I used to write my novels defensively. I was terrified of there being any page where the reader might possibly be confused at any moment, so I would try to cram in as many explanations in as short of a space as possible: my terminology, the history of my world, cultural idiosyncrasies, and geography, for starters.
I wanted to show readers I had done my homework, that I had created a sensible world, that I had fortified it on every side with unassailable logic. As a result I felt less like a fiction writer than a graduate student defending a doctoral thesis.
I forgot that I was not on trial, and that my primary goal was to make readers feel. Information does not need to be rushed, and information not directly related to the story can be omitted altogether.
When I learned to relax, I was able to take more control of my writing, giving thought not only to what appeared in my novel, but also to where and how I would allow my information to unfold.
It is okay to know more about your world and characters than the readers do. Unless the information is necessary to the story, it is fine to know, but not say, that a character grew up in a foster home, or even that your world was founded by an alien race of giant insectoids.
Incomplete pictures mystify. Imagine a painting of say, a cat that is taking up more space than the frame of a canvas allows, revealing only part of its face or part of its tail. The painting intrigues because it invites viewers to imagine the hidden details outside the frame. The same principle works with fiction.
The information you leave out may manifest as subtle cues that give your world and its characters extra layers of dimension, perhaps taking the form of the mysterious insect statuary scattered along the desert floor or the secretly orphaned character who feels like she does not truly belong anywhere; as long as there are no plot holes, not everything needs explaining.
For fantasy writers like me this is particularly important to remember because extensive world-building creates the danger of overloading readers with arcane information all in one place, leading to jumbled writing that causes eyes to glaze over.
This is especially true if I have not yet given readers a good reason to be interested in my elaborate caste system, alien culture, or unusual form of government. To keep readers turning pages, I want to present information about my world in a way that has some bearing on the conflicts of the present moment.
By far, the hardest part of writing my second fantasy novel was trying to parcel out the voluminous information about my world in manageable doses. In my first draft, the glut of made-up terms I had been so proud of creating congested my narrative so much, it was hard for even me to read.
It became clear that laying out the history, mores, and rules of magic all at once through dialogue and exposition was not going to work.
I came across as a teacher saying to my readers, “Okay, class, Listen up. This is what you will need to know on the pop quiz that I will be giving you at the end of class. Take careful notes and remember everything I am saying, or you will be totally lost in the next chapter.”
This is fine for professors to do, but as a novelist I want to entice, not just educate readers about my imaginary world.
I revised my novel trying to make what was exceedingly difficult appear simple, to make the rules, history, and layout of my world easy to digest. I tried to drop information in a more gradual – and ideally natural – way that would not bring my story to a halt. I incorporated information during action scenes wherever I could, since action engages the imagination more than dryly presented factoids.
Engaging the imagination of the readers is what transforms dry words on a page into a story; in the process, my story becomes more than it is. Readers do more than just translate; they create my story along with me, imagining possibilities that may have never even occurred to me while writing.
Dramatic story action does not just deliver answers; it creates questions. Suppose, for example, I have a lengthy passage of exposition about a race of immortal beings and a long, convoluted history of how they got that way.
I could describe it all within the first few chapters, but there is another way. Suppose I create a dramatic action scene in which a fireman is struggling to put out a hotel fire, knowing there is a baby inside.
He goes inside, fighting through the flames, getting burned, coughing, and despairing that he will find the baby dead; instead he finds a baby girl who is lying on her back in the middle of the flames, cooing happily, her clothes and blankets all burned away, as she reaches for the flame tips like they are amusing toys.
Which is better? Presenting the history of my immortals before or after the fire scene? The advantage of waiting to explain the mythology about immortals after the fire scene is that by then the reader is more than ready for the information, having already wondered: How did the baby survive a fire undamaged?
Exposition can work as a vehicle for laying out the mythology of the immortals, but there is a more dramatic alternative. Revealing pivotal information during an action scene can add depth to the scene while also bringing the information to life.
Who can forget the Star Wars revelation that exploded during a fight scene between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader where Darth Vader says: “I am your father”?
What if Luke’s aunt or uncle had simply told him in the beginning that Darth Vader was his father? The information might have been interesting, but it would not have struck with the force of a light saber to the head, provoking such fierce resistance that Luke lets go of the structure he is clinging to and plunges into free fall.
An important goal of fiction writing is to create an experience that makes readers feel as well as understand.
Sometimes this requires restraint. Great fiction writers are not just information dispensers, but skilled illusionists, magicians who are able to create dazzling effects with words, directing and misdirecting, withholding information, offering clues, and building suspense until the final dramatic flourish when the hidden rabbit comes out of the hat.
The art of writing lies not just in what happens but how and when. The magic is not just in the trick itself but also in the delivery, the conscious control of lights and shadows, the veil of smoke, the flash of mirrors.
If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my new novel “Remembering the Future” is available for purchase on Amazon.