The Second-Hardest Thing

I’m talking about exposition again here.  Of all the tough jobs in writing fiction, exposition is possibly the second-toughest one there is to do right.  (The toughest, for my money, is big conference scenes, where everybody in the ensemble has to be present while Something Important is hashed out.  LOTR’s Council of Elrond is one of the best-done conference scenes I know of, and it’s still one of the main places where potential readers of the trilogy run out of steam and don’t get started again.)

Some general tips that have helped me in the past:

  •  If you’ve got something complex and technical, don’t bother explaining how it works.  Show how people use it, and what happens when it breaks down.
  • If there’s a fact or a concept that absolutely has to be gotten across, attach it to something that’s inherently interesting, such as sex or violence.  Or food — take your characters out to a good dinner and work the exposition in between courses.  Or anything else that will give you exciting foreground action to occupy your readers’ attention while you slip the necessary background info into their brains.
  • Figure out which character in the ensemble could plausibly not know about what it is that needs explaining, and have somebody else explain it to him.  Or have that character be the one to ask the stupid questions.  (This is why “outsider” characters are so useful.  They don’t know stuff, so they have to ask questions and have things explained to them.  Who’s the outsider in your crowd?)
  • Far less exposition is needed, sometimes, than the writer fears.  Start-of-scene or start-of-story exposition sometimes isn’t really exposition at all, but more working up a head of steam for the story proper.  Jumping right in to the scene and telling yourself you can go back and put in the exposition later sometimes helps.
  • So does closing your eyes and typing blind so you can’t see just how stodgy and pedestrian and klunky the prose coming out from your fingers actually is.

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