Readers need to know things to understand your story. They need to know a whole bunch of things. But writing is a linear art form, meaning you can’t just download all the necessary info at once. So what are authors to do? That’s what we’re talking about today: how to get your audience the information they need. That means discussing the much maligned exposition, of course, but there’s a lot more to it! We’ll talk about what order to put information in, how to signal it’s important, and when it’s better to leave information out. Also, why fights with a sexy rival are a golden opportunity for exposition.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: …And, you know, I think the next time I’m writing a book and I want to tell the audience something, my characters will just start a podcast and then they can just discuss how magic in their setting works or what all of their backstories are. Bam, done. I don’t have to do any exposition at all. I’ve given all the information I want to my audience. It’s the perfect solution, right?
Oren: Yeah. I’m sold. All right. I think we’re done with the episode. That’s how you do it.
Chris: Wait, wait, wait. Wes, what is your backstory?
Wes: Oh yeah. I forgot. I need to dump my backstory in right here before we get much farther. It’s very important because I’ve been secretly writing a podcast about this podcast to explain why we’re talking about information on this podcast.
Oren: Oh, my goodness.
Chris: Oh no. So recursive.
Oren: We have reached podcast-ception.[Laughter]
Wes: Oh… podcast-ception! Oh no!
Chris: So this time, we’re revisiting the topic of exposition, which we’ve discussed before, but with a focus on how to deliver information in your story, particularly since in speculative fiction (scifi and fantasy), there is usually a lot more that you have to deliver. Any story needs some, but with explaining how the world works and how magic works – if you’ve got magic or technology or all of those things – it’s extra tricky. It’s a really important skill to give the audience the right information. I thought I’d open with: what information does the audience need? I think that’s a really nice thing to cover because choosing what you need to give to your audience and when is probably just as important as how you deliver it, even though I do think writers tend to get caught up with, like, “How do I make this sound not awkward?” That’s a good thing to know, but I think just what to tell and what not to tell is even more essential. So I thought maybe we could just all talk about what we think the audience should know and what you should keep in mind.
Wes: I always thought that… people say that it’s never more than is necessary in that moment, but that’s abstract.
Chris: What is necessary is abstract. Right?
Chris: Which is like, “Yeah, learn all of storytelling now and then you’ll know what is necessary.” [Laughter] I do try to list things for people so that they have ideas and they can start to get a sense of necessity, but that is always a thing where as you know more about it, it will get easier.
Wes: A good example here, I think, is that I’ve done some nature walks with my nephews, and I don’t stand at the trailhead and describe what they’re going to see in the forest to them. I’m not just like, “Hey, so we’re going to go into this forest and inside this forest, you’re going to find this and this and this, and this is why that’s there. And this is why that’s there. And there are these things there.” Instead, I say, “Okay, this is the entrance to the forest.” Brief introduction. And then we start walking, and as things come up, we talk about them. And I think that works here, because stories are journeys, and you got to have something happening as a way to give some information about why that thing is happening.
Chris: Yeah. For a lot of things that work, there are a few things where you do have to set them up ahead. I think they’re normally things that when they appear, they’re supposed to have some kind of emotional impact. You need to do some context ahead. For instance, you have your protagonist walking around and then suddenly an old friend shows up and they’re angsting over this old friend. And it’s like, “Why are you angsting over this old friend?” And if you don’t know why they’re angsting over seeing their old friend again, there’s no way you can feel that with them. Right? So, we would have to go back and set up how they parted ways with their friend and what was involved in that situation and deliver that information so that next time when they see their old friend, suddenly it means something.
So, there are some exceptions to those rules. Things like solutions to problems, right? It’s Chekhov’s gun. If you want your protagonist to use a gun, we can’t just have a gun pop out of thin air when they want to use it, or that’s going to seem contrived. And so we need to know ahead of time what means they could use to solve problems. Then, when they reach for the gun, we already knew that gun was there. So that’s more information that’s like foreshadowing that needs to be delivered. Oren, do you have any comments on that?
