Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

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Hillsy
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Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by Hillsy » August 28th, 2012, 10:10 am

Right: Fantasy Novel. Problems. #hittingPCdoesntwork

I'm not so much at an impasse, but certainly itching with worry more than usual. I've come to the realisation that after staving it off for nigh on 100 pages, I'm going to have to start laying down some serious rules about how stuff works. I've fed stuff in slowly, so I haven't quite done a Steven Eriksson. I've focussed on character, action, plot and POV, so I think I've managed to keep the reader interested in what's going on and delaying understanding til later. However, I need to explain something soon, which means expositing. And yeah it always looks like a 4 letter word.

I've got, at the moment, 3 key points I need to get across:
1) Religion: Nothing major, but the general story will be instrumental to the plot. I need to get across the equivalent to Christianity's - God created the world, gave man free will, they sinned so God sent his son Jesus to earth to die and absolve them of that sin. (The real basic framework)
2) Monsters: Something like the mythology of werewolves, but much better known (say half know how it works, half don't)
3) Magic: Yeah I got a magic system. Yes it's got hard rules. Yes it can do a lot of stuff based on those rules. No I haven't explained how the hell it works yet.

Now here's my problem - I'm lacking a couple of things that would allow me to dole out facts as I normally would through conversation, or having a scene show these things while doing something else. Namely, I haven't got an ignorant "watson" style character, either to write from that POV, or to have a POV character explain things to. The religion is total, so I can't have a non-believer. All of the characters have fought the monsters, prior to the start of the book. And the magic system has a similar problem (though fewer people will know the nuances of it, how many would ask? I mean how often to people ask about the mechanics of firing a gun??).

So have any of you come across a similar problem? What clever or inobvious ways did you get around it? Did you just bite the bullet and exposit? Any good examples from literature you can suggest?

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wilderness
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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by wilderness » August 28th, 2012, 11:12 am

You can have some characters debate about how best to kill a monster. Maybe the subtext is that they're showing off how skilled they are. Maybe there's even more of a romantic subtext/ battle of the sexes in the debate. To add conflict, maybe they've come upon a sleeping monster and they've got a ticking clock on how best to use their time before it wakes up. The trick is to add enough layers to make the scene interesting even as the reader is swallowing the "granola". Also, every bit doesn't have to be included in the dialogue. You could add a little plain exposition as long as there is plenty going on in the scene, including conflict. Hope that helps!

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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by MattLarkin » August 28th, 2012, 1:35 pm

Hill, as you hint at, there's a reason why outsiders are popular. They give a character that needs an explanation (for example, Vin in the Mistborn series).

That said, you can have exposition, just bits at a time, from the POV of the characters. You don't have to explain much. Your readers will fill in the gaps. Putting stuff on one lump sum is rarely going to work.

Re, religion: even when religion is known, the stories are still taught by priests and by parents to their children. If this is pseudo-medieval, the average person has not read the Bible themselves. They've had it explained to them by the clergy when attending Mass. A similar scene could do for that.

In any case, a character hearing a version that doesn't jive with what they were taught would reflect on the differences.
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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by Beethovenfan » August 28th, 2012, 1:47 pm

Yeah, what Matt and Wilderness said.
Especially for the magic, you can "expose" as you go. Whenever a character pops off with a bit magic, you could explain how and why it works through some internal dialogue from the character or by simply laying it out there from the POV of the character without it being actual word or thought. No need for a "Watson." Just come out with it. I think it'll be OK with the reader. (whether it's OK with you is an entirely different matter! ;) ) Religion can be handled in a similar way. Like Christians give the sign of the cross, the characters can do some sort of sign, or say a word or two of blessing (or cursing) that give some insight that there is a religious belief system at work. They can casually talk about things in conversation. For example:
"Hey Frank, when's the last time you went to temple?"
"It's been a while Ed. Why you asking?"
"After today, I'm going to have a few things needing repenting."
"Well Ed, in war we do what we must."

