Exposition; there is the rub, though in the absence of a question.
Just how much is too much? That is the actual question.
I have seen this discussed, weighted, challenged and justified over and over on various groups and fora; it is called info-dumping, the Wall of Text…it is called many things and much advice about avoiding it to be found but none seem to answer the most important question for the apprentice author, for the journeyperson; how does one avoid doing it?
It is easy to do – I raise my hand in guilty associatin, I have done it – to be in the heat and passion of a scene, and to go off in detail about the background to a particular event, place, relationship, etc. It is likely that you have spent a lot of time, effort, and heart in creating your world and are justifiably proud of it, I know I am. You want to show how great it is to your readers and have them enjoy it as much as you do, I completely understand. I still have this awful habit at the moment of steering unrelated conversations to my writing, or dropping anecdotes about characters into relevent situations, it is causing both friends and family to “assume the expression” with me often.
Admit it; you know which expression I am referring to!
You are in love with your world, it’s like your child because you created it, you nurtured its early stages, you developed and taught it tricks and gave it direction. It is a part of you and you are right to be proud about that. Thing is, not everyone sees it that way.
Somebody giving one of my artworks a like does not know that it took anywhere between 3 hours and 3 days to create that, to tease and massage it into an acceptable shape. In fact a large proportion of viewers will not even see the finer details I agonised for hours over getting just right. But it looks pretty and conveys a feeling or three, so they click a button and move on, maybe even pass a moment held in its grip.
Equally, they have no idea how much time you spent deciding how to spell the word for sandwich in your work, how you spent sleepless nights debating whether your main character was a Steve, a Bob, or a Mark and why. They will never know the level of research that goes into inventing a whole language and its associated grammatical structure, or the layout of a space station, the configuration of armour, weapons, insignia….they just think we plucked it out of the air in our clever writerly fashion.
But, to quote a famous Spaniard; “Are they entertained?” That’s the goal isn’t it?
You all know the image; big chunk of frozen water, floating in the sea, most people don’t see that the bit we see is really small compared to the bit that we don’t. I read a quote somewhere from one of the effects crew in the Lord of the Rings movies. He said that they have a team of dozens, hundres maybe, of people designing everything from swords and armour, down to door knobs, the buckles on a belt, chairs, paintings in the background, cutlery and plates, etc. How many of you noticed anything special about the mugs the hobbits drank beer from, do you recall its look and feel? Nope. Someone put a lot of thought into that. Did you see the titles of the books in Elrond’s study? Probably not, but someone painstaking thought about each and every title.
Why, you might ask (if you didn’t please keep up), would they do that?
Ahhh…now that is the right question.
Your goal, as a writer, is to have a stranger pick up your book and read it from cover to cover without being forced in any fashion, to enjoy it and, ideally, want to do so again with your next volume. We want to tell them a story they will never forget and have them hankering for more.
We need to draw them in and show them how much more beautiful our iceberg is, seeing as it afloat in a sea of icebergs. We must let them see that its penguin passengers are worthy of a look, that its unique algal blooms are quite stunning, and that, underneath the water, there is a frozen alien spaceship/ancient artefact/frozen caveman etc. waiting to be discovered if only they take the chance to stop their journey and look.
So, how much iceberg to show, just what do you display in order that your reader not only picks your one frozen leviathan from the hundreds bobbing in the ocean but stays upon in and is interested enough to find the secret door into its very heart?
You want them to be interested in, immersed in, and draw to your world. You want them to feel it so that they understand your characters’ struggles, the story itself, and why what happens actually happens. You want them to imagine and feel a part of it, even if they are only an observer. You want them to know what it feels like to be inside the skin of your characters, to see the world through their eyes and empathise with them.
There, my friends, is the key. Nobody will care about your character unless you can make them feel empathy towards said character, to identify and become invested in them. How do they do that?
Well, empathy means to imagine oneself in the situation of another. This requires a reciprocal relationship of sorts. The empathiser must find something in the empathee with which they can identify, a shared experience, even if it is a vague one such as shared humanity or a childhood experience. Shared humanity. Is your character a living, breathing, being in their eyes?
Here it comes. Dropping avalanches of information at a key moment of connection, as your reader tentatively explores the inner slopes of your iceberg and approaches the location of the hidden door might just sweep them off in the ocean to to eaten by orcas and leapard seals. Or accidentally stabbed by a narwal.
