Tony’s Tips: Explain yourself!

When you write a story, at some point, you’ll probably have to step out of the narrative and tell your readers what a piece of equipment or technology is, or give them some backstory. In literal terms, this is exposition – “the portion of a story that introduces important background information to the audience.”

There are a couple of ways of doing this, some good and some to be avoided at all costs. Let’s start with the awful one.

Imagine your character at a red stop light, and have them explain to your passenger – a driver of twenty years – that you weren’t allowed to go until it went green.

 “As you know”

“So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt. Arnold looked around him, and I pointed out the red light.

“As you know Arnold, the red light is to allow better traffic flow. It gives a chance for other traffic streams to merge.”

“By making you stop, Chris?”

“Yes, and giving the other traffic a chance to go. Celia said she would think about it.”

Ugh. Euch. Why is the character explaining things to Arnold if he already knows them? Why is Arnold replying like that? No one talks like this.

For a really bad example of this, there’s a scene in the middle of “North by Northwest” by Alfred Hitchcock where a character explains what’s going on…to a room full of people who already know it.

Also, there’s another really clumsy exposition device in there – the name of the other character in the dialogue:

“Hello, Adam,” said Bob.

“Hello, Bob,” said Adam.

Just….no. Find another way to give your reader your character’s name. Please.

Infodump

 “So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt. Arnold looked around him at the red light. The phased light system allowed better traffic flow and gave other traffic streams a chance to merge with our own by making us stop and giving them a chance to go.

“She said she’d think about it.”

That’s not that bad actually, but I’ve dumped a whole bunch of information right into the middle of the plot…it’s still a little clumsy and awkward. And imagine if this went on for more than a paragraph. Or a page…or two…or if the writer gave you a complete history of the traffic light system from antiquity. It has its place, but use it cautiously.

For an example, see Hitchcock again…watch the last act of “Psycho”, and there’s not much in there but a character giving an infodump on what made Norman crazy.

 Basil Exposition

This is the most common form of exposition, one we’re all familiar with, I think. James Bond (or Austin Powers) walks into his office and a man behind a desk tells him what he has to do. Bond goes off and does it.

It’s simple, and it gets the exposition out of the way fast. It works in more than Bond films as well. The first part of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” after the boulder dash isn’t much more than US government guys telling Indy what they need.

In a literary sense, this is your prologue. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”) Prologues, though, have pretty much gone out of fashion in stories, and given way to exposition that goes on throughout, and throwing your characters and readers in at the deep end right at the start.

Another way of providing exposition is to provide a glossary. Although this is a little clumsy again, it does help. I read an Australian John Marsden book and didn’t know that a “ute” meant a pickup truck until I read the glossary, for instance.

 Bounce it off someone

This is a variation on the Basil Exposition, where Basil is new to the world of your character, and acts as a sounding board for the exposition…Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example.

 “So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt.

Arnold looked around him, puzzled. “Why did we stop?”

I pointed out the red light. “The red light is to allow better traffic flow. It gives a chance for other traffic streams to merge.”

“Oh. We stop on green on my planet.”

“Really? Anyway, Celia said she’d think about it.”

You can also make it more explicit in a first person story and have them break the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader:

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt at a red light. I should explain that the phased light system allowed better traffic flow and gave other traffic streams a chance to merge with our own by making us stop and giving them a chance to go.

Don’t do it at all

Let your readers figure it out – show them, don’t tell them. Tricky for new worlds and universes, but you might be able to get away with a variation like this:

 “So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt at a red light. When it turned green, I accelerated again.

“Celia said she’d think about it.”

 

As a last piece of advice, as much as possible, I would always put exposition when something else is going on:

 I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt. Arnold looked around him at the red light.

“Why did we stop? Celia is still behind us.”

“If we jump the light, we’ll hit the merging traffic for sure. We need the car in one piece. Better to wait for the green light and then punch it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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