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View Full Version : That Dreaded Word...Exposition



Mytherea
10-08-2014, 07:15 PM
In Short, The Question: As an Urban Fantasy reader, do you prefer for quick exposition at the beginning so you walk into the story almost entirely informed of the world or do you prefer for the introduction to be slow, handing out hints here and there? Or does it depend? What books have you read that you think did an excellent job of seamless exposition? As a writer, how do you tackle exposition in your own work?

The Much Longer, "Why I'm Asking This Question" Part: The first chapter of my book was workshopped in a class a few weeks ago and I was appalled by the overwhelming response of "What is this and what does it mean?" True, I use a few terms throughout the chapter that don't get explicitly explained, only hinted at in context, and I'd decided I'd trust that the reader would either put the pieces together themselves or would wait for the semi-expo-dump a chapter later. It's starting to look like I may have trusted a little too much. However, the caveat is that the people reading and critiquing the manuscript are 1. not typically UF or Fantasy readers (I've got two YA UF ones, a YA SF, and someone else writing adult UF, but the only books I know he's read are Dresden Files, which isn't a bad thing, just a limited scope if that's /all/ he's read. The rest are literary fiction with the occasional smattering of semi-magical realism and a few of them have never read a "genre" story in their lives) and 2. are required by the confines of the assignment to write "X" number of pages in response in order to get credit, so it's questionable whether their critiques are to make the work a better piece of writing or to fulfill page count requirements.

Anyway, I wanted to get some other opinions on this from people who write and read in this genre, how do you handle world-building exposition in your writing? As a reader, what's too much information and what's too little? What books do you find have done an excellent job finding the balance? While I've got my own opinions on this topic, I'm interested to find out what all of you think of it (and, true, perhaps I'm fishing for some book suggestions while I'm at it).

Maryn
10-08-2014, 07:20 PM
I am not a steady reader of the genre, so take this with the grain of salt required. If an UF novel opens with exposition explaining the world, I stop reading and move on to something else. It's that off-putting to me.

Like any genre fiction, I need UF to open with something which grabs me by the throat and won't let go, explaining what I need to know as we go along.

Maryn, just one opinion

johnhallow
10-08-2014, 08:46 PM
The Much Longer, "Why I'm Asking This Question" Part: The first chapter of my book was workshopped in a class a few weeks ago and I was appalled by the overwhelming response of "What is this and what does it mean?" True, I use a few terms throughout the chapter that don't get explicitly explained, only hinted at in context, and I'd decided I'd trust that the reader would either put the pieces together themselves or would wait for the semi-expo-dump a chapter later.

Don't freak out, the same thing happened to me back in my CW classes, and the difference in responses between those guys (90% of whom only wrote lit fic) and pure fantasy fans was always like night and day. My CW class' beliefs caused me to develop some beliefs I had to work to get rid, though a lot of what they said was solid in its own way.

Generally speaking, you should leave the exposition for later if you don't want people to drop your book. Aim to hook them with what's going on in the story and slip in what they need to know, and once they're invested (i.e. you've promised something fascinating) or their appetite has been whet you can work in longer explanations without losing their interest.

You're (possibly, depending on what your CW group is like) writing for a different crowd, and fantasy readers are used to reading between the lines or else waiting to learn what briefly-mentioned-thing-x or y means, so you don't need to explain it all from the get go... they're also more used to magical terms. At the same time, it really depends on how different your world is... if what you've mentioned can't be shown by context then you do need to give a brief summary.

An example:
"Lucy drew her urka, the enchanted dagger all priestesses of Vaela wore, out of its sheath, careful to not let the blade so much as brush her skin." < I'd stop there. I can explain why it's deadly just before or after she does use it, and it'll be obvious why getting touched by it is a terrible idea. I would mention something like this because no one would have the slighest clue clue what an urka is -- long enough that a reader isn't scratching their head, but short enough that when you /do/ explain why she's being so careful the reader now wants to know.

^ IMO all this stuff -- and rearranging what happens so readers can deduce things about your world/pick things up from context -- is what makes beginnings to hard to write. You've got to work in all of these things at the same time while developing character and keeping things compelling...!