Oren: It’s hard. This is one of those things, because I am a content editor and not a copy editor, that I don’t tend to intellectualize as much. I can tell when something’s wrong. In that one story Beyond Lies the Wub, there was a weird description where the captain puts his gun away, but he was never described getting it out. So I had to go back and edit in that he had his gun out and then that he put it away. So I know that that bothered me because looking back on it, I can see, “Well, obviously I needed to know he had his gun out before I knew he put it away,” but I’m not sure I would have been able to intellectualize that before I read it.
You know, I’m not certainly not the world’s greatest scene setter, but to the extent that I know how to deliver information into a story, it’s largely what I’ve just kind of picked up from reading other stories that did it reasonably well and trying to copy the ones where I wasn’t confused. And then also from trying to internalize what editors have told me. I’d say my most useful guideline when trying to figure out what your audience needs to know is to prioritize things that are part of the plot. This can have some downsides. It can backfire a little bit where, like, if you describe a person that the protagonist sees with a little too much detail because you know that they’re important later, that can seem a little silly. It’s like, “Well, why is the protagonist staring at that one person?”
In general, it’s helpful to start with, like… you’re going to spend the most time describing the magic love interest who will be there for the entire story, as opposed to the random college bros who are there at this laser tag night. They’re not going to be there anymore, so we don’t need to know as much about them.
Chris: That’s also important for setting expectations, right? If you do that wrong and you make those college bros seem more important than they’re supposed to be, the reader can be like, “What happened to the college bros?” And it’s like, “No, they were never meant to be important.
Oren: No! College bros, come back![Laughter]
Wes: Okay. So you’re reading a story and there’s a scene and there’s college bros. We’re just going to go with this, I guess.
Wes: Author wants to describe the fact that, hey, there are some college bros there. But I feel like there’s obviously a balance here. If I use too many words to describe the college bros, they’re going to seem very important. But if I use too few, maybe it’s just a tantalizing bit that adds some kind of mystery. Maybe these college bros who I just offhandedly mentioned are going to be really important later. And you’ll remember that only when you go back and read my book a second time.
Chris: If they’re supposed to be a tantalizing mystery, there will also be quite a few words spent on them. When we’re talking about characters in particular, especially a group of characters like college bros, plural, how much we distinguish them from each other is also a very important signal. So if I were to describe each college bro separately, in a way that meant that you were supposed to think of them each as unique individuals, maybe I would even give them a name or some other epithet.
Wes: Bro the First.[Laughter]
Chris: Bro the First. That’s definitely a signal that they might be important. Whereas if I just call them generically college bros, and then I describe them as a group and don’t describe any of those individuals, that generally signals that they’re less important. I could still bring them back later and be like, “Huh? Aren’t those the college bros from yesterday?” But that would be like a reveal that they were more important than you thought.
Oren: That’s when you figure out that you’re trapped in a weird hell dimension, where all the faceless college bros are slowly closing in.[Laughter]
Oren: Why are they here? No one knows. Do they have names? They’re just the bros.
Chris: I have some posts about information delivery that try to list a bunch of things that you would need. In particular, planning your opening passages. I talk about what I think is most important in the very opening, including what I think you should signal in your very first paragraph. So we can link that in the show notes. I have some information on there. I would just, again, add in some basic things like what is happening right now. If your protagonist knows it, the audience should too. That’s very basic, but usually the reader does need to understand just what is happening in the scene.
There’s some basic information that I talk about in a recent post on making over your narration to maximize tension. What is the problem they’re facing? What bad things could happen? Why is it urgent? That’s all information that supports the story and is necessary for the plot to work. Basic motivation is also important. What is the protagonist doing and why are they doing it? If you don’t know why the point of view character is doing what they’re doing, that’s usually a problem. When we get into fight scenes… this is relevant right now, because we’re currently reading Legendborn, which has a lot of strong aspects, but it also has all these fights where magic is important and the magic rules are just way up in the air. And as a result, you can never tell how everything works during a fight scene and therefore you can’t extrapolate what the protagonist’s chances are of success or failure or what she could do that would work in this fight scene or wouldn’t work in this fight scene. And as a result, they’re much less riveting and they’re much less satisfying.
