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.

The One-and-a-Half World

Verisimilitude is one of the most powerful devices at the author’s disposal. The ability to create a world that feels real can separate a good story from a great one. Readers are much more easily drawn into a world with systems and rules they already comprehend, and characters that feel real are characters who can evoke an emotional response.

In genre writing, though, “realness” can be tricky. The real world is boring! That’s why we want to escape it, right? It’s so tempting to give up on realism altogether, to create what is called a “Secondary World”, that is, one with its own rules and laws, one where magic replaces technology, maybe–a world where even the basic laws of physics require lengthy exposition. Such worlds can be incredible escapes, but they often fail to resonate with readers looking for meaning and humanity.

Good genre authors know how to walk the line, to create a world that is neither too real, nor entirely secondary–one with real and potent connections to the Earth we currently inhabit, but still including elements of the fantastic, of the alien, of the monstrous. They create a “heightened” reality where you can usually count on real world rules–and when they’re broken, it’s for a good reason.

This one-and-a-half world looks a lot like ours. It’s probably still called Earth, and it probably doesn’t include faster than light travel or commonplace magic. If there are monsters in this world they tend to hide in the shadows. If there are aliens, they may not show themselves at all–instead choosing to influence Earth through fleeting psychic contact with chosen humans who, should they choose to share their received wisdom, are unlikely to be widely believed.

Yet it isn’t exactly our world. Things that happen there are very slightly larger than life. More dramatic, more emotionally powerful. People obsess over breakups years after you and I would have moved on. They are capable of acts of incredibly heroics that, in the real world, would put real people in the hospital or the morgue. The rules here are never ignored–but they can be bent, when it makes a story more interesting.

Though every one-and-a-half world will have its own exceptions to real world rules, here are a few suggestions to get you thinking about how your own story can benefit from lurking on the threshold:

1. In the 1.5 world, magic exists, but it’s subtle. An actual wizard who could turn lead into gold or pull unlimited rabbits from a hat would change everything. The world we know would be transformed overnight–it would quickly become unrecognizable. In a 1.5 world magic can exist but only if it can be easily mistaken for stagecraft and sleight of hand–or if its effects are temporary, contingent, and subjective. Psychic powers just feel more realistic than your classic staff of fireballs.

2. There are very few safety codes there. You’re probably no more than a few dozen yards, right now, from a gas main. Your house has enough electricity in it to kill you a dozen times over. The only reason explosions are not an everyday event in your life is that teams of very dedicated engineers have worked for decades to make your life safe. The 1.5 world would be a terrible place to live, but it makes for dramatic stories. Anything that could reasonably explode probably will, and houses burn down all the time. Guns are much more accurate, and yet bullets can, under certain circumstances, be dodged. They’re also highly selective–one bullet will almost always kill a villain, while a hero can take five or six torso hits and still have enough strength to avenge their dead partner.

3. Conversations are much shorter. Mostly because people in the 1.5 world are far more likely to tell the truth. Think about all the conversations you had today–how often did you actually speak your mind, or express your true emotions and preferences? Dialogue in the 1.5 world is pithier, wittier, and much more concise than in the real world. Important characters never stumble over their words and they always have a joke at the ready. They’re still riddled with self-doubt and indecision; they just don’t sound like it.

4. Technobabble is kept to a minimum. In science fiction it’s way too easy to invoke futuristic technology to solve a problem. “I know it looked like I was decapitated, but the nanites in my blood built a collagen scaffolding and regrew my damaged tissues in a matter of moments!” You can always adjust the fundamental field harmonic to overcome the inverted triangle problem and rectify a plasma field at fourteen terawatts. At least, you can if you’re okay with your technology being indistinguishable from magic–and thereby breaking your hoped-for verisimilitude. In the 1.5 world you need to at least have a rough idea as to what all of your technospeak means–and you need to find a way to make sure the reader understands it, too. That means being able to explain your technology to someone who failed physics in high school. The tech level in the 1.5 world is–at most–ten years ahead of ours. Hand waving and invoking alien technology will always feel like cop outs in a world where smartphones are still the height of human achievement.

There’s nothing wrong with stories set in secondary worlds. Some of the classics of genre fiction take place in universes completely unconnected to the here and now. Yet think about how many of those stories really feel character-driven, how many of them you still have an emotional connection with years later. Try visiting the 1.5 world some time, and see if your story doesn’t immediately feel more resonant, real meaningful.

Genre Film Shorthand: The Eyes Have It

***WARNING: The following will contain a significant spoiler for the film Pacific Rim: Uprising and minor spoilers for a lot of other films***

There’s a character in the film who is possessed by an ill-defined alien intelligence, and you know this because at one point he starts talking in a voice rougher and deeper than human vocal cords should be able to generate. This is an old trope, one dating back to The Exorcist at the very least, and like most such tropes it has become so familiar to genre fans that we no longer need it explained. It’s a kind of unmistakable shorthand, one we all can read.

