Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: Info Filling (Or, How to Write Exposition *Without* Being Boring)

Yay! Another Writing Wednesday! I'm so glad you guys have been enjoying these. :) Also, I wanted to take a moment and say thank you so so SO much to everyone who's pre-ordered One Good Dragon Deserves Another! The reception has been overwhelming. I can't wait for you guys to read the actual book come August!!

And if you have no idea what I'm talking about, the first book in the series, Nice Dragons Finish Last, is still only $0.99 on Amazon, so go check it out!

Now, on with the show...

Writing Wednesdays: Info Filling (Or, How to Write Exposition *Without* Being Boring)

Oh exposition, you quarrelsome beast.

Exposition is one of those fancy literary vocab words most people first encounter in High School English. Anything that feeds the reader information in a story--the description of a town square where a riot is happening, the explanation of the political situation that caused the riot, a recounting of the tragic personal history of the woman leading the riot--counts as narrative exposition, and it's famous for being one of those things that writers, especially genre writers, mess up.

It makes sense. The burden of exposition (which every writer struggles with at some point) is exponentially higher for those who write about people, places, and things that don't exist in real life. A thriller writer can simply say "the stern FBI agent" and expect his reader to know what he's talking about without spending paragraphs explaining what this "FBI" thing is. A Fantasy author, on the other hand, often has a entire new world to introduce before our readers can even appreciate what's going on with the plot.

That's an exponentially heavier exposition burden to bear with a much higher bar for success. Sloppy, info-dumpy exposition, which might slide under the radar in contemporary fiction if the writer is strong in other areas, becomes a deal-breaker any kind of genre fiction where the writer is introducing their reader to complex new worlds, societies, or rules for reality. There is simply too much to explain to do it badly, which is why skillful, interesting exposition is one of those skills every writer, but particularly every genre writer, must master if they want readers to stick with them long enough to see the rest of the book.

So how do we do it? How do you explain your epic magic system/political conflict/hyperspace travel to your reader without dumping a giant, book-closing wall o' text on their eyeballs? Well, fortunately for us, there's a trick to writing good description/exposition that's not actually hard to master. It just requires that you one 1) be aware of how much you're asking your reader to absorb at any one time, and 2) remember to stay entertaining.

How to Write Exposition People Won't Skip

Ask a non-Fantasy reader why they don't read Fantasy, and one of the most common complaints you'll hear is that there's too much exposition. Who wants to sit around and listen to some elf sing a song about the history for five pages? Dullsville.

Now, I happen to enjoy a good elf song, but I can totally see why people would complain. For years, Fantasy authors, Tolkien included, have relied on info-dumps to explain the detailed history of their worlds, often through songs or inscriptions or whatever other in-text excuse the author can come up with for a history lesson. This sort of thing happened so often, it became one of the conventions of the epic Fantasy genre, and when done well, it can definitely lend a real feeling of elegance and other-worldliness to the text. When done badly, however, this sort of exposition is the most excruciating, boring, nonsensical crap you'll ever wade through.

It's stuff like this gives Fantasy a bad name in so many circles. Don't believe me? Take a second and imagine reading the most stereotypically bad Fantasy novel you can think of. Chances are, your imaginary book starts with a densely written prologue describing the birth/fall of the world in lofty, quasi-poetic language.

That's how bad this thing has gotten. The convention itself has become a marker of terrible quality. Even if you do write a masterful, entertaining, beautifully crafted exposition prologue/elf song/found history/whatever, chance are most modern readers will just skip it because so many other authors have abused this exposition mechanic so abysmally.

So, if even masterful infodumps are off the table, how do you describe your pantheon/world breaking/epic history/other weighty topic of world building? How do you teach your reader what they need to know about the history of your world without sitting them down for a history lesson?

The exact answer to this problem will depend on your own particular book, writing voice, and intended audience, but a trick I like to use in my Fantasy (and Science Fiction) novels is something I call Info Filling.

Rather than dumping information on the reader all at once, I use whatever exposition I want the reader to learn as filler for when I'm doing other things. For example, say I'm introducing a new character who is foreign to my main cast, and she has a hideous scar. Maybe one of my characters asks about it, showing how tactless and direct he is (character development!), and the new lady gruffly informs him that she received this scar because she was a medicine woman who was accused of witchcraft, and the villain scared her face to show the world that she was evil (exposition and character development!)

As you can see, this is a much more natural and interesting way to inform your reader that there's a bad dude out there accusing ladies of being witches and scarring their faces than just sitting them down and telling them about it. By filling your information into the scene rather than just dumping it, you've turned your exposition into its own little story within your larger narrative and you've also layered in some character development, which is always good.

