Q&A

How Do I Write Exposition in Close Perspective?

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I’m writing a story in first person, set in a world that has technology similar to ours, but also demons and magic (no masquerade). Magic is extremely limited in its use (which explains the need for tech), but is necessary to keep demons at bay. I really feel it fits the story to tell it in first person, but this creates a challenge when it comes to explaining the world and its magic to the reader.

Methods I use:

  • Since the story takes place at the end of my character’s magical education, her professor sometimes stresses things or repeats particularly important things to the students. But I want to keep this down to a few sentences here and there, so as not to be boring.
  • Occasionally someone who doesn’t know magic asks my character questions out of curiosity. Once again, I try to keep this short and turn it into natural-sounding dialogue, but it’s hard.
  • At one point, they talk about magic in a TV show and explain some stuff to the viewers.
  • When my character does magic, she thinks about what she’s doing – but I don’t think it makes sense for her to think of all the details and all the background. That would be weird. For an analogy, when I had just taken my driver’s license exam, I would think about what I did when driving a car to a greater extent than I do today, but I didn’t think about, like, the history of the combustion engine or all the rules of traffic while I was driving. The same should hold for someone finishing up her magical education, I think.

I’m grateful for more suggestions and advice in general on how to incorporate exposition in a fantasy story told in first person!

– Dvärghundspossen

Hi Dvärghundspossen,

I think you’re taking the right approach of splitting it up and working it in. There’s no magical solution you haven’t tried, but I can offer suggestions regarding what you’ve mentioned. However, this is all a matter of implementation, so I can’t say for sure what will or won’t work.

When you’re choosing how much information to put in different places, keep in mind that if you overdo it in dialogue, it’s more likely to feel unnatural than if you have her think about some things she wouldn’t normally think about. Readers learning your magic system for the first time will likely miss that what they’re learning is too basic for her to dwell on. They’re more likely to notice if people are saying things they have no reason to say.

I’d be a little concerned about delivering exposition through a TV show. I think that’s something that works better in audio-visual stories where multiple things are happening and the TV can be playing the background. In a written work, you can only focus on one thing at a time. This makes the tactic more heavy-handed, and therefore more likely to come across as contrived. If you have something plot relevant that’s also revealed in the show, that will help.

When you can, manufacture scenarios that make the information relevant. It’s better if a character asking questions actually needs to know it than if they’re just curious. Maybe it’s some type of investigator or someone who has just started learning and wants to assist your protagonist. Put your protagonist in situations where the way magic operates has an effect on what she’s doing, giving her a reason to dwell on it. Maybe she’s concentrating so hard on the advanced part of her magic casting that she makes a super basic mistake and then gets embarrassed over it.

If you can’t make the information matter, ask whether the audience actually needs to know it. For instance, someone reading about cars (supposing they were fictional) doesn’t need to know the history of the combustion engine. Readers need to know information if it’s foreshadowing for a reveal or if it will be used by the protagonist to solve problems later.

Communicating information gracefully is always tricky, but you’re clearly thinking hard about it, and that will make a big difference.

Good luck!
Chris

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Comments

  1. Dvärghundspossen

    Oh, my question got a share on the site! I’m so proud! Your advice was really useful, and I feel I’m getting better with practice at incorporating exposition into the narrative in a more natural way.

  2. Dvärghundspossen

    I should add that it feels like exposition is easier to work in, once I’ve gotten a better feel for the characters, their personalities, how they talk, the world they live in etc… When everything just has a better “flow” to it, exposition also feels more natural.

  3. Dave L

    Your story is first person, but is it a “told” story? Is your narrator telling the story to someone specific?

    If so, then your narrator can specifically tell the listener stuff they wouldn’t know

    Of course, this makes it difficult if there is something important the listener would know but we don’t

    • Dvärghundspossen

      Thanks, but no, it’s not “told”… It’s in present tense, we’re following her thoughts and experiences just as they unfold.

      I’m thinking, though, that this way of narrating has an advantage as well as a cost when it comes to exposition. I’ve based the worldbuilding on stuff I used to believe and experience when psychotic or semi-psychotic, and stuff I found in a notebook recently that I had written down when I was in a mental hospital… This fall, I was thinking that I’m so much more stable now and my life situation is so much more stable, and I wanna do something FUN and CONSTRUCTIVE of all my old horrors, and so I’m gonna write a fantasy novel based on it. That was the original idea, and the reason I started working on this book.

      Then I had to put a LOT of thought into constructing anything rational and coherent out of this base material. I think I eventually succeeded, but the world, I think, is still pretty different from what you usually come across in urban or contemporary fantasy about people fighting demons…

      So: I’m thinking that super close perspective, ok, drawback: gotta work much more to incorporate exposition in a way that feels natural. But the advantage might be that readers could, perhaps, more easily accept this world as a real place when they’re inside the head of someone who lives there, someone for whom all this is normal and natural. Thoughts…?

  4. Richard

    I can suggest reading some of Charles Stross’ “Laundry Files” stories. He’s got pretty much the same premise: magic plus tech keeping demons at bay. And it’s all done from the perspective of Agent Bob Howard.

    If I can plug my review of the series:
    https://pureblather.com/2018/06/14/book-review-the-laundry-files/

  5. Sedivak

    Some great authors provide exposition through excerpts from fictional in-story media at the beginning of chapters (Sapkowski and Vonnegut come to mind). If done well it can not only provide information on how the world works but also strenghten the atmosphere.

    Imagine a story about a conflict between some Empire and some rebels told form the perspective of one of the rebels. A chapter could be headed by a quotation from an imperial leaflet or encyclopedia on how those rebel scum were founded in the aftermath of the previous war and how it all is terrible treason etc. etc.

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