I’m reposting this during my downtime this month; this post first appeared in a slightly different form several years ago.
The three important constituents of a novel: exposition, description, and dialogue. Which of course can blur into one another.
Exposition – of course you know this – is the part of a novel where you’re explaining something to the reader. In general it is nice to disguise this as one character explaining something to another; ie, you hide exposition within dialogue. The classic bad way of doing this is the “as you know” dialogue, which goes like this: “As you know, Dr. Smith, the United States and the Soviet Union have been at war for nearly two years now.” Good writers handle exposition much more gracefully, so that it feels natural and the reader doesn’t really notice it.
Obviously novels vary a LOT in the ratio of dialogue to exposition. But I bet you haven’t realized just HOW MUCH that ratio can vary. Or maybe you have, but I hadn’t, until I found myself reading Eric Flint’s 1635: The Eastern Front, which I borrowed from my brother. It’s a good series to read when you’re really working on your own book, because the books in the 1632 series aren’t that compelling, at least not once you’re into the later ones in the series. And why, you may ask yourself, do the 1632 novels fail to really grab your attention?
Well, that would be because some of them are almost pure exposition. The feel of the novel is actually more like nonfiction than fiction.
To examine this issue, let’s take a look at three different books I’ve recently read:
Here’s a more-or-less random page from Vlad’s pov in TIASSA, by Steven Brust:
“You don’t trust the Empire much, do you?”
“As much as you do. Less, because I probably know it better.”
“All right. So it won’t work much longer to just use the coins elsewhere. What do they do if you spend it somewhere that doesn’t have the means of detecting it?”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“What if you went to, say, my shop and bought an ounce of dreamgrass. I wouldn’t know the coin was tagged. So then I’d spend the coin somewhere, and –”
“Oh, I see. They treat it just like they do a coiner: ask you where you’d gotten the coin, and try to work back from there.”
“I was approached by the Empire about six weeks ago. How long has this been going on?”
“About that long, more or less.”
I nodded. “A new program. They’re always thinking, those Imperial law enforcement types. They never let up. It’s an honor to run rings around them.”
“That’s been my feeling, yes.”
“So it sounds like the only choice is to reduce the cost of removing the – what were they called?”
“Right. Reduce the cost of removing the tags.”
“That’s better than my idea?”
“What was your idea?”
“I was going to write the Empire a letter saying please stop.”
So, the ratio of dialogue to exposition is . . . wait for it . . . that’s right: 1 to 0. This page is 100% dialogue and 0 exposition. I would say this is true even though the characters are explaining stuff to each other. How much description is there? Also zero. How characteristic is this page? Well, starting with this passage, we find that the next five pages are also almost pure dialogue, with a little description (3 or 4 lines) and one line of exposition, slipped in invisibly as a line of dialogue (“It must be hard on you . . . most of the time when dealing with clients, you have the advantage. Must be hard for a Dzur to take.”) There we are told something about Dzur, but it sure is minimal.
In the ten pages following the passage above, this is as close as we come to actual exposition: “I still have no idea why she [Kiera] likes me, but we go back to a day when – no, skip it. She was good to me from the moment we met.”
Call that exposition?
Obviously there must be SOME exposition in TIASSA, but there’s not much, and what there is, is thoroughly scattered through reams of dialogue and brief descriptive passages. This is partly but by no means solely because it’s a later book in the series and the reader is expected to be familiar with the characters and world.
Let’s contrast this to a book I would consider more typical in its dialogue to exposition ratio: THE CLOUD ROADS by Martha Wells. Here’s a random passage from this one:
After they [Moon and Stone] ate, Moon stretched out on his stomach, basking in the warm firelight, the cool turf soft against his groundling skin, comfortably full of grasseater and tea. From somewhere distant, he heard a roar, edged like a bell and so far away it almost blended with the wind. He slanted a look at Stone to see if they had to worry.
“Skylings, mountain wind-walkers.” Stone sat by the fire, breaking sticks up into small pieces and absently tossing them into the flames. “They live too far up in the air to notice us.”
Moon rolled onto his side to squint suspiciously up at the sky. The stars were bright, streaked with clouds. “Then what do they eat?”
“Other skylings, tiny ones, no bigger than gnats. They make swarms big enough to mistake for clouds.” As Moon tried to picture that, Stone asked, “Did you ever look for other shifters?”
Stone hadn’t asked about this before, and Moon wanted to avoid the subject. Looking for his own people had led him into more trouble than anything else. “For a while. Then I stopped.” He shrugged, as if it was nothing. “I couldn’t search the whole Three Worlds.”
“And the warrior you were with didn’t tell you which court, or the name of the queen, or anyone in your line?” Stone sounded distinctly irritated. “She didn’t even give you a hint?”
Moon corrected him pointedly, “No, my mother didn’t tell me anything.”
Stone sighed, poking at the fire. Moon got ready for an argument, but instead Stone asked, “How did she and the Arbora die?”
