If there’s anything in writing fiction that needs to be done well and balanced throughout the arc of the story, it is exposition. The inserting of background information for the sake of explaining characters, history, setting, culture, etc. is tricky for first time writers. As with many literary devices, this is especially difficult in fantasy.
In works of fiction set in the real world, in real places, during real eras, most of us can draw from our education and/or experiences to fill in the gaps. If I’m reading a book set in the United States during the 90s and certain people, places, music, and events are mentioned, it is very likely I’m able to draw from my time growing up in the 90s (I was born in ’84, so I’m well-aware of the decade). Yes, I was a freshman in high school by the end of the 90s but as the years go by, I know more about the global conflicts, major historical events, sporting events, etc. (lots of etcetera’s in this blog post, right?). I think you all get my point.
Fiction set during this era doesn’t need a lot of exposition. If you grew up or were starting a career or nearing retirement during the 90s, then you knew the culture. If you are reading a book (let’s say a John Grisham novel set in this time), I guarantee you don’t need much background explained on a national level. If we are talking about Grisham’s “The Runaway Jury” then we are looking at Mississippi in the 90s. Exposition here would focus on the setting the story takes place in and the region and those cultural nuances that would be prevalent. That’s very little to expound upon to the readers because one would be able to presume the majority of readers in the US would be familiar with the time period, social issues, etc.
Now, let’s jump to fantasy.
In fantasy, you are being introduced to an entirely new world with its own history, society/culture, foods, religions, conflicts, and more! One thing I’ve run into when speaking with people who are not the biggest fans of fantasy is that they struggle to immerse themselves in a world that they are so unfamiliar with, filled with ideas and things that are not explained in detail. I get this. So much in a fantasy world needs to be revealed in order to understand the roles and complexities of the world the plot takes place. However, we as fantasy writers (I being one of them) run into a problem if we try explaining every new thing that is unlike something in the real world. We slow down the action of the narrative if we do this.
The problem in doing so takes the reader out of the story and they are forced to read paragraphs of information that almost acts as a pause button. I’ve seen fantasy writers tackle this problem of exposition a few different ways. The first is a glossary or primer (I’m a fan of this method) that usually can be found at the back of the book where people, groups, events, etc. can be explained and defined. The second way (I’m not a fan of this) is adding footnotes at the bottom of the page. I have struggled reading books using this method because I always feel I have to drop my eyes to the bottom of the page when I come across that footnote letter or number within the prose. It’s very inconvenient. I’m curious to know how many readers prefer either method or could care less.
My preferred method in my own writing when dealing with exposition is looking for ways to explain background information either through the dialogue or inner thoughts of the characters. The problem with this method however is that the reader has to wait for it and be on the lookout. For example, in the “Shoals to the Hallowed” flash fiction series I post at the end of each month (I hope you all are enjoying them and my promise to create a primer is still in the works) I am giving you all very little information about the world due to lack of writing space. Flash fiction in its desired format limits the amount of words I can provide, so my goal (and this is a bit of an exercise for me) is to give you hints of things, reinforce them from time to time in each new story, and allow you to make important connections.
It is my feeling and belief that if I just explained the Wielders and the Shoals they are able to access and harness the power of, I would be denying you the joy of the small windows of story provided. Now, maybe that’s my own ignorance and you all are just like, “What the heck is going on here?! Just tell me!” If you are, there’s your call to action, hahaha!
Seriously, though, I understand the struggle to not have exposition in new, unknown fantasy worlds. I truly do and my hope is that I can give you the answers in ways that do not slow the story or act as a distraction. It’s my belief (and preference to be honest) to learn as I read and trust that the writer will explain things naturally without inundating me with info dumps every other page. I’d like to think I’m not alone in that.
Call to Action: Show of hands. Who’s completely lost in the “Shoals to the Hallowed” flash fiction stories and would like a future post or a working primer to be added to the website so some things can be explained?