Swim or Sink?

Or An Examination of the Necessity of Exposition versus Jumping Into a New Fantasy World with Both Feet


It is a puzzlement, isn’t it?

Here you are, author, writer, creator of an entirely new fantasy universe. You’ve molded it, raised mountains, named continents, populated cities or underground lairs or alien planets. You’ve set up governments, cultures, languages, concepts of right and wrong, systems of economics, and hierarchies of power. You’ve dotted it with wizards or barbarians, beings of light, striped, carnivorous horses or warrior-bearing dragons.

It’s perfect. It’s amazing. It all fits together with your plot and characters at the center. And now, your only question is, how do you present this gift, this creation of your heart and imagination that took you years to conceive and birth to your readers?

You could drop them into this world – this universe – without an explanation or a life jacket. Expect the reader to be so intrigued, so fascinated that he hangs on long enough to figure it out. You could revel in the mysterious symbols, in the tiny hints and subtle clues that will (hopefully) send the reader in the right direction, to follow your lead to the correct conclusions. You’re expecting a lot, but your momma always told you not to assume your reader is ignorant or oblivious. He’s smarter than you think.

Or, you could explain. You could hand your reader the life preserver of exposition. Using character interaction or dialogue, you could lay out the rules, the players, and the gameboard until he gets his bearings. You could add a forward or a preface. You could find a way in an early chapter to fill him in on the important concepts, the vital statistics of this foreign world.

This dilemma is one every writer faces. Too much exposition, we are told, is boring. “Who are you, Victor Hugo? Prefaces are for brilliant scholars, not for sci-fi or fantasy hacks.” And prefaces are so passé, non?

But, the others say, I don’t get it! Who are these people? What are these words? “Symbolism? Seriously? We’re not in AP Literature anymore!”

Over the past few weeks I’ve read two books by the same author. They are set in the same multiverse, great fantasy/sci-fi stories. The second book (which I read first, of course, in my usual bass-ackwards fashion) gave us conversation and explanation – exposition, using an ‘innocent character’ – someone else as unfamiliar with these strange concepts as the reader. We learned as Violette learned. The first book threw the reader into an evolving story with no explanation, expecting us to be carried along with the fast-paced action with barely a moment to catch our breath.

One author. One fantasy world. Two books. Two different choices.

All fantasy/sci-fi authors have had to make these choices. This is the genre that demands it. The reader is not on Earth in some century that is available for Googling if he wants to know more. This is not a language that anyone at the local Starbucks is speaking. Some authors cleverly reveal the rules and regs of their worlds in bits and pieces as the reader goes along. (Frank Herbert’s Dune disguised exposition as young Paul Atriedes learning about the world Arrakis which would be his new home. Anne Rice told us a story about a vampire as Louis told his life story to a young boy.) Some dump us into their world and stand back to watch us splash around. (Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass is a beautiful example of this method.)

Some readers want an explanation – a list of characters, a pronunciation guide, a map of the world. Some want less – just tell me a story, they say, don’t bog us down in detail.

Is there a right and wrong to this? Is it important which choice an author makes? Is there a happy medium?

Discuss. And, please, let one would-be writer in on the answer if you are in the know.

One thought on “Swim or Sink?

  1. eldercarehomemakingRebecca says:

    Since you asked… 🙂

    Seriously, I don’t believe there is one right answer. And to make it more complex, your unknown variable is how each reader’s mind works. For instance, I usually pick up monetary and ethical systems pretty easily, but find maps invaluable to me. And I’m just going to pronounce names however they sound right to me, regardless.

    Piers Anthony does a great job, for me. He has a map and, sometimes, a cast of characters, which would be a great place for pronunciation guides, if you want them.

    So, forgive me if I am rambling. But my point is, just make yourself happy. Because at the end of the day, your readers will enter your worlds as it makes sense to them, regardless of what you do. Some exposition is always helpful, of course. 🙂

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