Thursday, July 30, 2009


To succeed, the Launch Pad program must do more than foster correct science in popular culture. The portrayal of that science must also be accessible and interesting. That's why, besides a pure science track, the program also deals with how to include science in stories.

And that led one day to the roomful of authors discussing the dreaded exposition monster.

Exposition? That's conveying important background information to the reader. SF critics and editors pan exposition mercilessly, deriding it as an "infodump." SF authors have become gun-shy about the technique.

Exposition can, to be sure, be done badly. The exemplar / strawman is the "As you know, Bob ..." digression, wherein one character breaks from the story to tell the reader, in the guise of conversation with another character, what both characters already know. Nearly as cliched is the expert/novice pairing. Here, the expert character lectures an uninformed character (such as a reporter, politician, or a charming but clueless love interest) whose main purpose is to be ignorant -- in the interest of eliciting such lectures.

So yes, exposition can be done badly. That doesn't mean it can't be done well, or that readers universally object.

Some Launch Pad authors (I among them) argued that exposition has its place. The alternatives -- dribbling out the information over the course of a story, or assuming knowledge on the part of the reader, or hinting rather than telling -- aren't necessarily better.

And let's not forget, readers often choose a genre because the underlying subject matter interests -- nay, fascinates -- them. (Umm, don't science-fiction readers like science?) In other genres and for many bestselling authors, exposition is merely a tool of the trade. A few cases in point:

James Michener sold more than a few books, and he could start with, for example, the geological processes that formed Hawaii.

Tom Clancy sells fairly well, too, with his share of digressions on the history and operation of (choose your weapon system).

Westerns paint detailed pictures of the West.

Historical novels delve lovingly into their backdrop time and place: its origins, class structure, the implements used in daily life, the influence of geography, the social mores ... .

Technothrillers unashamedly discuss new and upcoming technologies.

So why does the SF literati like to beat itself up about a few paragraphs of exposition here and there? I really don't know.

What do you think?

1 comment:

Catreona said...

As you know Bob, uh, Ed, I'm writing a Science Fiction romance. In said Science Fiction romance, it's vital that the reader understand a certain underlying condition that obtains at the time and in the place of the story. And, you know what? The only way to make sure the reader understands this condition is to state it in exposition. Oh, I've succeeded in slipping a few details in by lejer de main, but the facts can only be delivered in an infodump. And, you're right. I have been beating myself up over that necessity. It doesn't help that I've revised out the place where the infodump would have fit fairly nicely, or at least the place where I had it. No doubt, that was not the optimal placement, and maybe it's just as well that I need to figure out how to put the info in earlier. However that may be, this is info that is essential for the reader to have in order for him to make sense of what otherwise seems like the rankest coincidence.

I've long thought that "Show, don't tell" is often stretched to the breaking point. We work with words, after all, not with film. As long as the telling fits integrally into the fabric of the story, I personally don't have any problem with it.