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!
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.
Do you have a question you’d like answered by Oren or Chris? Submit it here. Q&As are only made public if you give your permission and we decide to feature it. If you’d like more than an answer to a general question, you can hire us to look over your story.