|Which way did it go George, which way did it go?|
Fortunately, if you're willing to roll up your sleeves and fire up the backhoe, we can turn this dump into a cleverly camouflaged piece of scenery that's just as effective.
Tip #1: If They Don't Need to Know, Don't Tell Them
Because examples work best, I'll use one to illustrate this point. About a year ago I was invited to participate in an anthology called "Sidekicks" (great book, check it out here), and I wrote a short story titled "Relic of the Red Planet". The simple plot is that in a futuristic, space opera sort of world a collector of rare, alien artifacts has been murdered. His granddaughter enlists the help of an old friend, adventurer and antiquarian Galatea Jones. For backup Galatea calls in a favor from her friend, Martian gun-for-hire Doomsday Blues. Using a public auction as bait to lure out the murderers, whom Galatea suspects were trying to steal a secret part of the dead man's collection, mayhem ensues. When the dust settles, our heroes are victorious.
Now, the story itself is a simple little mystery told in about 5,000 words or so. I could very easily have confused the story, and completely hammered my readers, by including a bunch of extraneous details that, while they would have made the world clearer, simply didn't matter to this particular telling. For instance, did the reader need to know that all of the "aliens" were genetically modified humans designed for life on the more hostile planets of the solar system many thousands of years ago? No, not really. Did I need to make a big deal about what year in the future it was, or how planets like Venus had been altered to support life? Nope. Did I have to explain how interplanetary travel was so advanced? Not in the slightest. All I needed to do was focus on the essentials, which is what I did.
|It was just like this. Except with ray guns and aliens.|
Tip #2: Show, Don't Tell
I've said it before (right here in this post, in fact), writers should show readers a scene whenever possible. Not only does it keep the story flowing, but it will camouflage the fact that readers have been given critical information. It's kind of like dicing up vegetables and putting them in something tasty so that kids will eat them without even knowing they were there.
Here's a quick example for you. Say you're writing a high fantasy series, and in this series there's an order of knights known as the Foresworn. Now, the important back story might be that these knights are all noble warriors who have fallen from the kingdom's grace, and they are considered persona non grata by the populace at large. They're given suicide missions, and those who survive may once more attain their former rank and earn forgiveness for whatever sins they've committed. Take it a step further, and say that the order is made up of men and women, with ranks and symbols that include death's heads, weighted scales, and black wings.
|Being this guy is enough to warrant a life sentence.|
If a single glance isn't enough, then drop a few more hints. Have someone ask him what act he committed to be stripped of rank and title, perhaps. This would let the reader know that despite the armor, and even his birth, the warrior is not considered nobility any longer. Maybe have a member of this organization mention in conversation with her fellows that she's only got two more missions until redemption. These three things give the reader a solid grasp of who the Foresworn are, especially when combined with their name. No matter how cool the history of the order is, or how epic the first knights who began it were, if the readers don't need to know it, see Tip #1.
Tip #3: It's a Bird, It's a Plane... It's Exposition Man!
If you must tell the reader something, then it's best for the statements to come out of your characters' mouths. Cue Exposition Man! By day a humble pathologist, psychologist, neighborhood baker, or dope peddler, but as soon as he comes into contact with protagonists he simply cannot resist the urge to spew forth plot-related details just as quickly as they can ask questions!
|You know, it's funny you should ask...|
Tip #4: Spread it Out
Exposition is hard work. You have to know what you want the reader to know, and you have to dress it up in a way that's pleasing to the eye and easy for the mind to take in. Doing all of that at once is not easy, and in fact it can give you a mental hernia.
|Pictured: A wild metaphor in its natural environment.|
In the end, too much spice will spoil your story. Spread your exposition out, and ask yourself how much of it is necessary at this very moment. If you can cut down on exposition in a scene without losing anything, do so. If something is necessary, find a way to include it. If it's something you just think is cool but would need an entire flashback, side conversation, or out-of-nowhere discussion to even bring up, chances are you don't need it.
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