[THIS RESPONSE IS C’s OPINION]
I personally prefer to pepper my explanations of things like political systems and other setting-related topics throughout the scenes which immediately relate to them.
For example, I would look at the political system I’ve created and try to connect aspects of it to different scenes where my characters will be talking about or involved in politics and/or government. If I have three such scenes planned, I might split up the explanation thus:
In the first scene, I introduced the topic of the government from the angle that I want the reader to take; I want them to be skeptical and distrustful of the government, like my character and her friend. This is not imperative, just the strategy I used for this example.
Then I took my character to the government and showed it as a physical manifestation (the buildings) and gave insight to court proceedings. Then I introduced her father and his way of thinking which opposes my character’s ideals. I used that as an opportunity to introduce some history as well. I might also take this opportunity to reinforce my explanation of what the government is and how it works from the first scene.
Then in the third scene I put my character through the machinations of the government. She was arrested and then possibly released because of her father’s influence, thus showing that the government is perhaps cruel but also corrupt as the system may be circumvented for a sufficiently powerful character (the father). This, if anything, will only strengthen my character’s (and my reader’s) negative opinion of the government.
There are definitely other ways to split it up, but I hope that gives you an idea.
A ton of exposition and explanation at the front-end of a story can make it dull and top-heavy. People generally want to see some action pretty early on. If you’re stuck explaining things, you might miss an opportunity to hook your audience.
I have always been of the opinion that it is better to attach your explanations of setting and world-building to a character’s development. It doesn’t have to be the viewpoint character, but if a character is experiencing the world and actively participating in it, I believe the reader will care more about understanding how that world works. Just telling the reader that the government is corrupt is not nearly as effective as showing the reader how corrupt the government is.
Check out these articles for more on show, don’t tell, beginnings of stories, and imparting important information to your reader, check out these resources:
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When you tell someone a story in person, you probably know the person you’re talking to. You will at least have a rough idea of how familiar they are with the people and places you’re referring to. And if you misjudge, they can always ask you questions.
In fiction, it’s much harder to know exactly how much information a reader needs or wants. And even if you did, it would be impossible to provide since you’ll have more than one reader, and each will have different requirements.
You can’t get the balance right, because there is no way to please everyone.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it wrong. You may not be able to please all the people all the time, but you can certainly piss them all off.
Anonymous asked fuckyourwritinghabits:
I have a huge chunk of backstory (ie boring but necessary stuff) in the first chapter, but the story I’m writing needs the audience to understand the situation before getting into the story. I can’t think of any way to solve this (other than maybe putting it in a prologue, but a lot of people tend to skip prologues). Can you please help me?? Thank you.
I’ve been editing and reediting, trying to splice backstory into appropriate scenes, so I feel your point here, anon.
- First: on your first draft, put it where you want to put it, and go from there. Don’t let it hold you back from moving forward because you need it down and in the open in order to get where you’re going
- Second: Hold back as much as you can. Backstory is a tool for you to make a scene more effective, a dramatic reveal, or a mystery solved. The more you hold back for latter scenes, the more powerful you can make those scenes. This is not something you’re going to perfect on the first draft, or the second, or the third, but it is something you should keep in mind. Keep tweaking as you go.
- Third: It is okay to leave your reader questioning. Some backstory is going to be on the cutting room floor, sadly. You need to decide (or get a second opinion!) on what’s important and what’s not. The writer is always going to know more about the character than the reader will, and that’s good, because it gives the reader room to imagine.
- Fourth: Consider alternative ways to dump backstory. Backstory told through a conversation can be very powerful, if done right. It can be told through letters, dreams, or media. Zoo City does a really cool thing with news story clippings inserted between chapters. Don’t hesitate to be creative with your backstory!
Most books rely on backstory to move the story forward, certain genres over others. You could check out The Reapers Are The Angels for zombie horror, God’s War for sci-fi, Beknighted for urban fantasy. Swamplandia deals with the backstory straight-off, hooking the reader in with where it will go from there.* Mostly, though? Go with what feels right, and write from there. You’ll have plenty of chances to make it perfect. Good luck, anon!
*(Swamplandia contains a sexual assault, which I wish books would warn more about, but don’t.)
Exposition is a trap that writers fall into all the time, even without intending to do so. I critiqued a story recently that started about where the story began, as it should—but then nosedived into a montage of flashbacks to explain things that didn’t need explaining yet. I suggested the writer rip it all out to sprinkle into the story later, but let’s start with this:
What is exposition?
