Friday, June 22, 2007


One challenge in fiction is providing the reader with the background information he/she needs to understand the story, without making the reader feel like the story has come to a grinding halt while you convey that info. This challenge is particularly stringent in short stories, where there is such a high premium on compression.

I see stories with openings structured like this:

Darek knelt behind the boulder, laser drawn, waiting for the Boquacians to make the first move. Darek had left Earth three months earlier--without Judith, staying on Earth made no sense to him. So he had signed on with the Intergalactic Legion, the stereotypical Legionnaire escaping from love gone bad.

But nothing in the Legionnaire training had prepared him to be plucked down in the middle of the Boquacian Civil War. The Southern Boquacians had long complained that the North cut off their trade routes, had stifled their industry. Until finally, North Boquacia had fired--they said it was accidental, South Boquacia said it was intentional--on a Southern Boquacian transport ship, killing 350 people, including women and children. From that, war followed swiftly.

With an opening like this, the reader doesn't have a chance to be pulled into the protagonist's current situation, before the story is off giving background information. Often, as in this case, the background information covers multiple background situations—first we find out why Darek left Earth, then we get a history of the Boquacians Civil War. I’ve received submissions where the story will range through a half dozen background situations before returning to poor Darek, hiding behind the rock with laser drawn, somewhere around page 5.

Also notice what can happen to your verbs in an expositional passage. Suddenly, instead of the crisp past tense of a current scene--"knelt," "fired," "dodged"--we get "had left," "had signed," "had prepared," etc. Using a single "had left" to locate an event as earlier in time, or to transition the reader to that earlier time for a flashback, is fine. But long passages of "had left," "had signed," "had prepared" and so on slows the rhythm of your sentences, and saps their energy.

Another less-than-successful strategy for getting background to the reader is using dialog to convey the information. This leads to unconvincing dialog.

"Is that a Daedalus device?" Bert asked.

“Yes,” Darek answered. “As you know, once activated the Daedalus device will gradually increase the atmospheric heat within the target circumference, forcing any attackers to turn back or be melted. It therefore meets The Centari Accords standard for offering troops a non-lethal chance to withdraw." Darek turned the dial to 11. "Of course, if I set the circumference wide enough, they won't have time to get out."

Providing the reader with the information he/she needs is a challenge for all fiction--the way Sara and Kevin tease as a married couple only makes sense if we know that Sara used to baby-sit for Kevin when they were kids. That said, I didn’t choose science fiction examples above by accident. If the fiction takes place in the present day real world, readers already know a lot about that world. However, in speculative fiction, to understand a story the reader might need to know what new technologies do; how future or fantastic societies are structured socially and politically; how alien races mate; or any of a wide range of things the characters in that future situation will take for granted, but which a reader needs to learn about your fictional storyverse.

So, how do you convey the necessary information to the reader?

1) Ask what the reader needs to know
This is an important question to ask yourself during the revision process. (I'm all for just getting as much down as you can during the first draft.) There are a lot of facts about your characters, their society, the future world they inhabit, etc. that you may have worked out as a writer. However, what of that information does the reader need to know?

2) Kill your darlings
This is advice often given to writers in terms of those lines you love, which sound so good and poetic and quotable, but just don't work within the story. However, this advice also applies to background info. I recently finished revising a sf detective story. In the process of writing it, I had created a long history of the new technology that drove the story--how it first developed for medical use, how a series of Supreme Court decisions brought it into use in criminal investigations, how eventually the technology came to be used in committing crimes. I thought it was a great history, with excellent references to current medical research, legal thinking, supreme court precedent. However, as much as I loved my little future history of this technology, I had to admit it brought the story to a grinding halt, and that it wasn't at all necessary for the reader to understand the story. And so, the only thing to do was cut that passage. (I did, of course, save the passage--while it doesn't have the pithy strength of "Kill your darlings," the real advice is probably "Store your darlings someplace safe, in case you can use them later.")