I know, I know. This example is laughable, but it gets my point across (kind of) that you can insert bits of info anywhere.
Hope this is helpful. :?
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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by Sommer Leigh » August 28th, 2012, 2:19 pm

Pull yourself back from the brink! No exposition!

No one reads world building exposition. Ok, some people do, but most people skim it. Because it's dry. And if most people skim it, then you only really want to give people the essentials to understand a piece of the story - basically what info they'd get from skimming. They'll fill in the rest.

If the religion is like christianity, you don't need to give people the blow by blow. In fact you only maybe need to show two pieces: a) that it's very similar to christinaity and b) how it's not. Both can be done through character actions, habits, thoughts, beliefs, choices, and word choices. A character who deliberately puts on a cross necklace, or crosses themselves after a particularly traumatic event, or lights a candle for someone who has passed away. Readers will make the christianity connection. If the difference is important to the plot of the story or to a subplot, that difference is the only piece you need to somehow show without giving the reader a theology lesson.

The other two pieces, monsters and magic, are also easier** to incorporate in the story without exposition to guide the reader. For the most part, readers don't need to know how these two things work, they only need to understand that they do. (this took me a long time to beat into my head.) Readers come to a fantasy novel with the experience of reading other fantasy novels. They understand how magic and monsters work, no matter the specific rules that govern YOUR universe. The only specifics they need to know are the ones that play a part in the plot. If your monster can only be killed by silver bullets, having your character acquire a weapon that shoots silver bullets will cue the reader in without you having to specifically say "These werewolf like monsters can only be killed by silver bullets!" Or show them having to fight the monster without the special weapon, how they get out of it, and how they lament not having it handy.

As for magic, what most fantasy stories really show is not HOW the magic works, but WHAT does the magic do and what, if any, consequences there are for using it. The details about how it fits into the world come out through character reactions - a character who doesn't trust magic users, for example, will have a very different outlook to one who has wielded it their whole lives.

I personally have always found that books who come at the complicated backstories as if the reader already understands what's going on, then feeds us details along the way to help us fill in the blanks, are by far the most successful. Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series does this exceptionally well.



**: *headdesk* Easy. Like any of this is actually easy. If it were easy everyone would write epic fantasy novels. You're amazing for tackling such a genre.
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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by dios4vida » August 28th, 2012, 2:27 pm

Yeah, pretty much what they said.

Re: magic, I like to do it the way Sommer suggested with monsters. Someone's doing magic, it isn't working the way they want it to, and they think, "dang! Why can't I have this kind of magic that would pierce armor or melt my enemies' brains instead of this loser ability to make something shiny?" That shows the most interesting part of magic: the limitations. Brandon Sanderson says it isn't the abilities that are super interesting, it's the limitations.

I'm out of time right now, but I wanted to get that thought put in. And yeah, ditto everyone else's advice, cause it's all awesome. :)
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Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson

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Hillsy
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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by Hillsy » August 29th, 2012, 5:41 am

Sommer Leigh wrote:Pull yourself back from the brink! No exposition!
Hmmm....I don't think I can go down the no exposition route. See I've done what I thought at the time was a good thing, namely weaving plot and world together, so one can't exist without the other. But to understand the conflict in the plot, you have to have some rudimentary knowledge of the world's mechanics. Yes, you do get a lot of slack in epic fantasy, but I feel kind of proud I've managed to keep everything almost 100% POV, namely people don't even think things that aren't relelavent at that moment.
Sommer Leigh wrote:If the religion is like christianity, you don't need to give people the blow by blow. [......] If the difference is important to the plot of the story or to a subplot, that difference is the only piece you need to somehow show without giving the reader a theology lesson.
The religion is completely fabricated, I was describing the level of depth I need to go into (i.e. not much, just the bones).....but Matt gave me an idea I can use in the very next chapter.....FRIEZES!!!
Beethovenfan wrote:Especially for the magic, you can "expose" as you go. Whenever a character pops off with a bit magic, you could explain how and why it works through some internal dialogue from the character or by simply laying it out there from the POV of the character without it being actual word or thought. No need for a "Watson." Just come out with it. I think it'll be OK with the reader.
I could do this, but the thing is I want the reader to 'get' the basics so they are having ideas as to how 'they' would deal with problems using magic. For me, that's always helped me become immersed in a novel. Unfortunately, it's like explaining a physics equation - very dry as Sommer said. And that's fine with an ignorant character - not so with people who know how everything works (I'm also trying to obey Sanderson's 1st Law here). Doesn't help that I've got myself into a dumbass headspace where I'm adhering to absolute rules, which are impossible to follow 100%.

