Exposition is tricky business. On one hand it is very easy to do poorly, and many a story has stagnated because of it. But on the other hand, you NEED it early so you can start actually playing with all the cool stuff you thought up.
It’s a nasty tightrope to walk and you WILL have to walk it. So here are a few tricks to help you find your balance.
So, what is exposition?
The short answer is: the things the reader needs to know before the story proper can occur. Things about the setting, the main characters, the magic system (if you have one) all fall into this category. But too much of it can kill a story deader than dead, so you have to be very, very judicious about what you exposit, and when.
See the problem with exposition is that it is inherently boring. It’s a history report, a science paper, and method acting homework all rolled into one. Worse the people listening to it ought to know all of this stuff already, so the reader’s suspension of disbelief is put to the test before they’ve had time to really invest in the characters. Which is not good, obviously.
So, what can be done?
This is the easiest way of handling exposition–simply writing the entire story from the first person perspective. Since you now have a narrator, you can have him take a moment and explain things from time to time. Since he’s a character in his own right (and presumably a major one at that) his unique spin on the world lends color and flavor to the otherwise boring exposition. Also since the medium of first person implies he’s writing after the fact, the suspension of disbelief is not broken by these meanderings.
Of course, some stories do not work in first-person (specifically anything with multiple viewpoints) so this isn’t always a solution. But for the sake of completeness it is here. More on this if I ever getting around to writing about viewpoints.
In Medias Res
The most popular way to handle early exposition is to postpone it. There isn’t time to explain the delicate balance of the world’s six elements while you’re fighting ninjas on top of a flying train! In Medias Res is the technical term for starting a story in the midst of something (it’s literally Latin for “into the middle of things”)–usually an action scene. And while fight scenes are a pain to set up and execute mechanically, thematically they are as simple as can be. There are good guys who are pursuing a goal, bad guys who are working counter to that goal, and explosions–everyone loves explosions.
After the fighting is over, you can use a sequel scene to actually fill in the reader as to what’s going on. Because, now they’re curious. You’ve shown them a lot of cool stuff: explosions, and flying trains, and ninjas, and mystical kung-fu, and they want to know how it all fits together. You’ve also shown your characters being cool (or trying to be cool), so they want to know more about them. And in that moment, immediately post fight scene, when they’re all recovering, you can start explaining stuff.
The Power of Ignorance
There is an awful lot of exposition that can be allowed simply because a particular character is unaware of information at the same time as the reader. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stupid (although “idiot hero” is a trope for a reason) just uninformed. It’s reasonably easy for the person who didn’t know the first fact, turn around and explain something to the former explainer in a later scene.
It could be a new guy at work, or a muggle discovering he’s a wizard or any number of reasons, but pays to have someone around to ask what in universe would be obvious questions that can then be answered for the readers.
The Absolute Minimum.
This is more a meta-idea than anything you can just shove into your story as-is. But the main reason we’re being so careful with exposition is that we’re trying to avoid the dreaded “info-dump” (where pages are filled up with tangentially useful information, but the story stops dead as it revels in its own details). And unless you’re being paid by the word with no maximum, you should avoid these.
So, think about your story. Not just your main plot but the backstory and all the intricate things you’ve put into place. What is the absolute minimum amount of information your readers need to have for your story to function?
Here’s an example: A story I’m working on takes place completely underground, with adventurers probing the labyrinthine caves for forgotten treasure. Now, I came up with an explanation as to why everyone’s underground that ties in with the history of the world and a justification for all the forgotten ruins dotting the world. However the only thing the readers need to know in those first couple chapters is 1. we’re all underground, and 2, it’s dark in here–really dark. Of course, how the heck I describe said darkness through the lens of someone who thinks that’s normal is another matter entirely.
In many ways the In Medias Res stuff is a variation on this idea. All you need to know for that first scene is who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and what, vaguely, is everyone trying to do. That’s enough to get people started, that’s enough to get them interested, and asking question. And most importantly, that’s enough to get them to keep reading.
Until next time, keep writing.