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September 03, 2004

Panel Report: "As You Know, Bob: The Positives and Negatives of Infodumps in Writing"

Description: Exposition can be quick or subtle, or straight, or with a twist. It can stop the story cold, or provide plot (and stylistic) impact. It can be smooth or lumpy, necessary or gratuitous. The panel will discuss expository theory and practice, and answer the eternal question: "What does Bob really know?" Debra Doyle, Terry McGarry (m), Teresa Nielsen Hayden

This panel on Thursday afternoon was very well-attended. I'm going to re-arrange the order of conversation occasionally for flow; I've also roughly divided the topics into theory and practice.

(Roughly) Theory

Teresa Nielsen Hayden (TNH) didn't say this first at the panel, but it ought to go first. The three rules of exposition are: (1) you can do anything if it works; (2) never tell a reader anything before they want (not need) to know; (2) all advice about writing is simple, it's putting it into practice that is hard.

TNH pointed out that while SF writers always talk about worldbuilding, they're not actually building worlds, they are making the similitude of worlds. The reader may feel that they know everything about the world the book's set in, but they don't, they're being given just enough. She noted that characterization even depends on the world (how can you know what a character's reaction means, without context?), so the author has a tremendous burden.

She also said that while SF readers get used to having their exposition in lumps, particularly at the beginning, it doesn't have to be that way, and authors maybe do it too much; she mentioned "incluing", Jo Walton's term for gradually revealing background information, as an alternative. Debra Doyle (DD) added that she thinks of exposition and story like making a pound cake: you have a big lump of butter, a big lump of sugar, it's a whole lot of work to get the two of them together, and even when you do you're still not done. On the other hand (to shift food metaphors), when you get exposition right, it's like raisins in oatmeal.

(On the other other hand, TNH noted that she grew up hearing that readers don't like exposition, and realized one day that if that was true, James Michener and Alex Haley wouldn't sell.)

DD asked if SF readers are more tolerant of exposition. Terry McGarry (TMcG) replied they might be, but they're also more adept at compiling information, and more willing to continue the book until they figure things out. TNH said she thinks of it as calluses. However, there are limits: while readers can carry a lot of mental markers of things-to-be-explained, the author can't multiply one by another; the intersection of multiple mysteries is too much. DD put it, don't make readers solve equations with than one variable.

Going back to genre, DD said that if an author has a detailed description of a room, mainstream readers will assume the details carry symbolic/thematic significance; mystery readers will look for A Clue; and SF readers will look for worldbuilding. This is one thing that makes cross-genre work so difficult.

(Question late: what do you do if you're writing something that's cross-genre, mystery in SF setting with romance? DD: well, that's one of the reasons it's hard. TNH: particularly making the payoffs all work at the same time. Maybe rebalance depending on where you want to sell it.)

Late in the panel, DD pointed out that you can play games with exposition. She's got a short story coming out that's a country house mystery written by one character and translated, annotated, and footnoted by another (the reactivated reservist at the start of Starpilot's Grave).

TMcG also pointed out that sometimes SF can get away with more exposition because of sense-of-wonder. TNH brought out Steve Brust's theory of the novel: the structure on which you can hang the maximum amount of cool stuff.

(Around this time TMcG, who makes a good moderator, called on me; my original question had gone by the wayside, but I pointed out that I'd just listened to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy read by the author, and I'd been struck that it's really just one chunk of exposition after another, but Adams could get away with it because the chunks are so good. TNH commented that she thinks the true genre of that book is the Tall Tale.)

TNH remarked that while J.K. Rowling doesn't do ornamental exposition, she's still really good at writing sentences that make you want to read the next one. She used the Sorting Hat as an example; there's a lot of information about the Sorting Hat that we very obviously don't get the first time we meet the Sorting Hat, because we don't care then; it would feel, in Patrick Nielsen Hayden's terms, like we were studying for a test.

(Roughly) Practice

Question from the audience: how do you deal with series backstory?

  • DD: (immediately) Rewrite until you sweat blood.
  • TNH: Trust your reader; it's remarkable how much they will pick up. (She used the page 117 game, where panelists read just page 117 and then extrapolate the book, as an example.)

