Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How to Avoid the Dreaded Exposition Dump

Every story needs exposition; there's no way around it. Whether you're writing a gritty, modern thriller in the heart of New York City, or your tale takes place in a fanciful kingdom several worlds away, you need to explain to your audience just what the hell is going on. Without at least a minimally set scene it doesn't matter how great or lovingly you rendered the world; your story won't make sense.

Which way did it go George, which way did it go?
The necessity of exposition has, unfortunately, led to what most people refer to as the exposition dump. This is when writers decide to break all of their action around page five or so (earlier in short stories) in order to shoe horn in a bunch of facts that the reader probably needs to know in order to translate the world, but which have the effect of an anvil dropped from a great height. Some readers might slog through the dump in order to get to the rest of the story, but a lot of them won't.

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.
When writing a story, any story, look at what is essential to understanding the world. You, as the creator, need to know all of it. But if you're loading down a story with a bunch of extraneous material that really doesn't matter, consider cutting it out in favor of keeping the story going.

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.
Now, assume for a moment that the reader needs to understand some of that in order to grasp why these characters are important. You could go and give an account of how the Foresworn were formed, and list out what each mark of rank means. But why do that when you can just show us a member, and let us draw our own conclusions? Maybe the representative you give us is a big man with a stubbled jaw and greasy hair. Despite his brusque manner and brutish appearance though, his weapons are immaculate and he fights in a way only someone born and trained to war can do. That single action sequence would show us what members are capable of, without the writer having to talk the knights up.

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...
Exposition Man is something of a trope, but he/she/it can often be a very useful plot device. What he does is deliver key information to the reader in such a way that it looks like two characters having a conversation. When done properly Exposition Man has every right to know the things he/she knows about the world and plot, so when the talking trope decides to open up about the goings on of the local crime boss, or expound on the different oaths the Monks of the Eternal Silence supposedly take, the reader doesn't balk and demand to know why they're being made to read pages of text.

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.
Don't try to tell your reader absolutely everything up front. For one thing, it creates an information overload that can read like an essay rather than a novel. Secondly, if you actually expect readers to remember content that took place on page 5-7, then said content needs to be short and snappy in order to claim brain space. If you put a guide to your world there, no matter how necessary it might be, readers aren't going to remember it. They sure as hell aren't going to flip back and look things up, either.

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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