It made me think of another kind of shorthand, one you’ll find in dozens of genre films and TV shows (and occasionally even in books). A visual convention that conveys instantly that a character is no longer in control of themselves. Specifically, when a character’s eyes change color, typically becoming one solid color, you know the character’s been taken over.

There’s some small real world basis for this. It’s true that sometimes when a person suffers a seizure, their eyes will roll upward in their head until only the whites can be seen. This doesn’t happen for all people with seizures but it is deeply disturbing to see when it does happen. Genre film creators, probably since the dawn of cinema, have been using this visual cue to signify that a character has lost control of themselves. It’s been used so often that it’s actually generated a series of corollaries, each of which send their own message:

  • All White Eyes: When a character’s eyes cloud over and turn white it means they’ve become a mindless shell of themselves. You see this a lot in zombie movies. Occasionally you’ll also see it in stories about hypnosis, though more often they’ll use:
  • Eyes Closed at Inappropriate Times: A character walking around with their eyes closed is most likely sleepwalking, but it can also represent that they’ve entered a dream world or simply that they’re under mesmeric control.
  • Eyes Filled with Lightning: Almost always suggests that a character has been infused with some kind of otherworldly power, either by intentionally accepting it into themselves or having it imposed on themselves by an ancient/alien artifact, etc. A more modern version of this is when a fiery orange glow can be seen in the character’s eyes (see Iron Man 3).
  • Reptilian Eyes: The character is a doppelgänger or a shape-shifter; they may be able to hide the slit pupils and golden sclera behind a nictitating membrane (somehow) or this may be the only sign we get of their alien nature. This was not original to V but it certainly used the trope to great effect. Bonus points if other characters don’t notice the weird eyes until it’s far too late.
  • Pupils Dilate/Contract Suddenly: Typically this means a character is under the effect of a powerful drug, or has had a moment of cosmic epiphany. The fact this happens to everyone when they enter a suddenly dark or bright room is almost never shown in film and TV.
  • Unblinking Eyes: Often combined with a staring, intense gaze that conveys a character is inhuman or at least mentally deranged. You don’t see this one as much as you used to, though it popped up in one of the Harry potter films.
  • Eyes Change Color: Very rare, but occasionally you’ll see this used as shorthand for a character who suddenly and magically becomes far more attractive than they used to be, such as when they are reborn as a vampire (Interview with the Vampire uses this, I’m pretty sure–I would have to go back and rewatch the movie to make sure. The Craft definitely has a scene of this).
  • Eyes Turn Solid Black: The character has been possessed by Ultimate Evil. Satan, Lucifer, or some malign Lovecraftian alien intelligence, maybe. Also very rare–and incredibly striking when you do see it. Interestingly, you also occasionally see this one used to show that a character is magically observing the world through the eyes of an animal.

Honorable Mention: Maybe the best use of this shorthand I’ve ever seen was in the movie Lucy. I have a lot of problems with that film, but there’s a wonderful sequence where Lucy’s eyes change color, then turn reptilian, then bird-like, and so on. It’s a very quick scene but it manages to convey that the main character is recapitulating all of biological evolution in the span of a few eye blinks. It’s brilliant because it gets its message across with no dialogue and most people who see the scene understand what it’s saying without exposition.

Like any kind of nonverbal cue, when you use these things as shorthand they’re fine–in fact, they immediately signal to the viewer that they are in familiar genre territory. But when they’re done in interesting, innovative ways they become the true essence of art.

Questions People Ask Writers

What are you working on?

Is it finished? When can we see it?

Do you have a day job?

Are you published?

But seriously, what do you do for money?

Are you also looking for a real job?

Is your book any good?

How long did it take you to write it?

Are you published? No?

What do you do for health insurance?

Does your spouse/partner/parent support you?

Are you published? Yes?

What have you published? Anything we would’ve heard of?

Is it a best seller yet?

Are you famous?

Are you rich?

Can I have some money?

My cousin wrote a cookbook, can you help him publish it?

Why won’t you help my cousin? He’s very nice.

If I tell you my life story, will you write the screenplay?

Can we split the money?

Why don’t you write screenplays? Isn’t the money better?

What do you write?

No, I mean, what kind of novel?

No, I’m asking what genre?

No, like, there are only three genres, right?

You write science fiction? So you’re a nerd?

You write fantasy? So are you a flake?

You write horror? Are you a closet psychopath?

Just kidding. But seriously, you have a sick mind, right?

Would I like your book?

Can I have a free copy?

Oh, you’re a writer?

Anything I would have heard of?

Who are your influences?

No, I mean, what writers did you copy?

No, seriously, whose work did you model it after?

Where do you get your ideas?

You’re a writer? Really?

Oh, you’re successful! So when does the movie come out?

You’re a writer? Would I know your name?

Can you spell it? No, I’m not going to write it down. I’ll remember.

They tell me you’re a writer?

Are you any good?

What’s your day job?