March 27, 2012

Disorienting Exposition

In fiction set in unfamiliar times and places, it often falls to the author to explain details of the world well-known to the characters but not to the reader. How straightforwardly to lay this out is a matter of style, and therefore taste. I tend to want to deliver it in a compact way and get on to the story it’s supporting. Some readers prefer obscured approaches that take longer but don’t necessarily signal themselves as expository—world detail through dialogue being a key technique.

A more complex technique presents expository detail about the world as if addressing a reader already familiar with it. Most often you'll see this in SF novels. The narrator rattles off terms and describes situations without full explanatory context.

According to the beat analysis system found in Hamlet's Hit Points, these mystifying references serve as question beats. They arouse our anxiety and our curiosity, impelling us to read on, in search of clarification. As we figure out the world through additional context, we feel counterpointing up beats, when those questions are answered.

This might be seen as the SF version of a common literary fiction gambit, where details of the story being retold are teased but not fully laid out. In both cases these can substitute for the basic building blocks of most fiction, dramatic and procedural scenes.

How much one digs this is another matter of taste. Personally, I prefer to be invested in a character, to hope for her success and fear for her failure, before I’m asked to puzzle through an alien future. Other readers might be perfectly happy with pure world extrapolation, without all that pesky story and character always rearing its head.