The "Monsters" are a by-product of the magic so the more I think of it the more I reckon I can deal with that if I can get the magic system "out there". Eeesh it's like explaining gravity.....

GAHH!! Why do I have to try and write WELL!!!

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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by Gypson » August 29th, 2012, 9:17 am

I think using the insider can work beautifully when it comes to sharing your world. Personally, I have grown a bit tired of reading outsider characters seeing the world for the first time.

An insider character gives a great example of what is strange and what is ordinary in the setting. This is especially great if the reader's "ordinary" becomes "strange" in the narrative, and vice versa. Societal norms, laws, magic, creatures--it all applies here.

Furthermore, the character's attitude about these things can convey a lot. When describing an element of your world, by all means provide information for the reader, but do so in diction that reflects the character's attitude. You can have a lot of fun with this. If you have multiple viewpoint characters, consider contrasting the diction they use to describe the same thing.

For things like magic, you can provide information by providing examples of various outcomes: what happens when all magic goes according to plan, what happens if the magic user messes up, what happens if a user attempts magic beyond their skill, etc. You could contrast two magic users of different ranks to give a more clear cut example.

Personally, I have a lot of fun with mythology/faith/religion in stories, because I love working them into all aspects of cultural attitudes. And I think this might be the key: cohere these elements of your worldbuildingto all other elements and to your characters, so that instead of needing to give exposition on this, that, or the other, you are providing information about many things in tandem. Example: regarding religion, think about the influence these beliefs will have on rites, cultural attitudes towards age/death/etc., find the "boundaries" of your world (the doorways, the tabboos, the rites of passage), think about how these beliefs influence stories that people tell, the laws they uphold.....you can have fun with this! If religion and magic are both prevalent in the world, even if in opposition to each other, they should influence each other. Show the areas of overlap, show how magic's presence changed/influenced religious beliefs and attitudes through the ages, show how relgion, in turn, influences the use of magic.

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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by Hillsy » August 29th, 2012, 10:54 am

Gypson wrote:And I think this might be the key: cohere these elements of your worldbuildingto all other elements and to your characters, so that instead of needing to give exposition on this, that, or the other, you are providing information about many things in tandem.
Ok - I don't think I'm being 100% clear here. While what you suggest is excellent - for me that's the easy part. Characterising, framing and showing information isn't that difficult once I get into head space - for me it's the "Why are they thinking about this" bit.....Ok..let me invent an example.

Another planet, different race. When they die their soul becomes corporeal and seeps out of their..err..eyes. They cry out their soul, basically. So the ritual is that the soul is gathered, taken to a special mountain and flung into a massive crack that goes down into the planets core. Inside resides a planetary life force, made up of all the souls (a Gaia). By returning this one, when a new child is born (soulless) it's baptised in various wells (where the Gaia bubbles up) and "absorbs" a new reset soul....pretty simple, right?

But my problem is - If they never partake in this ritual, and it's completely common knowledge, would a character believably think about, or talk about, this cycle of life? Without falling into maid and butler dialogue, or convenient internal navel gazing? Surely everyone would just use colloquialism ("Jon's Nan joined the Gaia the year before") and wouldn't internally explain it ("It happened to Jon's Nan the year before. He watched with his family as the priest carried the urn and tipped it into the crack. The Gaia waited below; a vast lake of soul energy interlinked beneath the planet's crust like the roots of some giant fungus. Someday her life energy would be reborn, spat up through one of of the vents too pool, glowing, in some tiny natural crucible of life. Of course, the last vestiages of nanna would be scrubbed away, but her energy would live on in the soul of whichever hollow-born child absorbed it during baptism.")

