How to Write Exposition Without Boring Your Audience to Tears
Exposition is information about the fictional world you're building that pertains to your story. It's basically the lore.
As a writer, one of my many flaws for a long time has been going off mid-story into rambling exposition that bores my long-suffering audience to tears.
I love world building probably more than writing the actual story, so I tend to get carried away and ramble. The true extremity of this painful flaw of mine came to my attention sometime last year when a man critiqued my book The Seaglass Stair (whose intended audience was women, which was probably why he hated it).
Don't assume I'm self-promoting here. In fact, everything I'm about to tell you is probably going to make you not want to read The Seaglass Stair.
My critic straight-up told me that all the exposition was boring and that he hated romances. One wasn't my fault (I mean, genre is purely a matter of taste), but the other was.
After this politely and gently given critique, I went back to my book and ripped out all the exposition like the most brutal of editors and rewrote the entire novella over again.
I believe I succeeded, since people who read the book again later had no complaints about the exposition. Some people even enjoyed the story.
You'd think this sort of "rambling" would be standard in most fantasy fiction, but I'm not even going to pretend I'm Tolkien or something. Thanks to my kind critic, I know I can't pull off long blocks of exposition that is both entertaining and informative (not yet. Maybe with practice). So I found an alternative.
I'm going to tell you what I did to make my book less boring and what you can do to avoid making my same mistakes.
All Info Should Directly Pertain to the Story
Growing up, I read a lot of classic fantasy novels, like The Hobbit and The Wizard of Earthsea, books with extensive world building and lots of exposition that tend to sort of go on for huge paragraphs. This is likely where I subconsciously developed my own style. After all, the best way to learn to write is to read the greats.
Unfortunately, I am not at a place where I can write like Ursula K.Le Guin or Tolkien. I need to follow a few rules until I am. The first rule?
Only share information as it pertains directly to the story.
If you've just written a scene introducing a new species of monster, it might be tempting to go off into a rant about a related species. Or maybe tell some anecdotes about the fictional race of people who hunted them for five hundred years for their tails to make a panacea.
Your audience doesn't give a crap. They just want the story. And if they can get attached to your story and your characters, then they might buy your fictional encyclopedia of fake monsters later.
This is how J. K. Rowling did it, anyway, and it works.
As the saying goes, less is more.
Dab, Don't Dump
You ever play a video game, then get all the way to the end of the main quest, and the worst possible thing of all things happens?
An information dump.
There is nothing so annoying as being handed information in this way when you are fully immersed in a story. It breaks immersion and it's never, ever done well.
There's nothing so annoying as having a character stand there droning at you as your own character asks a bunch of questions, the answers to which should have been sprinkled throughout the game. This happened at the end of Mass Effect 3 and was one of the many, many reasons the ending was outrageous (bad outrageous -- not, like, Jem outrageous).
The same thing goes for novels. Don't dump information on your audience all at once: dab tidbits about your world little by little, as if you were adding detail to a painting. And employ some damn creativity in it. Put the characters in situations where the world's rules must be explained, either through light-hearted dialogue (if you can pull that off) or through an entertaining event (maybe the villain attacks your main character, displaying magical abilities that are considered normal in your world).
A story should feed the audience information little by little and keep them asking questions so they keep turning pages for the answers.
Which brings me to another method I enjoy employing.
Questions First, Answers Last
An audience that has questions is an audience that is invested.
Quentin Tarantino used this method well with his movie Kill Bill, which was released in two volumes. Volume I presented the audience with a series of questions, which shrouded the main character and the supporting cast in mystery. Volume II answered those questions.
The first volume was more focused on action, while the second was more focused on story. For this reason, most people I know don't care for the second half of the film, but as a writer and avid reader, I've always felt both volumes were equally important to the story as a whole.
I did something similar with my fantasy novel Time's Arrow. The original draft was quite long, about 400 pages. It was eventually edited back to around 300. During the cutting phase, a lot of scenes were removed that left the audience with a lot of questions, as the largest flaw of the book was that it presented the audience with too many answers, too quickly.
In the original draft, I told the readers who Verne and Elin were almost immediately. In the edited version, the readers don't learn who Verne and Elin are for quite a while, provided I succeeded in getting them invested in the characters and actually caring enough about them to finish the story.
Yup, That's About It
These probably seem like no-duh, common sense tips, but rambling exposition is actually a common mistake among novice writers and writers like me who didn't have mentors or teachers who encouraged them.
If anything, my teachers abused and discouraged me, which I have mentioned in other articles here. So you can imagine why I might be one step behind other writers who had more opportunities to learn from people that didn't irrationally despise them.
In the spirit of generosity, I suppose I enjoy sharing what knowledge I picked up in my journey as a writer. Knowledge should be shared, and writers should not be in competition with each other.
There is room enough in the universe for all of our stories.
© 2018 Ash Gray