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  1. #1
    Professor of Anglo-Saxon
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    Methods of Exposition

    I'm writing a fantasy novel, and trying to get in a lot of background information. I'm leaning towards having one of the characters read it in a book, similar to what Kostova did in The Historian, but I'm also considering the Tolkien model of a large scale council, and the Paolini method of having a character recite a story. What do y'all think is the best way to put this information in?

  2. #2
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    I think it depends on your story. Does it support the possibility of any of these methods? For a council, do you have a bunch of characters already in your story who were present at the events in question, or who are personally involved in the outcomes of those events? Same for the narrative, or nested story idea: is there a character who is older or more learned than the character to whom s/he is telling the story? And books, does your character reading it ever visit a library or somewhere the book could be obtained?

    It's all about plausibility, I feel, which translates to your real world reader's belief factor. Further, the amount or length of this information that you deliver at one time does play a part and that goes into a formatting question, whether to deliver a story that is read or perhaps told as a separate chapter wholly unto itself or to include it in the chapter where the book is obtained/characters decide to tell/listen to the story.

    Sorry, that's not too helpful. I try to go the plausibility route and have my plot devices do multiple things. Tolkien's council, for instance, did not only deliver information to the reader but was also the vehicle for the formation of the Fellowship. Further, it revealed many things about each character, such as the conflicts between elves and dwarves that later leads to Legolas and Gimli becoming friends, and Boromir's attitudes toward Aragorn, the absentee heir to his kingdom's long empty throne, which is also revealed at the council.

    Also, welcome to SFFWorld! There are some fun and cool things around here, and a good number of folks who are immeasurably more knowledgeable than I in this whole writing thing. Some of them will hopefully be along shortly
    Last edited by RedMage; August 4th, 2013 at 02:56 AM.

  3. #3
    Registered User StephenPorter's Avatar
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    As RM mentioned, the method used will need to be something that works within the setting. I've never read The Historian, but I'm willing to bet it's about someone who spends a lot of time with history books. It is very natural in such a setting to have a character come across information in a book. Likewise, Tolkien had lots of alliances between various races and factions, so a council fits well with the overall story. What you use will depend heavily on what your story is about. Using a method that doesn't fit the story will come across as gimmicky and amateurish.

    It also depends on your POV. For instance, a first person POV will have to have the character experience the tale himself. An omniscient POV however, could simply drop the info in without having to worry about finding a gimmick for it. A straight forward info dump is generally frowned upon, but it has its uses. For one, it's quicker than incorporating it into the plot events. No one wants to waste their time, so this can be very useful in the right circumstances when you want to get on with the actual story.

    I think info dumps are undervalued by most writers. Twisting the story and plot around just to avoid a simple and effective explanation of necessary info can hurt the final product. Sometimes it's best to just put it out there without tripping over yourself trying to be fancy.

    Another way is the slow drip method, which is to put little tiny bits of information scattered across a large section of story. This keeps the story from bogging down while still putting in what you need to say.

    Also what you do should depend on what the characters already know. If it's info that the characters know but the reader needs to be informed of, you can put it in as exposition even in a first person story. In fact if it's already known (or is something that the characters ought to know, but don't for the sole purpose of explaining things), trying to work the info into the plot can be an eye-roll inducing disaster.

    One other bit of advice: avoid exposition at the beginning of the work. Usually that hurts the story. There is often a sense of, "But they won't know what's going on if I don't tell them right away!" This is actually a very flawed assumption. Often, the reader has no need to know what's going on. In fact it may well be that not knowing is the reason they keep reading, so that they will eventually figure it out. The mysterious is a compelling factor. People are curious. It's why people read mysteries. It's why people don't want to hear spoilers of a story they haven't read/watched yet. It's why so many fantasy tales have the wise old man who never actually tells the characters the whole story even though he has no real reason not to, or the guy who dies just before he can tell that critical bit of info. Mystery is a good thing, and keeping pertinent info from the reader until the perfect moment is an important part of the craft.

    In the end, I can only list various ways that you can do things. What works and what doesn't is highly dependent upon the story you're trying to tell. There is no "right" method that works for all stories all the time. Every method has a right time and place.
    Last edited by StephenPorter; August 4th, 2013 at 04:51 PM.

  4. #4
    @PeteMC666 PeteMC's Avatar
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    Personally I enjoy piecing together history from snippets here and there in the story - think how Martin, Jordan and even Abercrombie manage this through bit of dialogue and seemingly-at-the-time obscure references to things the characters would obviously know all about. Big Tolkien-esque history lessons put me right off books these days.

  5. #5
    LaerCarroll.com
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    LOTS of very wise advice. I'm impressed.

    My personal preference as a writer is to only post the absolute minimum which will support the classical three parts of a story: character, setting, and plot. I keep to a close third person limited viewpoint, but will occasionally break the pattern by inserting a sentence or paragraph from an omniscient viewpoint.

    Quote Originally Posted by PeteMC View Post
    Personally I enjoy piecing together history from snippets here and there in the story...
    Good point, and I'm sure you are not alone. I try to always remember that readers are pretty smart and can often fill in the blanks that I leave in story. Reading is NOT a passive activity. It's an immensely creative one. Our readers are our collaborators, not empty heads needing us to fill them.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    My personal preference as a writer is to only post the absolute minimum which will support the classical three parts of a story: character, setting, and plot.
    Yes. Less is more.

    And I actually disagree with a lot of what's been said about Tolkien (at least as far as The Hobbit and LotR goes). His histories, backstory, legends, world structure...they're really not dwelt upon that much in exposition, whether that's from characters talking, songs and poems, or council meetings. Sure, he does those things, but there is FAR more going on in the background than people have suggested.

