Commentary: Hooray for Exposition

“Exposition in a story can be tedious.”

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Exposition in a story can be tedious. On one hand, the reader needs to know important facts about the world that the story takes place in, especially important in a science-fiction story like Angelfools. But on the other hand, huge paragraphs of background description — info dumps — are often the most boring segments of a story. How does one circumvent this?

Different writers take different approaches. Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Red Mars among many other excellent sci-fi works, unashamedly drops info dumps into his novels, and to hell with readers’ criticism. Frank Herbert of Dune renown has a glossary of terms in the beginning of the book that the reader can reference if something is mentioned in text (the Butlerian Jihad, for example), that all the characters know about but the reader doesn’t. Many authors take the “show-don’t-tell” approach, letting the world come into focus as the characters interact with their environment.

Others supplement their descriptions with “found text,” a strategy that appeals to me for a few reasons. First, it provides the writer practice in writing different voices, always good exercise for a storyteller. Second, it can offer a contrasting perspective on the world, which creates ambiguity about the truth of the situation. Third, found texts can weave additional stories into the larger story that can supplement and elaborate on the theme. Take the landmark video game BioShock, helmed by Ken Levine: though the audio logs scattered throughout the game are completely unnecessary to move the main plot forward, they provide a lot of meat to the story, as well as horror and in-world philosophy. The story of Diane McClintock parallels the player’s, but this character is never actually seen or encountered. Instead, her experiences are a counterpoint to the player’s own.

I always knew that I wanted Angelfools to have found texts as a component. At this point in the writing process, however, I’m not ready to compose them. I want to focus on the core story before getting into side plots too much, and I need to see how my characters evolve as I write them. So for now, a key tool in providing the reader exposition is being left in the toolbox. However, I can’t leave the reader — or Alex, for that matter — completely in the dark, as I’ve done for three installments so far.

So I give you an info dump, in the form of a literal info dump offered to the main character. I’m also lampshading this device by having Alex get bored with it before he can digest the material. This also presents a new and important character trait: Alex’s impatience. He is the newly appointed leader of a complex and conflicted city-state, with an uneasy populace and testy neighbors. But though the task is important, he doesn’t give it the necessary attention. This will — and must — come back around.

In contrast, say hello to Valeria, who put the unappreciated info dump together. She knows more of what’s going on with Alex, and unlike Abel, she’s willing to share her knowledge. More on her next chapter.

Author: Ben Ginsburg

I'm a writer, a storyteller, and a dreamer. As a recent graduate of UC Davis with a shiny new B.A., I decided its finally time to start writing that novel. So join me as I write, rewrite, and talk about it.

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