When you have a protagonist facing problems in a fight scene, your readers need a way of understanding the rules that the characters are following and what possible actions would result in success and what things could happen that would result in failure. Then you can actually follow what their chances are of success or failure when things are happening. All of that information is important information to have.
Oren: Yeah. And I would actually expand that a little bit to say that if it’s important to the conflict, it’s important information. We’re talking about fight scenes here, and this can happen a lot with fight scenes, especially once you add magic into the mix. It’s like, “I don’t know, how strong is this bone golem? Is hitting it with a sword actually accomplishing anything?” These are things that you need to know in order for the fight to make sense, but this can be true of arguments. It can be true of chases. It can be true of investigations. Conflict is what makes your story go, and so that is where people really need to know stuff.
So if you have a social conflict-heavy story, and there are small things that in perhaps a more action-oriented story might not be that important, like what the character is wearing and the way that they have their hat adjusted and stuff like that, then you need to explain how that works. That’s because if there was a big blowout at the cotillion ball and now Aunt Mary and Sister Sarah aren’t talking to each other, and that’s really important, and you don’t tell me it’s because of the way the fruit was arranged, I’m going to be confused and upset. So you have to tell me about the fruit, okay? You have to tell me about the fruit. That’s all I want to know.
Chris: There’s a whole category of information that I would say is maybe not plot-essential, but it’s still important to work in there because it adds emotional impact. This is exactly the example I was giving of the old friend showing up. We need to know how meaningful that is for the protagonist. Lots of things are like that. If they have to make a sacrifice, readers have to know what that means to the character, such and such. There’s a lot of information to deliver. And then of course, if you have a fictional world, there’s the question of, “What is that? What is an eedee? Is it a person, place, or thing?” Because sometimes writers will just throw made-up words out there and you don’t even know whether it’s a person or a vegetable.
Wes: And if you’re wanting us to rely on context clues, you need to make them more than clues. They need to be road signs in a lot of these cases. It’s so often just like, “Oh, just look at how it was used in the sentence!” And I’m like, “I did. I don’t know what that is.”
Chris: But as far as exposition dumping, which is when you have information that you’re just giving the audience that the audience doesn’t need, I have to wonder if that happens not because writers think that the information is necessary for readers to know, but instead just because the writers are not thinking at all about what readers to know. Maybe they’re in a discovery process and writing this exposition is how they worldbuild. Or something else. Maybe they have some other process that results in exposition dumps, and they don’t know what’s relevant to the story yet because they’re writing as they go, and then it’s never clipped out. Things like that. I’m not sure if it actually happens because they think that the information is necessary. Which is why, again, thinking about what your audience needs to know and doesn’t need to know is a really good first step.
Oren: This often happens. Sometimes you have stories where the conflict is very complicated and the author thinks that the solution there is to have a bunch of exposition before the conflict starts or before it arrives. They’re like, “Well, you need to know all these things. My conflict is about the space politics between the Antares Republic and the Crab Nebula Monarchy. And so you need to understand the Battle of the Quintessence Stars and the assassination of Duke Hamilhar, and you need to know all of these things. And so I’m going to tell you all of them and then you’ll get what happens when the conflict starts.” And I understand that thought. I understand that desire. But what usually that means is that you need to start with a smaller conflict and work your way up to the bigger one if the big one really is that complicated.
Chris: That’s a time when we need to use Wes’s “going on a walk” philosophy and seeing the birds.
Chris: Especially with introducing characters. You should almost never introduce a character. That’s not actually in the scene.
Oren: Right. Audiences will be way more interested in your information if it’s clear how that information is relevant. Then they will actually want to know more. For example, if you start off just describing the features of these alien colonies, I wonder why I need to know that. This is boring. But if you start off with these colonies being attacked, in that context, now you’re explaining their features. It’s like, “Oh, well, this is interesting. Tell me more about these colonies.” That’s generally the way to make this exposition more engaging and thus make it easier to communicate to your reader.