That wasn’t a welcome subject either. It was like an old wound that had never quite stopped bleeding. Moon didn’t want to talk about the details, but he owed Stone some kind of answer. He propped his chin on his arms and looked out into the dark. “Tath killed them.”
Tath were reptile groundlings, predators, and they had surrounded the tree Moon’s family had been sleeping in. He remembered waking, confused and terrified, as his mother tossed him out of the nest. He had realized late that she had picked him because he was the only other one who could fly, the only one who had a chance to escape while she stayed to defend the others.
Okay! Here we have a good bit of description melted into the dialogue. To me, this represents just about the ideal amount of description in a passage. You get a sense of place and poetry completely lacking in the passage from TIASSA (though the extremely quick pace and vivid voice of the Vlad Taltos books are also an example of strong writing, just very different).
Plus we have some exposition. Not much. But the bit where Stone explains what kind of creature made the distant roar, and of course the part where Moon thinks about the creatures that killed his family. We aren’t just being told things about the world (as I’m sure you notice), we’re learning about Moon’s backstory, and we’re learning about Stone, too – that he’s experienced and knowledgeable and possibly irritable.
Because this is a secondary word fantasy, and the first in the series, Wells has to draw her world for us. But she does it mostly in tiny bits of description, not in long expository passages. In fact, through the whole book, she tells us relatively little about the world, leaving nearly everything tantalizingly unexplained. To me, this is an example of ideal worldbuilding: all poetry and vivid imagery, no pauses to unnecessarily explain stuff. What explanations are necessary get worked in seamlessly because Moon actually is totally ignorant about his own species and thus serves beautifully as the reader’s window into the Raksura people.
Now! Let’s finally contrast both of the above examples from a randomly chosen page from Flint’s 1635: THE EASTERN FRONT.
After a minute or so, Ferdinand mused, “It’s too late for the Turk to launch an invasion this year.”
Drugeth nodded. Like many Hungarian noblemen, he was an experienced soldier. The Ottomans would have to mobilize a huge army to attach Vienna – and get that army and its equally enormous supply train through the Balkans. It was impossible to do so in winter, of course. But it was also essential that such an army not be left stranded in the middle of winter. There would be no way to keep it supplied with food, if it failed to seize Vienna.
The end result of these harsh logistical realities was that any attack launched by the Turks against Austria had to follow a rather fixed and rigid timetable. The invasion couldn’t possibly be launched until the fresh spring grass arrived, or there wouldn’t be enough grazing for the horses and oxen. There was no possibility of hauling enough fodder. Not with the immense number of livestock involved in such a campaign.
Traditionally, the Turks began their campaigning season at or near the time of the festival in honor of Hizir Hyas, the Moslem saint who protected travelers and other people in peril. That came in early May, in the Christian calendar.
Of course, the Turks wouldn’t wait that long before they began moving their troops. They’d march them north to Belgrade in March and April, and launch the attack from there once the weather and grazing permitted. Belgrade was roughly half the distance from Istanbul to Vienna, but the terrain over the final stretch was much more difficult for an army. Much of the terrain south of the Danube consisted of marshes and swamps.
The Turkish army was extremely well organized, too. Being honest, he acknowledged that it was better organized than the Austrian – or indeed, most Christian armies. But it still couldn’t move faster than ten or twelve miles a day. The earliest the Ottomans could reach Vienna would be late June or, more likely, sometime in July.
Okay! That’s one line of dialogue on this page, zero description of the actual scene, and paragraph after paragraph of exposition. The “being honest, he acknowledged” is a nod in the direction of keeping the actor in the scene, but it’s just a nod.
In this section, there are seven paragraphs between one line of dialogue and the next. In this chapter – a short chapter, ten pages – there are 43 lines of dialogue. That’s less than a page and a half. There is zero description of the immediate scene, even though the previous chapter was set somewhere else. The rest is all exposition, couched – barely – as internal monologues, but actually clearly the author explaining stuff to the reader. It’s a lot like reading a history book, only with the occasional line of dialogue.
The first book in the series wasn’t so extraordinarily heavy on exposition or so extraordinarily lacking in description. This series has a fanatical fan base, but I wonder if it would if the first book had had such an extreme ratio of dialogue to exposition? And such a dearth of description? I sort of like the books, but a) I’ve been following the series from the beginning; and b) I have a high tolerance for exposition if I’m in the right mood; and c) I don’t want to get absorbed in the story, because I want to be able to put these books down and work on my own current WIP, which means I’m in the right mood.
But I would hardly say that “non-compelling” is an advantage for most readers most of the time.
However complicated your backstory may be, however ornate your world, however much you want to show off both to your reader, you may be better off keeping exposition to a couple of sentences here and there if at all possible. Either that or pay careful attention to how writers may manage to work in more exposition while keeping the narrative moving along. For that, I might suggest Kim Stanley Robinson. Also Neil Stevenson in Seveneves. Also maybe Varley in his Gaien trilogy.
If anybody springs to your mind for particularly good exposition, drop them in the comments, please.