3) Don't Underestimate Your Reader
Readers create their own background for the events of your story as they read. If you carefully choose your words, images, descriptions, dialog, etc., you can guide them to fill in the story background you want them to have, without ever spelling it out. A quick exchange of snarky dialog between a husband and wife, and maybe you don't have to go back and paint the whole history of their declining relationship. And when it comes to speculative fiction, remember readers are genre savvy. They've seen thousands of faster-than-light drives, they've heard the paradoxes of time travel explained many times, they know vampires hide from the sun. You only have to explain these things if you're subverting a genre expectation.

4) Make It So
You don't need to know how a television works to watch it. Likewise, your reader doesn't need to know how a future technology works to follow a story using that technology. You can state your characters have a time machine, or an incantation to raise the dead, or whatever speculative element you want to introduce into the story, and go from there. In the majority of cases, the reader simply needs to know an element's function, not how it works.

5) Don't write a passage when a sentence will do
Sometimes, no matter how savvy your reader, there will be a fact he/she just needs to know to understand your story, and you have to provide that fact. In most cases it's best to convey that necessary fact on the fly, without stopping the momentum of the current scene. Instead of writing a passage detailing the background info, see if you can boil it down into a sentence. For instance, if the only story-relevant aspect of your time machine is that it can only be used once, you could say: "The time machine degraded the user's DNA, meaning Carl got one chance--lucky he didn't want kids anyway." When you have to provide background, give only what the reader needs to understand the story and the characters.

6) When called for, use a flashback
I've seen writer's guidelines and editor's comments that state they don't like flashbacks. I understand that feeling--many of the submissions I see using flashback do lose a lot, and I do wish the writer had started the story at a different point, and told it chronologically. That said, I hate to suggest a limit on what good writing can do, just because an approach often shows up in less successful work. And, when you need to convey something about a character's past to the reader, going back and showing a scene from their past is often stronger than narrative exposition telling the reader about that past. There are a couple of considerations to making good use of flashbacks. One is, don't make the structure of the story any more complicated than it has to be. If one flashback will do it, don't use a whole storyline of flashbacks. If two storylines--one set in the character's past, and one in the character's present--allow you to tell the story you want, don't jump around between three or four different timelines. I think one of the frustrations editors feel with stories that use flashback is that instead of telling the story with dramatic scenes (whether past or current) that move the action forward, they can devolve into a hodgepodge of thoughts and events from all over the character's life. Another suggestion I'd make in terms of flashbacks is that in most cases you'll want your reader grounded in the current scene before you go to your flashback. One problem I often have with flashback stories is that they'll barely introduce the character and the current scene, before we're off into a flashback. Of course, the best advice with flashbacks is to read writers who do flashbacks really well, and learn from them. I've been reading Alice Munroe recently, and she does a great job weaving past and current scenes into her stories. For a novel that manages multiple timelines, I'd highly recommend Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier.

7) Study Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard said he always looks to take out the parts the reader is going to skip over anyway. That's great advice in general, and specifically when it comes to exposition. And if you want to study a writer who provides background information effectively and unobtrusively, I'd certainly recommend Elmore Leonard. His prose flies, and you never find yourself confused about what's going on.



Blogger Jess said...

Ooh, great post! I'm just going to take a minute to grin about your link to the TV Tropes Wiki.

. . .and I'm back.

I think all of this is really good advice. Thinking in terms of my own writing, I am pretty much allergic to exposition. So much so that sometimes I risk losing readers. I do like to give readers credit, though. I know I like it when I can tell a writer thinks I'm clever. On the other hand, I've been noticing a lot of exposition in things lately, and sometimes there's a big chunk of it which I would never, ever do, but somehow in context it works. I still don't get tempted to emulate, though.

One thing I'm really guilty of is non-chronological storytelling. It's kind of an extension of in media res. I think I might as well start at the absolute most critical moment and then explain how we got there, which usually involves a bunch of flashbacks. But not exposition as such, because that gives me hives. I like that form of storytelling, so I'd rather work on making myself a good flashbacky-type writer than try and stop doing it ;).

June 23, 2007 8:42 PM  

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