Wes: It seems like a good tactic that people do. I mean, I’m going to say “good” here, but maybe “common” would be a better word. The point of view matters a lot in how you deliver information. And so if you’re wanting to go into more of a fantasy or sci-fi-ish kind of realm, then if you just portal the main character, that’s like, “Oh, okay. Now I can give the information that’s necessary to this character at that moment, because this character has no idea what’s going on.”
Chris: Yeah, let’s go into vehicles for delivering information and the different ways that we can do it. Cause that’s really relevant to, in particular, dialogue. In general, I actually recommend just using regular exposition in the narration over using dialogue. Dialogue can work if you have that ignorant character. They are super useful for both if you’re in their point of view or if you’re just around to talk to, because regardless, they have a reason to think about things, and they have a reason to ask other characters about things. But unless you have a character like that, I think that dialogue is just a bad vehicle for delivering information because it very quickly starts to sound unnatural. It’s really hard to try to make it sound natural doing that.
It happens a lot in film, and a lot of writers watch a lot of films or TV shows, which can give them the wrong idea about whether or not you should do this. The reason that it’s done in films is because there’s just no narration, or, well… technically there’s voiceover, but voiceover has a very bad reputation because it’s kind of like a violation of the medium. Generally, when you have visuals, people expect to just watch the story unfolding, and the voiceover is just adding narration on top of that.
Wes: You can always watch a long stream of text float into the cosmos. That works too.[Laughter]
Chris [muttering]: Star Wars…
Oren: Even a heavy-handed voiceover does not have even close to the same level of exposition capacity as a narrator. Go watch the film adaptation of Interview With the Vampire. That movie has way more voiceover than most movies do, and it’s still not nearly enough to cover even a fraction of what the book narrates to you.
Chris: Nobody comes into a movie expecting the entire movie to be just voiceover, hearing the narration and watching it at the same time. Usually the voiceover is used for transitions and between scenes and passing time and things like that. But the point is that basically, in a visual medium, it’s either dialogue or it’s flashbacks, and flashbacks are so heavy-handed that dialogue is actually the more subtle choice. Whereas in a narrated work, that’s not true. But if people know how your exposition is actually relevant to the story, it’s not usually boring. And people have association with exposition being boring, but if people know how it matters, it makes it a lot less boring than it would be otherwise.
Oren: Right. And the reason people think exposition is boring is because the only ones that they remember are the ones that were boring. If the exposition is not boring, you don’t think of it as exposition. It’s just part of the story. It’s just finding out what’s happening.
Chris: Yeah. It’s one of those things you only notice when it’s broken.
Oren: I will say, on the subject of exposition, that nothing is ever as obvious as it seems to you. Be aware that you have thought about this story so much and drafted it and outlined it and thought of it and probably revised it. It seems obvious to you because you know what it is, but everyone else reading it doesn’t know that. They don’t know what the full picture is, and it will be a lot less obvious to them. So I always err on the side of explaining things more often. And, yeah, you can get too much. Your beta readers will help you point that out. But it’s better for that to happen then for your beta readers to not know what’s going on, because then the rest of their feedback is basically useless.
Wes: That’s a good point, because really when you’re introducing somebody to this world that you’ve created in this story, you’re the expert. You’re actually having to teach readers about your world as they go. Pick a thing that you yourself are really knowledgeable on in real life, and then go find someone who knows nothing about that and try to tell them about it. You’re not just going to yell at them the whole time. Like, “I know everything about content marketing, gaaah!” They’re just going to be like, “What is Google?”
Chris: If you’ve ever trained a new employee before, it’s always amazing how much they need to know that you just took for granted and didn’t realize. It’s always at least five times as long to train them as you think because of all the stuff that you just didn’t think about that you do automatically.
Wes: I think there’s a stat that when you’re just receiving information, you’re going to forget at least 80% of it, something like that. And so, if you’re truly trying to deliver information, and you want it to be retained, then it needs to be used and checked. And so I think stories that deliver information well will prime you for the information and then check your knowledge of it a couple times. Then you know that it’s important because it keeps showing up and you get a chance to keep using it in your brain. You guys have talked about this a billion times with naming characters that aren’t important. Well, I don’t care about Bill. He didn’t need to be named. He just could have been bro. And everybody would have been happy.