Simply put—exposition is the act of explaining things. This can be done piecemeal, or in massive doses, or anything in between. Exposition can be used to explain a character’s history, the background of a particular setting, why the cat has a shaved stripe down its spine—anything.
All summed up, the dictionary says that exposition is “designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand.”
But let’s take a look at that word “explain”. I like to think that “explaining” is best used in a technical essay. For those familiar with the mantra of “showing versus telling”, exposition falls into the category of telling the story instead of showing.
Yes, a reader will have to know an event that occurred in a character’s history if it impacts the plot. Yes, the reader will have to know about the history of a fantasy setting if it impacts the plot (or sets up the plot, of course). However, there are ways to do it without directly telling the readers “Main character shaved a stripe down the cat’s back because the cat was his nemesis.”
(Why did I choose cat harassment as an example? Cats and I are like the same people.)
A different example:
Erin gave the spider a wide girth. She hated spiders ever since she’d been threatened by one in the mall when she was six. It had lured her into a quiet hallway and pulled out a knife on her.
This is telling and follows the same formula of a technical essay: bringing up a topic sentence and unloading the information.
Erin gave the spider a wide girth. Marcus erupted with laughs and turned to watch. “Afraid of spiders? How unlike you.”
She shot him a glare. “Have you ever seen a spider pull out a knife? I have, and I was only six.”
Dialogue is an awesome tool for showing history and spiders with knives, and because it involves character interaction, the writer also has a chance to propel the character arc or allude to different character traits, what with how Marcus says “How unlike you.”
Be careful, though. “Reader feeder” is another trap that a writer can fall into. Reader feeder is when characters unload information to each other that the characters themselves would already know, only for the sake of the reader. Here’s a fancy example:
“Hey, Erin, remember in our math class a half hour ago when you saw the spider?”
“Yeah. I freaked out and told you a spider pulled a knife on me.”
“When you were six, at the mall, right?”
“That’s right, Marcus.”
Avoid this. It’s poison. It’ll make the spider take out an AK-47 next time.
(W-W-Why did I choose spiders instead anyway? That’s a terrible visual to have.)
Now, exposition doesn’t have to be labeled as a bad thing, but like dialogue tags, a story can be written better with as few uses of it as possible. As I mentioned in the beginning, the story I critiqued unloaded a mantra of flashback scenes to explain why the character’s setting was the character’s setting and why her relationship with her mother was the way it was. In this case, the exposition cheats the reader out of wondering WHY. If you’re aiming for a fast-paced story, abstain from exposition wherever you can and leave the question of “Why is this the way it is?” for the reader.
Why is Erin so afraid of spiders?
Why is it unlike Erin to be afraid of spiders?
Why did the spider pull a knife on her?
(Why am I still using this as an example?)
A reader will read on to answer questions. If done correctly, exposition can tease a reader with the answer, or even ask more questions that’ll have to do with the plot. Bits and pieces of exposition can create riddles, in a sense, which was why I suggested the writer sprinkle these bits of history throughout the narrative.
Flashback scenes in general also serve as exposition to explain things—HOWEVER, flashback scenes can pull its weight to be a strong proponent of the plot if not used as a gimmick.
What’s a gimmick?
I like to refer to a plot gimmick as something that’s included as a theatrical act to enforce drama. Michael Bay uses a grotesque amount of explosions to enforce drama. Prologues often do this, and flashbacks can as well. Again, if you intend to have a fast-paced story, setting your reader back in time is the exact antithesis of what you want to do, generally. A fast-paced story must always be moving your reader closer and closer toward the climax of the story. Throwing your reader into a time rift instantly slows down the propulsion.
However, flashbacks don’t need to be exiled. I’ve written a story that essentially utilizes flashbacks to set a separate story arc concurrently with the present story arc, and by the end, the two collide for a greater climax. The two arcs intertwine and feed off each other throughout the story, so it’s not like reading two different stories in one book, but two different halves of one story. Both halves constantly move the reader toward the same big question, so both halves generate a quick pace. In a sense, it follows the same formula as having two separate narrators.
Exposition and flashbacks can harm your story, but they can also be made into a great and unusual feature to your story if you don’t treat them as gimmicks. And if you’re doing something atypical with exposition or flashbacks, make sure you have the right critique partners to objectively tell you whether it’s working or not working. Whatever you do, learn the rules, rehearse the rules from memory, then break all of the rules.