Maybe there are other genres with exposition troubles, but I cannot think of any genre that has to worry as much about exposition as speculative fiction must. In any book, the author must introduce the characters, the situation, and the basic elements of the setting, but in fantasy and science fiction you might have a viewpoint character in the first chapter who isn’t even human, living on a planet that isn’t even in this universe. The very laws of physics might be different, never mind the differences in culture, history, civilization, and everything that goes along with that: systems of measurement, idioms, naming conventions, philosophical principles, mathematics, science…speculative fiction strives to introduce and immerse a reader in a world that might be completely different from that with which we are familiar.
That leads to difficulties, though, and the best authors have come up with different approaches to handle this problem. A lot of readers of these kinds of books want details like unique measurement systems, distinct biosphere, and in-world etymology, since those details are what bring a world to life and give it vibrancy, but those are also some of the hardest details to explain in a book without horribly bogging down the text. The maxim in genre writing is “show, don’t tell,” which helps a little with keeping the story moving along, but it has its own pitfalls: showing scenes can start to feel contrived, or they might not be able to provide as complete and detailed information as you need to communicate, or you might be working with an unreliable narrator, or any number of other wrinkles. Even a showing scene set up exactly right can still slow down the text in a key point.
Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive has a steep learning curve even by the standards of epic fantasy, something that he has already written and spoken about at some length. If you pay attention to the way he does exposition in The Way of Kings, which I paid particular heed to during my most recent reread (in preparation for the release of Rhythm of War), you’ll notice that he makes liberal use of asides, – done with dashes, as I have here – to explain concepts to the reader with which the in-world POVs would already be familiar, but we as readers would not know. In several places, he’ll even resort to directly explaining something through the POV, such as when Szeth explains Lashings in his head.
This works, especially for Sanderson’s style of prose, which is fairly direct; he leans strongly towards the transparent prose side of writing. However, it does have its disadvantages; at least when I was reading specifically to get a better idea for how he did his exposition, I found that the asides could be a little jarring, shaking me out of the world for a moment. I was always pulled right back in, but the ultimate goal would be to avoid breaks like that, which is what led me to consider how we learn things about the real world.
In my Fo’Fonas world, they use different units of measurement. For length, they measure things in tails, colia, and marches. In my head, I know that a tail is about two thirds of our real-world meter, that a colia is pretty comparable to a mile, and that a march is how far a Rezzixin legion can march in a day (about thirty colia, a number I drew from the Roman legions). When we learn about units of measurement, how do we get a grasp, in the real world, for how long something is, or how far something is? I don’t mean specific numbers that you need to know to convert between inches, feet, yards, and miles, or between millimeters, centimeters, decimeters, and meters, but rather the intuitive sense of the distance constituted by a meter, the ability to look at a thing and say “that’s about n inches long,” or to walk a distance and say “I walked about a kilometer.”
My experience and research suggests that this is gained primarily through experience and observation. We don’t get a sense for how far a mile is by knowing it to be five thousand, two hundred and eighty feet – we get a sense for how far a mile is by walking that distance several times. When dropped into a new situation in real life, like moving from one part of the country to a very different part of the country, we learn about our new environment by observing those around us. This process is slow, and it can be frustrating, leading a person to feel somewhat isolated and like they’re fumbling about, but eventually you start to get a feel for the place and the way things are done. From this train of thought, I began to wonder if it might be feasible to do exposition the same way (please note that I doubt that I’m the first person to come up with this idea, but I couldn’t come up with any good examples when I sat down to think about it).
In this style, rather than trying to explicitly show or describe in-world concepts like units of measurement or what a unique form of flora or fauna looks and acts like, the reader would be exposed to these things in the same way that the viewpoint character is interacting with them. So rather than finding a way to convey that a colia is somewhat similar to a mile, I have Lomboc think about walking some number of colia in a given period of time, and let the reader infer how far that might be. Since it’s not important for the reader to know exactly how far a colia is, just roughly what it is measuring, this should allow the reader to learn about the world the same way that we learn about our real world, giving a more immersive reading experience.
In some ways, this is a riff on the “show, don’t tell,” maxim, taking it to a further extreme than to which it is usually applied. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good way to test my theory, since explaining what I’m trying to do would invalidate the experiment, but I can’t exactly tell my alpha readers to look for this without telling them what I’m trying to do. However, I personally really like the approach, so I intend to continue experimenting with it. Thoughts? If you have any great examples of exposition in novels, consider letting me know about them in the comments below.