Oren: Ooh, the bros are back.
Wes: The bros are always back. They’re never gone.[Laugher]
Chris: Yeah, we can definitely talk about, again, the complexity and whether stories are overburdened. You have excess stuff that’s going to make everything harder to remember. But I would also say that if people are having trouble remembering what you’ve put in your story, how you’ve communicated it can sometimes make a really big difference. When you have a beta reader who’s like, “But this!” And you’re like, “Well, I said the exact opposite right here. It’s in the text.” And they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t see that.” For a lot of writers, it would be easy to say, “Well, okay, that beta reader was just wrong.” But when that usually happens, it’s because you communicated it in an unclear way, especially if more than one person has this problem. One person can always be an anomaly. The way that you communicated it must have signaled that it wasn’t important. For instance, how it’s put in the sentence, in fact, is important. If it is put in there like it’s an aside or just like it’s in passing, there’s a big difference between that and if you have it as the point of the sentence. If you signal that something is important, the reader is more likely to remember it than if you just make it sound not important. So that’s something to keep in mind.
Going back to vehicles, besides dialogue and exposition, another thing that somebody has brought up is news. This is something that comes up in films, where the characters just happen to have the TV on and there’s a newscaster saying what the villain just did. That’s a pretty funny one. I think it does work in film better than it works in a narrated work, partly because I think it’s easier in film to just have a news program running in the background and then bring it into focus, whereas I feel like if it was in a narrated work, readers would feel like there was more intent behind it. It would feel more contrived that the author made a point specifically of sticking it in there.
Oren: Yeah. People also have more tolerance for coincidences in film. Sure, it’s a little unlikely that this person would happen to have the news on to the exact channel that is talking about the thing they need to know, but in film, whatever. It goes by pretty fast, so, eh. Whereas in prose, your reader has more time to think about it and be like, “Ah, I don’t know about that.” Getting back to the fact that prose is just harder to experience, it requires more work on the reader’s part. It’s harder for them to get swept away.
Wes: And that gets at what Chris is talking about with setting context or what we talked about with priming. Maybe before that newscast scene shows up in the book, you have to establish that this is a place that always has the TV on. And maybe they’ve had to go in there before and yell at the bartender to turn it down or change the channel or something like that. But today, no, they don’t change the channel and they turn the volume up.
Oren: I mean, one of the nice things about the digital age is that if you’re writing a story in the post-internet world, you can have it set up so that your protagonist has Google alerts set or what have you to send push notifications if something happens with the bad guy. So you could set that up as a reason. They’re having a conversation and it’s like, “Oop, I just got a notification that the bad guy robbed a bank. I’d better get on that.”
Wes: So Google is clearly the ultimate omniscient narrator of our lives.
Oren: Yeah. There you go.
Chris: Another thing that I’ve seen – in several stories, actually – is making one of the characters a tour guide.
Wes: Aw. I love that.
Chris: Very specific. But then it’s like, “Okay, they’re giving a tour now.” So now they’re going to deliver the exposition about this place and its weird history. I think the problem with that is if too many stories do it, it’s going to get hokier and hokier, like describing your character by having them look in the mirror. It feels forced the more stories do it, but it’s kind of cute as long as it’s not too frequent.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, you might be able to get away with it once. I wouldn’t try more than that
Chris: Then, of course, the question is: what justifies a flashback?
Oren: Nothing. Over. Done. Boom.[Laugher]
Oren: I dunno, I find flashbacks in written work to be fairly tedious. It almost never feels like we actually need a full flashback in a written work. It just seems like overkill. I can enjoy the story in most cases more if it’s a little mysterious and it has some mystique to it. If it’s like, “Oh yeah, I remember him. I remember that night. I remember the bullets and my friend dying.” I’d rather read that than flash back to watching this guy shoot a friend. I feel like that’s better.
