The Importance of Exposition in Fantasy

The exposition…here we go…the exposition…what a show!

Ahem. Sorry about that, was channeling Mel Brooks for a moment.

Where were we? Ah yes, exposition. The bane of freelance editors and critique groups everywhere, because generally speaking, exposition is boring. In it’s purest form, it’s simply a way giving the reader information in the simplest, flattest way possible. No plot, no characters, no emotion–all the things we love about fiction are stopped dead so that the budding author-to-be can clearly explain everything he or she thinks you need to know about the cultural mores of his race of talking marmosets.

But that doesn’t mean that exposition is all bad. On the contrary, it’s often quite necessary, and fantasy may be the genre where it’s most important, because of the staggering amount of information which needs to be conveyed to the reader just for them to understand what’s going on.

Thus, every successful fantasy writer is, and needs to be, a master of inserting exposition without killing the story in the process.

The standard technique for making exposition less tiresome is to dribble it out in bits as the plot goes on, integrating it with the narrative such that the reader picks up what they need to know when they need to know it. One way to do this is through  “explanatory dialogue,” where characters who are ostensibly trying to tell something to each other end up revealing something to the reader. As most of you probably know, a common problem with such dialogues is, since the characters in question are usually from the same world, there’s no real reason why one should be telling the other some obvious and well-known (to them) information about it; this is known as the As You Know, Bob cliche.

To get around this, it’s common to have a character who acts as the “outsider” or “neophyte,” and who therefore serves a narrative purpose of interrogating the other characters for the reader’s benefit. I relied on this idea heavily in The Reintegrators, where the main character, Teddy, starts the book ignorant about the process of traveling to other worlds (reintegration). Then, once he arrives in the fantasy universes, he and the reader are in the same boat as far as understanding what is going on, which means he can act as the reader’s informational avatar, asking questions and investigating any mysteries he encounters. It’s important to note, however, that this only works because Teddy is also an important driver of the plot–it’s fine to have a character who asks questions, as long as that character doesn’t only exist to ask questions.

(As an aside, Patrick Rothfuss uses a clever device in The Name of the Wind to justify an exposition-laden sub-story:

“That’s right,” Cob said approvingly. “The Chandrian. Everyone knows that blue fire is one of their signs. Now he was–“

“But how’d they find him?” the boy interrupted. “And why din’t they kill him when they had the chance?”

“Hush now, you’ll get all the answers before the end,” Jake said. “Just let him tell it.”

Here, Rothfuss is breaking a writing taboo and having Cob tell the other characters things that everyone knows–but he’s doing it by leading us to believe that Cob is such a great storyteller that the other inn denizens will hang onto his every word regardless.)

Now, explanatory dialogue is good, when you can fit it in and find an appropriate excuse for the characters to use it. But what if you can’t? What if you’re toward the beginning of the novel, when the need for exposition is greatest, but the need to keep the plot moving is also of paramount importance? This is where a device I’ll refer to as incidental exposition comes in handy.

The way I use it, incidental exposition just means inserting a small bit of exposition, usually no more than a sentence or two, directly after introducing some fictional or fantastic element which begs explanation. In the hands of a master, this technique can be invaluable–but it can also lead to narrative disaster if used carelessly.

For an example, let’s check out Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, held up by many as the quintessential “modern” fantasy. The second prologue in the book, otherwise known as Szeth’s first chapter, begins with a heavily exposition-laden passage about the Alethi, their culture, dress and nobility. While most of this is not too relevant to what’s happening in the book (at least at this point), Sanderson has wisely structured his story to make it work: Szeth’s has arrived in a foreign land, one whose ways are unfamiliar, and his thoughts therefore take note of his strange surroundings. And since Szeth is there on an assassination mission, his trip clearly has an important role to play in the plot as well.

So in the first few pages, Sanderson has thrown some explanatory dialogue at us already (in the form of internal monologue) to warm things up. But soon, the action proper commences, and that’s when the exposition takes an interesting turn:

As always, the Shardblade killed oddly; though it cut easily through stone, steel, or anything inanimate, the metal fuzzed when it touched living skin. It traveled through the guard’s neck without leaving a mark, but once it did, the man’s eyes smoked and burned. They blackened, shriveling up in his head, and he slumped forward, dead. A Shardblade did not cut living flesh; it severed the soul itself.

The Stormlight held the door in the frame with the strength of a hundred arms. A Full Lashing bound objects together, holding them fast until the Stormlight ran out. It took longer to create–and drained Stormlight far more quickly–than a Basic Lashing.

As the lamps dimmed, the corridor darkened. A thick wooden door stood at the end, and as he approached, small fearspren–shaped like globs of purple goo–began to wriggle from the masonry, pointing toward the doorway. They were drawn by the terror being felt on the other side.

Now, Sanderson is a bit of an extreme case, as his books usually contain complex magic systems which allow him to present these sorts of hyper-kinetic action sequences in a believable way. But the price he pays is a heavy reliance on inserting small bits of narration which, while not necessarily making 100% sense for the current viewpoint, allow the reader to quickly understand enough to follow along.  Note how there’s no real reason Szeth should be thinking about how a Shardblade cuts living flesh here, or that a Full Lashing drains Stormlight more quickly than a Basic Lashing. He’s seen these things before, and at the moment he’s in an intense situation involving killing a lot of people–not a good time for leisurely reminiscing. But Sanderson also doesn’t have the option of setting up an involved situation where one character could ask a bunch of probing questions about things like how fearspren work. He needs to get that out of the way quickly so that he can proceed with the action, which means the incidental exposition, as bolded above, is called for.

Given what we’ve seen, we can formulate some rules for when it’s OK to insert exposition in the middle of the narrative:

  1. The information can’t reasonably be given in any other way without interrupting the flow of the story.
  2. The information explains some fictional element which has just been introduced, usually in the previous sentence.
  3. The information can be given in a chunk that’s small and unobtrusive.

Finally, remember the rule that trumps all overs: no matter what, don’t overdo it. If you read closely, you’ll notice that Sanderson mentions different kinds of spren earlier in the chapter, but leaves them with no explanation, possibly because he already used up his quota describing the various lashings. It’s only later, when Szeth is closing in on the king’s chambers, that he feels he can spare the narrative lapse to give a little (and just a little) more info on what is happening with them. So when in doubt, it’s better to leave the reader a little confused than to risk overloading them with too much explanation.

And that’s basically all there is to it: by combining more than one form of exposition, we can achieve a balance between plot and information which serves the needs of the particular section of a book, provided one uses a light touch and carefully evaluates the reader’s need for explanation against their need to be drawn into the story.

There’s much more this topic than what I’ve put here, of course, but perhaps you all can chime in and help me out with more tips. What do you think? Am I right? Wrong? Is this obvious? Interesting? Let me know, and good luck with your writing.

1 thought on “The Importance of Exposition in Fantasy

  1. This is very interesting to me and I can use it when I teach sci fi/fantasy in the fall. As a reader rather than a writer of fiction, I only think about exposition when it’s clunky and irritating, just as you don’t think about air unless it’s smoky or stinky (I guess following my simile, you also think about exposition when you’re confused about the context because there’s not ENOUGH information, just as you think about air when there’s not enough air). So when the exposition is gracefully handled, I’m not really aware of it AS exposition, just interesting information. Hope that made sense. I’m working out as I write what I’m going to say in class.

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