Tricks like these let you squeeze an enormous amount of exposition into your prose without making the reader work for it. Whenever I do a scene--any scene--I'm always trying to squeeze information about the larger world into the cracks wherever it will fit, even if I'm not using that information immediately. It's just there, a natural part of the world, and if you do it well, your reader will absorb all the information they need without even realizing it.

You see this tactic all the time in really good video games. Portal, for example, has zero info dumping. Nothing. Everything about the world and how it came to be that way is told in small details which are arranged to be found naturally as the player progresses through the puzzles or as part of the ambient atmosphere. But even with this complete lack of hand holding, by the end of the game, the player still knows enough about the world and its stakes to care about the final boss battle. That is amazing, and probably my favorite modern example of how good exposition should work. Also, the game is stupidly fun and clever, but you knew that, right?

I've also found that approaching exposition as a seasoning rather than a main dish really helps to "load balance" the information my books. Since I've completely abandoned the idea of trying to cram entire concepts down my reader's throats early in the text, I'm free to dole information out on a purely need to know basis as the plot progresses. Not only does doing things this way make the reading/writing experience a lot easier for all involved, it also ensure that, when I do need to stop and explain something complicated, my reader is ready to learn it.

It's all about creating investment first. You use your characters and your plot to show your reader why your history/worldbuilding/etc. is important, and only then, when they're desperate to know, do you hit them with the details. This is how you turn what would otherwise be boring, info dumpy exposition into a treat your readers will gobble up. Parcel it out slowly, feed them just enough details so they understand what's going on (but are never overloaded) while you draw them in. Then, when they're hooked and turning pages, that's when you hit them with the big, complicated explanation.

Pull this pattern off right, and you'll never get accused of info dumping again. :)

I hope this gives you all a new avenue of attack on your exposition woes! Thanks for reading, and I'll be back next Wednesday with another writing post.



Sam said...

Than why can sci fi authors like David Weber get away with it. I think that there's a strong minority of readers who like the complexity and layers that a good data dump adds to the text. That's not to say I I don't find your way more engaging.
PS I just read NDFL and loved it

BG said...

I only have one issue: isn't there a risk of, in opposition to info dumping, not telling enough information to satisfy the readers. Let's take the Paradox series as an example. Almost all the info we get is plot-related. In the end of Heaven's Queen, we're still left with several unanswered questions about that world. I know you're planning a new series to answer some of those questions, but what if you weren't. We would never know how the Paradoxian society began, why there is such thing as a Sainted King, etc. Personally, I don't mind a few loose ends for my imagination to fill, but others may not agree. It's a risk.

Rachel Aaron said...

@Sam Some readers definitely are really into that stuff! Also, I think some authors' voices/styles really lend themselves to large explanations (Yet another example of how you can do anything in writing if you do it well!). That said, I still maintain that there is 1) nothing worse than a bad info dump, and 2) info dumps are stupidly hard to do well, which is why I suggest avoiding them all together unless they're really your thing as a writer.

SO glad you enjoyed NDFL! Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll give the sequel a try!

@BG You bring up a good point, but even with gratuitous info dumps, it's sometimes just not possible to hit every unknown in a book. This is especially true if you're writing a secondary world where readers *don't* know how things work unless you tell them. Paradox is a great example. I had to leave all that stuff hanging because, at the end of the, I was telling Devi's story, not the story of the universe itself. (Though, for the record, I fully intend to answer a lot of those questions in the sequel, but that doesn't really count.)

This is where the art part of writing comes in, though. There's no formula for figuring out just how much info to give so that your reader can be informed without being overloaded. It's just one of those artistic calls you have to make as a writer. You're never going to get it write for all readers, either. All we can try to be clever in our execution and do our best to pull the exposition dance off to the best of our abilities.

Thank you for the great comment!:D

Brinstead said...

The best example of info dumping I've ever seen, even if it is a send-off:

David Weber Orders a Pizza:

Anonymous said...

Kind of a reply to BG... I wouldn't call it a risk, so much as needing to strike a balance between giving them enough to paint a picture as you're going along, but as Rachel said in her article, don't drown them with info either. Furthermore, it's okay to leave some things a mystery in the first book of a series. It makes a reader want to keep reading to find out what happens in the next book and the next, etc. <3

Keri said...

Great topic & great technique! This should be required reading for spec fic authors, seriously. Info-dumps are probably the #1 reason I abandon books. I can't stand slogging through dull exposition to get to the real story.

Honestly I'd rather have too LITTLE information and feel a little bit lost than read info-dumps. Steven Brust is a good example of an author that uses very little exposition and leaves me feeling a bit lost at first, but because the characters and story are so good I don't even mind.

Hel Stone said...

Note worthy tips. What do you think about this thing? Do you like the idea?