    That's one of the beauties of it. He expounded to no end with The Silmarillion, but in his most famous and easiest to digest works, the rich backstories <i>inform</i> his writing but aren't dwelt upon in exhaustive detail.

    And I'm afraid that having a character read books of backstory to us would be really info-dumpy. Extreme caution must be exercised. We should only be presented what directly affects or is important to the character and plot. And the setting should be shown, not told.

    A great example of doing it right is Frank Herbert's Dune. He ends up describing a very rich and detailed world, but he gives us that detail peicemeal, only when and as it becomes necessary to the characters and plot. In some sections he describes the ecological makeup of the planet Arakis, but those sections are much smaller than you might think. Most of his effort is spent on what the characters do and feel, think and fear. He doesn't even spend great amounts of time describing battles that have world-changing consequences. It's a pretty impressive feat of economical writing. So much is said in so few words.

    When in doubt, leave it out.
    Last edited by Micah R Sisk; February 2nd, 2015 at 11:06 AM.

  7. #7
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by RagotanScribe View Post
    I'm writing a fantasy novel, and trying to get in a lot of background information. I'm leaning towards having one of the characters read it in a book, similar to what Kostova did in The Historian, but I'm also considering the Tolkien model of a large scale council, and the Paolini method of having a character recite a story. What do y'all think is the best way to put this information in?
    I prefer doing background information "on demand" where it has context with the scene, and then handle it like a fine spice - a gentle sprinkle rather than some ponderous info-dump. Build it up as I go. If at all possible, I use dialogue and internal thought.

    My advice is more a reminder that the world is going to be less important at first to the reader than it is to you, so don't fall too much in love with your world history.

    Kerry

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by kmtolan View Post
    Iso don't fall too much in love with your world history.
    Actaully that's exactly what you want to do...fall in love with it jealously. Hold it close to you and only share what parts of that love you must...It is your love, protect it, do not just throw it out for the whole world to suck up and besoil! NO! Share your joy of it sparingly. Make the reader want it, love it, crave it...and maybe if they're good, you can share some more. World creation should be an effort of great and covetous love.

  9. #9
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    Or hold it at a distance for the abject horror it is. Protect your reader from the deep soul-tearing monstrosity you pulled from the center of your self loathing.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by kmtolan View Post
    Or hold it at a distance for the abject horror it is. Protect your reader from the deep soul-tearing monstrosity you pulled from the center of your self loathing.
    I love my self-loathing. Covetously.

  11. #11
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by StephenPorter View Post
    For instance, a first person POV will have to have the character experience the tale himself. An omniscient POV however, could simply drop the info in without having to worry about finding a gimmick for it. A straight forward info dump is generally frowned upon, but it has its uses. For one, it's quicker than incorporating it into the plot events. No one wants to waste their time, so this can be very useful in the right circumstances when you want to get on with the actual story.
    First person and third omni aren't really that different when it comes to exposition tools. A first person narrator, too, can just drop any piece of information he has. The important part here isn't actually the narrator, but the envisioned audience and how it differs from the actual audience. In SF/F, the narrator is often an in-world entity. (That's often even true for omniscient narrators. For example, the omniscient narrator of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell didn't know that metal ships can float.) That means that the narrator will choose what to tell according to what s/he thinks his audience will need to know. The author's intention can sometimes be different from the narrator's intention. For example, in Jonathan Strange the omniscient narrator was making fun of the French for entertaining such silly ideas as floating metal ships. But because real world readers are aware that metal ships are viable, the joke's on the narrator.

    For this thread this means: informing the fictional audience (narrator's audience) =/= informing the actual book's audience (author's audience). In SF/F exposition is often a creative game with the difference between fictional-world everday knowledge and real-world everday knowledge, because the fictional world and real world deliberately differ.

    Both a first person narrator and a third person omniscient narrator will use exposition for pretty much the same reasons:

    - because they think their audience will not understand the story without this piece of information
    or
    - because they think their audience is interested in the information
    or
    - because they themselves are interested in the information and they're too dense to notice that their audience isn't
    or
    ...

    Now the author of SF story may often not want to draw attention to the fact that the world is made up; it's part of a make-belief game between author and reader. So the author can't just use a narrator (omniscient or first) to drop info they think their audience needs, without also drawing attention to the fact that this game of make-belief is going on. For some authors, this is not a problem (so, for example, Terry Pratchett can use bicycles to evoke images of creatures from the dungeon dimensions, even if there are no bicycles in the fictional world).

    Early Utopias (e.g. Utopia by More, or New Atlantis by Bacon) were often first person accounts of travels into unknown countries, and they almost all exposition and no action. Why? Because none of the intended audience knew anything about those places, and because the narrators thought the information was interested. Brave New World showed us its dystopia from the point of view of a savage (someone whose point of view is a lot closer to ours than anything else in that world). I don't remember the specific narrative situation. I'm thinking omniscient with large stretches that read like limited, but I'd have to re-read this, before I can go into any detail. Portal fiction (such as Narnia) use the same effect.

    Often, you can impart knowledge through ritual: in Ian MacDonald's short story "Floating Dogs", a story about uplifted animals that have been used, along with robots, for war, the animals recite certain verses before going to sleep. We get information from (a) the content of the verses, and (b) from the fact that they do it at all.

    There are many, many tools at your disposal to disperse information. But for SF/F, remembering that the narrator's audience is not necessarily the same as the author's audience is usually important.

  12. #12
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dawnstorm View Post
    There are many, many tools at your disposal to disperse information. But for SF/F, remembering that the narrator's audience is not necessarily the same as the author's audience is usually important.
    Good point. I'm struggling with this at the moment. I have four, first person accounts in one book. For one of the characters, I have a very clear audience to whom she is "talking" to, but for the others, I do not. And it shows. Ug.

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