Good luck xD

Dennis E. Taylor
10-08-2014, 08:50 PM
The mystery of "what does that mean" is part of what hooks you into continuing to read. The problem with workshops or critting in general is that it's an artificial situation. The reader is looking for issues, isn't intending to read the whole book, and is guessing that you may not have explained (or intend to explain) a term properly.

My attitude (and I'm not saying it's right) is that if I know I'll be clarifying something later on, I just let the crit slide by.

Wilde_at_heart
10-08-2014, 10:56 PM
In my opinion, the best thing in an opening is to ground the reader with a setting and a character doing something (doesn't have to be an action-movie start, so long as the scene isn't completely static).

Without seeing what you've written it's hard to tell whether it's a genre issue, or lack of grounding in general is what's leaving them dissatisfied. A good way to get your feet wet here - both with your own work and critiquing others - is to go to the Hook me in 200 thread in the SFF subsection of Share Your Work. There, you'll get people more familiar with the genre, who might see what the problem is, if there is any.

rwm4768
10-08-2014, 11:00 PM
And this is why I've always found creative writing classes useless as a fantasy and science fiction writer. Putting a bunch of exposition up front is exactly what you don't want to do. These people obviously have no clue how exposition is normally handled in urban fantasy.

Yes, you need a little bit, but it shouldn't halt the narrative.

CheG
10-09-2014, 05:46 AM
I like to explain things briefly as they come up in the text. But not like a massive amount. I don't mind some exposition in a book either. Especially if it's throwing out terms, made-up monsters, foreign words or phrases, or other things unique to the world that I may not be familiar with. It helps readers to visualize whatever they're supposed to be visualizing.

skelly
10-14-2014, 07:09 PM
I'm glad this topic came up. I have wrestled with this question all of my writing life. I have this quote stuck in my mind: "Exposition is dead material." Can't remember where I originally read it, but it stuck. I find that I can write nearly exposition-less prose but when I do the story feels thin. All dialogue and transitions. Obviously a story needs some amount of exposition to give it that narrative, "story" feel but I have yet to learn how to control it. A couple of lines to explain why my MC can cast a certain spell turns into a lecture on "The Theory of Magic in My World" and how my MC got her nickname (since I'm explaining things anyway). It doesn't help that I actually enjoy a lot of scene/mood/stage setting when I read, so I get a little paranoid about it while I am in writer mode.

PeteMC
10-17-2014, 05:42 PM
Everyone's already said it really, but I agree that opening with expositionis the last thing you want to do.

Give me a character I'm interested in and I'm quite happy to figure out what the Smeerp of Smeerpiness is for myself.

Dennis E. Taylor
10-17-2014, 06:46 PM
It doesn't help that I actually enjoy a lot of scene/mood/stage setting when I read, so I get a little paranoid about it while I am in writer mode.

This is my problem too. I like explanations. One of my favorite books of all time is Recall Not Earth by C.C. MacApp. He devotes an entire chapter to explaining his star drive. I ate it up. Pretty sure if it showed up on this forum, people would have been grabbing their throats and falling over.

Some people like metaphorical car chase scenes. Some think they're a cheap gimmick. And so on.

Laer Carroll
10-19-2014, 05:59 AM
Some of my favorite writers are heavy on exposition. But their writing has three qualities.


The people and situations are interesting and whom I care about.
The exposition comes when I want to know the information, neither too early nor too late, neither too little nor too much.
Their writing is in an easy flowing style that pulls me through the explanations.

Wherever the exposition comes in the story, if it has those three qualities then I'll eagerly read it.

Polenth
10-19-2014, 04:21 PM
I don't want a lengthy description of the world, but I don't want a heap of unfamiliar terms and things happening I don't understand. There needs to be a balance between the two. The Dresden Files worked for readers who didn't know urban fantasy because of the way it opens. It doesn't explain the whole world. Only that Harry is a wizard, and some of the issues he gets from that. The world is explained as it becomes relevant.