I dunno, but at the moment I feel like the second one is just convenient navel gazing. Hell at the moment I'm struggling to find a reason anyone would even bring the subject up unless someone died right in front of them!

.......I think too much

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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by wilderness » August 29th, 2012, 11:09 am

If there is no funeral in your novel, then this might be a question of killing your darlings. You've come up with this beautiful legend -- and it has no place in your story. You're looking for a way to force it. Best answer: don't. If it becomes relevant, it will be easy to insert.

However, you could reference various beliefs without fully explaining them. For example, if a character's life is in peril, they may have a stray thought about their funeral or about what will become of their soul. That's probably the best way to include religion. No big explanation, just small stray thoughts or rituals.

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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by LizV » August 29th, 2012, 3:27 pm

Hillsy, it sounds to me like maybe you're taking POV-immersion a little too far. What I mean is, it's okay to slip in a little more detail than a person might actually think, for the purpose of telling the story.

Okay, I can't think of any way to explain this except by example, so I'm going to pull something from my ex-writers group. Somebody had a character throw away her knife in order to lighten her load. This struck me as a stupid thing for the character to do, even though traveling weight had been well-established as a very big deal for various reasons, because the character was heading into a wilderness survival situation and was going to need that knife. Turns out the knife was a stone knife, and the character could just chip a new one. But the writer absolutely refused to use the phrase "stone knife" in the first instance, because all knives in that world were made of stone, so the character would never think stone knife, just knife.

Is that the kind of problem you're having (albeit on a larger scale, from the sounds of it)?

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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by Hillsy » August 29th, 2012, 4:35 pm

LizV wrote:Is that the kind of problem you're having (albeit on a larger scale, from the sounds of it)?
Kind of, yeah. Course I'd just leave it but the issue, following your example, would be if somehow the fact that all knives are stone is integral to the plot and characters (somehow - though, man, that'd be tough to weave together), therefore I must tell everyone all knives are stone, but knife is synonymous with stone (though you'd just describe the blade as having the jagged edge of fresh scree, or something - my issue is a bit more complicated than that, but yeah it's essential just scale)

I don't think it helps that I've been reading Brent Weekes and he just veers off on pages of backstory in the middle of a chase scene and I'm like "there is no WAY I'm doing that!". That and the fact I've a terrible habit of trying to please everyone, which only psychologically damaged people do....

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Re: Dear Reader - Meet my friend. Exposition...

Post by LizV » August 30th, 2012, 11:34 am

Hillsy wrote:That and the fact I've a terrible habit of trying to please everyone, which only psychologically damaged people do....
Yeah, that way lies madness, but you already know that.

The only way I know to deal with the problem is to go ahead and say "stone knife" once in a while. For something as big as it sounds like you're dealing with, you may have to work it in in bits and pieces, spread out over multiple scenes. The bits may be tangential to what the character's concentrating on at the time, but people do think tangential things, all the time. For example, telling the stone knife story has got me thinking about other things that same writer did, and the living room of the person who was hosting that meeting, and the restaurant we went out to eat at three meetings later.... If the American version of Irish pub food was vital to the plot of the stone-knife story, I've now got a way to work it in there.

That, and sometimes you just have to exposit. Exposition is not always a bad thing; sometimes the best path between two points really is just a straight line. (There's a Patricia Wrede post on this very subject, which of course I can't find now.) The trick is to make it interesting, via characterization & etc., and to keep it to a minimum. A sentence or two is probably fine; a paragraph or two is probably pushing your luck; a page or two may leave your reader hoping the main character gets caught and eaten at the end of that chase scene, and serves them right. ;)

HTH. If I think of anything cleverer, I'll let you know.

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