Stumbling Through The Minefield: Expository Depth

If you’re going to write genre, with rich world-building and complicated future technology and deep magic systems, it’s going to happen sooner or later: you’ll need to explain what a Florznap is.

Whether it’s describing why your hero’s sword is different from what the reader thinks of when they imagine a sword, or the details of how, exactly, the MindBlossom Ritual sends all the zombies scurrying back to their graves, you’re going to have to just spell it out for the reader. This thing, this Maguffin or nanotechnological marvel or fantastic gizmo only exists in your head. Now you need to describe it.

The second you do so, of course, your narrative stops dead. Your characters all just stand there, nodding attentively. Your precious and hard won pacing goes out the window. You’ve stumbled into a story minefield. Spend too long on the exposition and your reader will get bored (the cardinal sin of writing). Rush through the description and they’ll be confused for the rest of the story.

There has to be a way to quickly extricate yourself from such a dilemma, right? Well, if you come up with one, let us all know–right after you accept your Nobel for literature.

There are many different approaches to the problem. The easiest is the William Gibson solution. Gibson famously refuses to explain anything in his books. Want to know what a nanoscale water knife or a polychrome tonfa is? He might tell you it’s manufactured by SunCo Industries. He might tell you it’s shiny. Beyond that you’re on your own. There are a number of things he gains from this kind of obscuring anti-exposition. He maintains a strong sense of immediacy and immersion. His characters all feel like real people who live in a real world who don’t stop every ten minutes to discuss the latest innovations in cell phone tech. It also makes him look super smart, since he clearly just assumes everybody knows what these things are.

He also creates notoriously dense narratives that often break down into dream logic because you have no idea what he’s talking about.

Stephen King is famous for over-describing things. That’s his approach. He’ll spend long paragraphs describing the particular sound a typewriter makes when it performs a carriage return, and how many scratches there are on the platen, and what the ink smells like. Clearly this works for him–he’s Stephen King. His style is the antithesis of Gibson’s naturalism and it keeps the reader comfortable and makes every scene a clear piece of blocking and stagecraft. It also means his books gets longer every time he writes one, while his plots get stretched out ever thinner (don’t @ me, I don’t necessarily mean that to be derogatory–when King is really on his game, his plots become clarified, even transcendent).

Both authors are obviously highly successful with their individual strategies. But what if you’re not Gibson or King? What if you’re just starting out writing, feeling your way through the minefield step by tentative step?

What if you want to tell a wilder, more fantastic story than either of those titans?

Secondary worlds full of rich lore and detail are always going to struggle with the expository depth problem. Here are a couple of hints:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s no need to describe a sharp bladed weapon as a StabMatic 9000 or a Bohemian Earspoon. Your blaster rifle doesn’t need to come with a technical manual. If the thing you’re trying to describe has a real world counterpart that most people are familiar with, consider just using the generic object instead. Call it a sword, or a polearm, and move on.
  • Spread the pain out. Infodumps are unacceptable these days, but the reader will expect to have to learn a few new things. Rather than putting all your worldbuilding in the first chapter, describe things only as they come up. A sentence of exposition per chapter is almost imperceptible to most readers’ palates. Even a sentence per page is probably acceptable…
  • …Though it’s generally best to keep exposition out of your third act altogether. By that point the reader should have a clear idea of what the world is like. New elements that require deep explanations feel like they’re coming out of thin air when we’ve already accepted the weird laws of your story. Or they can feel like you didn’t know how to end the book and you needed to stick in a deus ex machina to tie up all your threads.
  • Don’t pile bullshit on an already fertilized field. Examine your exposition carefully. Does every detail absolutely need to be in the story? Five hundred years ago the Forest Parliament may well have enacted laws which continue to shape the lives of fairies and wood nymphs today. But does that really affect the small village that is your setting? If an element of exposition doesn’t really touch the plot or tell us something interesting about a character, go ahead and cut it. This is exactly what is meant by “killing your darlings”.
  • Simplify when possible. Rich worldbuilding doesn’t necessarily mean that every object, term, and inhuman species in your story needs to be a whole new invention. How much newness does your story really need? Often we sacrifice universality for a cool idea or creation, when the story might have been better served by being grounded in realism. Give your story a good shake and see which moving parts you can live without, and you may find the whole project sings in a better key.

Exposition is necessary–even William Gibson does it sometimes. It’s also the greatest pitfall of literature. Finding a way to navigate that minefield is going to be one of your hardest tasks as a writer–and one of the most important.