Chris: Once you know how important stuff has to be before it justifies a scene in your story, as long as it serves that same function, it can be back in time. Usually if it’s advancing the plot, it’s not normally back in time. But if you were able to advance the plot by showing a scene from the past, instead of showing a scene that’s the next day, then you can. I think what happens most of the time is that the information or what the flashback serves just isn’t important enough to justify a flashback.
Oren: Yeah. I mean, this is a thing where you just have to be disciplined. A flashback might sound cool to you because you’re imagining your favorite flashback from TV, but in most cases it will actually be more effective to do something else. I’ve even had this in my roleplaying game, which is a little different than a prose novel. When the campaign that I’m running right now got to the point where the players were actually interested and invested enough to want to know what happened in the past, I actually think it was more effective to have NPCs who were there tell them what happened with their own colorization to what happened in their own slant on it than to have a flashback.
And I have had a couple of flashbacks, so it’s not like I never used them, but I’m very sparing with them. And I just find that that’s more effective.
Wes: What about delivering information through dreams?
Chris: If you can make it clear. I mean, the problem with dreams is that anything can be fake.[Laughter]
Chris: That probably follows the same rules as a flashback, because if you’re having a whole dream sequence that it’s its own scene, does that justify a full scene? And it has actually the same problem as a flashback would, where if it’s taken out of time, is it really affecting the story in the way that every scene should? Because it’s not real. That said, some dreams, especially if you add a magical component where magical things are happening in the dream, could actually affect the character once they wake up, then that might work. But again, if you’re going to narrate a full dream, is what happens in the dream important enough?
I know we’re about out of time, but there’s one other thing I want to mention before we go, just because we have so many questions about this. How do I tell information that is so basic and taken for granted by the point of view character that they don’t have any reason to think about it? And this is assuming we’re not in an omniscient viewpoint, because in omniscient that wouldn’t matter. We’re in a limited viewpoint and they have no reason to think about this information, and I have to somehow get it to the audience. How do I do this without being awkward? The appearance of the point of view character would be one of these types of information. I also have a Q&A in the side about somebody asking about the basics of their magic system. The protagonist has been using this magic system for years, and I need to communicate the very basics of how it works to the audience, but it’s so basic to the protagonist that they have no reason to think about it.
Oren: I can solve both of those problems with the same idea.
Chris: Let’s go. What is it?
Oren: Put your protagonist in a situation where they are competing against their sexy rival.[Laughter]
Oren: They will have to be like, “Okay, I got to get my magic just right and cover all the basics and the fundamentals to show up my rival. And man, they look sexy today. Do I look sexy today? I don’t know. Am I letting them out-sexy me? Are they as into this as I am? Who knows?” Done, solved it. Sexy rivals for the win.[Laughter]
Wes: Yup. That’s it. There’s no better answer.
Oren: I mean, I’m joking, but that is exactly how I’m planning to start a story that I want to write at some point. That’s also not a joke.
Chris: So I now have an article with nine ideas for how to describe your viewpoint character, but all of this basic information stuff boils down to pretty much the same thing: regardless of how taken for granted something is, there will always be situations in which it matters. Maybe because there’s something surprising happening about it. Maybe because somebody entered the scene and what the point of view character took for granted is actually not irrelevant with them, so there’s a reason for comparison. Maybe it can break down or malfunction, whatever it is. That can include their appearance; appearance can break down if you’re having a bad hair day. Or the breakdown can be “Oops, I made this really basic magic error and I feel embarrassed about it.” And there’s always going to be situations that will remind the viewpoint character about it and just bring it to mind. And again, you can always add a little bit more than what a person would naturally think about. For instance, if they’re feeling their hair and thinking, “Oh gosh, my hair is frizzy,” it’s really easy to just stick in a quick descriptor of the hair color, even if they wouldn’t be thinking about, “Oh, my red hair is frizzy.” It’s not gonna sound awkward if you just slip the word red in there.
Again, whatever it is, just ask yourself, “In what situations would this actually start to matter to the character and the situation they’re in, or what would remind them of it?”
Oren: All right. Well, I think that is a great note to end this podcast on. Those of you at home. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And, finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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