You have to give enough that they understand the character but not so much that they become lost or disinterested, losing the excitement of the moment. Compare these two examples;
“Well, you know, Steve did his thing, you know the thing with his whatsit? Well he was doing that when that thing with the cats happened and he remembered that other things and cried. So sad man”
“Brave Stephen considered his party trick – the one he had perfected at the age of seven and which much amused his friends. You recall? It was the one involving ferrets? Twenty-five years ago ferrets were outlawed as pets and most were exterminated, it was the smell, you see, many people were offended and there were riots, I think. Ferrets though/ Such wonderful and loyal creatures, easy to train, to share the affection and loyalty of. Quite, quite intelligent little fellows too! Why, I knew a man who had taught his ferret to… One such rioter, by the name of Marcus, he came from Greece or somewhere and was 25 years old at the time. He did this thing during a demonstration, his mother had taught it to him as a child and he remembered it fondly because she had died when he was a child and had few memories of her now. That may have been what caused Marcus to join the rebellion and, through the centuries that have passed since, inspire so many – “
See? In the latter, thread of excitement is lost completely and the eyes are becoming heavy as narrator drones on about ferrets and other unrelated things. These things might, in your mind, be of vital importance to the story and, thus, essential for the reader to know but how better to tell them?
Well, most, people wil tell you that dialogue is the trick and they are right, to quite the degree, but as you have seen above, that doesn’t always work. The sharper among you will notice that, indeed, neither example is correct because while the latter gives too much information, the former gives too little even though, most importantly, the former feels much more like a natural conversation.
I gave two extremes intentionally but felt the need to demonstrate an important point. How do we avoid movie trailer voice or insurance commercal conversations? How do we convey enough information while keeping the flow natural?
“So, we were talking about last week and Steve started to do that thing -“
“The one with the ferrets? Oh god, really?”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Really.”
“That’ll get him arrested by the Pickers that will.” eyes dart around on conditioned reflex.
“Listen, I told him”
“Remember Greek Marcus, right?” she barely managed to suppress a snort. “Remember Greek Marcus.” voice low and solemn.”
Scraff! What did he say?”
He said those ferrets are all he’s got since…well, since, you know…” he ran a trembling hand over three days of growth. “Since it all went to sh-“
“Yeah…” she cut him off with a sharp gesture, suppressing a shudder. “Who can forget? Steve least of all..”
A little better right? Could be polished a bit as I made that up on the fly but you see the idea, a good starting point for a first draft. we’re invested in Steve, he has a tragedy somewhere that his friends are worried about and takes refuge in ferret tricks, it’s his way of coping. Maybe we want to know more about Steve now. Maybe we want to know what happened to him and why is friends appear frightened.
Like our iceberg, events and time reveal more or less about it. Our characters do not enter the story the same as when they exit or complete it. They develop, as they experience events or learn new information.
Just as we do not reveal everything about our character and what is going to happen to them all at once, we should not with our world either. Not in the book, at least.
Publishing in the Information Age
We all know how much the world of publishing has changed since our literary heroes started out. Whether your hero author is dead, well established, or a Name, their journey was quite different to ours. We are both incredibly fortunate to have this new world and stymied by it at times. Let us consider the elements, as it were, of our information rich world as an author;
Self Publishing; the only barrier to getting published and having our book available to readers is actually finishing it. Of course, this is amazing, one can become a published author overnight! Of course, there are pitfalls and we have discussed those before and will come back to them in the next chapter.
Social media; One can establish a presence on a number of different platforms, or a combination thereof. We will discuss strategy in later chapters.
Author and Book Websites; they are (relatively) cheap to set up, host, and buy a domain name for these days; you can have everything for $20-$30 a month or even less. You can include all kinds of information there and this I will come back to shortly.
Author Blog(s); often an integral part of a website but can be an entirely seperate entity, depending on preference.
How does that connect to the topic at hand, I hear you ask. I believe it does because we have something those that proceeded us did not. We have the ability to do all our detailed expositioning seperate to our book, and, if we are really smart (and have the time to do it right) can actually blend all of that information into the ebook version of our work quite seemlessly. Amazon have a service, for example, called X-Ray which allows you to build a database of hyperinked words and terms into your ebook file so that the reader has simply to click on said hyperlink to learn more…you can turn your ebook into a truly interactive experience and allow the reader to choose how much they want to know. This is a very handy tool I encourage those with ebooks on Amazon to look into.
Next we have our website. as you know, the Empyraeum Enkyklopaedeia is a growing source of information for readers, as is the website as a whole. I encourage you to consider the same with your work. These days, everyone is looking for a website and will, if you do it right, spend a good portion of time studying it. Maybe this is a personal preference but I find myself these days, when reading a good fantasy or scifi book, having a browser window open to a good information source on that book and, when I come across an interesting term in the narrative, I find a relevent entry to learn more, often distracting myself away from the story entirely for a good 10 minutes!
Now, established series, authors, and IP’s have people to manage these vast volumes of information, to summarise and create great content but you, my friends, have not that luxury yet. It is, as the saying goes, on you.
The next chapter of this videoblog series will touch directly on these aspects of an author’s world in much more detail but I hope I’ve given you a few things to think about for today.