, I started in 1996. Gosh, it really has been that long…”
Make it part of a character’s personality. If you want to describe the building Cindy works in, have a reason for it. The intern is also into architecture and comments on the building style. The off-worlder’s favorite color is pink and she wants to know how the sky is pink here (this would totally be me in space, by the way).
Make it part of the story. The evil space villain is going to do something to the planet that will turn the sky green. We have to stop him! Why is the sky pink in the first place though, and why is that important to the people on the planet?
It’s tricky, especially if you’re building a foreign world and there’s a lot of information to give the reader. Remember, the important part is always the story–keep your focus on the story and you’ll find places to add background details. Of course, this may be completely different for hard sci-fi where a lot of the focus is on world building, but then, you have more room for heavy exposition. The rest of us have to be like the man behind the curtain, pulling levers and pushing buttons without anyone noticing (by the way, Dorothy was another everyman in a strange world).
How about you guys? Any other ideas for working in exposition?
Urban fantasy and paranormal romance author.