    When people synopsize, they tend toward too much detail. Stick to verbs, avoid nouns.

  • TMcG added: Why things happened aren't as important as that they happened. If whys become important later, then explain.

    Look at previous events through another character's eyes: this gets you characterization plus exposition.

Question: example of problem-solving regarding exposition? (This turned into series backstory as well, though it was much later in the panel.)

  • TNH: someone set part of a book in Washington DC, and didn't know how politicians talked; move that section of out DC.

    Something about searching for all "ly " in a manuscript that I didn't catch.

  • DD: third book in a series, a character makes a status report back home about events in the prior two books; but also frets about loose ends, etc.
  • TMcG: her series books are separated by time and profound changes, so she just starts each from scratch. Readers of prior books get to pick up on the changes.

Question: the questioner, a writer, hates exposition and leaves everything out until her first reader complains, and then she puts it back in. But readers (or her first reader, not sure) complain that the writing feels unnecessarily mysterious.

  • TNH: That's a mistake. A writer loses a reader's sympathy in that situation. In general hating exposition is good, though—but the writer still needs to know all that stuff that's not being put it!
  • DD: Her pet peeve is hiding the gender of a character.

Question: is a 1 part in, to 10 parts left out, rule appropriate? Answer: no, would hate to quantify.

TNH reported that Steve Brust says that explanations are always an opportunity to get in an argument with the reader. Never explain, describe: not how it works, how you use it. DD added, what happens when it breaks down.

DD: if there's information you must get across, attach it to something inherently interesting, like sex or violence.

TNH: or you could try not explaining, and see if it's needed. However, if you-the-writer find yourself writing all these little scenes where nothing happens but one little detail is dropped in each: either try action scenes, or just tell the reader it, already.

Question: if you can't do the "easy" fish-out-of-water situation, how do you do worldbuilding exposition? TNH: one good trick: talk not about how things are, but how they changed.

Comment: political discussions are another good technique.

  • TNH: yes, but be very sure you know about politics and how people talk: either the people in power, or just the dumb arguments in pubs. Ken McLeod is good. So are Alan Clark's diaries (British MP (?)).
  • TMcG: and if I don't know anything about this society yet, why do I care about this argument?
  • TNH: also people in political discussions have a lifetime of thinking about this, and will be talking about the latest developments.

TMcG pointed out that the level of concreteness a speaker uses depends on their relationship with the person they're speaking to: with someone you know well, you use a lot more "thing" or common referents.

TNH said that the appropriate level of detail is a function of the narrative pace. She got this from pencilers on comics pages. DD said that her father-in-law, who did models, put it that no-one counts the rivets on the moving car. TNH replied, and if they are counting, the car isn't moving fast enough.

TNH points out that the author can be hampered by knowing the real explanation; she described a story where the author had the character give the real explanation, which was deeply lame (my words), and where "I cheated" would have been more satisfying and more in-character. It's remarkable how often you don't need to explain. I believe this was related to her later statement that the Sopranos could be staged with doublets or space suits: almost all action and no explanation.

TNH also suggested the exposition-reducing technique of, "What would Wolverine say?" (not do), and then take out the part where he calls someone "Bub." (The audience really liked this.)

Question: how many new words can you introduce at the start of a story? TNH: if nouns, as few as possible, not even one per sentence. The story shapes what we do with information and we don't know what to do with these yet.

Examples of very good exposition from TNH:

  • The Killer Angels
  • The Perfect Storm
  • Nine Princes in Amber
  • Patrick O'Brien

Posted by Kate Nepveu at 11:24 AM in 3-Thursday | Permalink


Thanks for the report--sounds like it was a great panel--

Posted by: KE Kimbriel | September 4, 2004 10:54 AM

You're welcome! It was quite good, and I'm glad you liked the report.

Posted by: Kate Nepveu | September 4, 2004 01:00 PM

Thanks, Kate (didn't know there was a comment area)--I have already linked to it, for the rest of us eager for any snippets of Worldcon wisdom!

Posted by: Sherwood | September 4, 2004 03:09 PM

This is a wonderful report. Thank you for posting it. Like Oliver Twist said, "Can I have some more?" Please?

Posted by: Sanchona | January 16, 2005 10:30 AM

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