Writing Exposition: Visual Aids

In previous posts about exposition, I noted that before providing background information, you should try to make readers want that information. You should also present the information in an emotional context—instead of a dry recitation of facts, you should have one or more characters who view those facts with emotion. For example, if you’re going to give a history lesson, don’t have it given by a detached history professor. Have the lesson delivered by someone who loves or hates what happened, so they can inject some feeling into the facts.

Emotion is a big part of providing exposition with “sizzle”. Another part is arranging for an active presentation rather than a passive one. My mantra on this is, A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

At the low end of activeness, you can use visual aids. Let’s take a simple example.

Robin took me downstairs to a quiet room lit by a single candle. The walls were lost in shadow, but as I entered, I could see stray glints of metal all around me. Robin went to one wall and came back with a sword that he held for me to examine in the candlelight.

With a hushed and reverent voice, Robin said, “This sword belonged to my great-grandmother. She fought in the Ice Brigade during the First Mage War. See how the hilt is scorched? She slammed it into a Russian fire mage at the Battle of Berlin. She couldn’t stab the mage because all the enchantments on the blade had been exhausted in previous fighting. But she had a tiny bit of blessing left on the hilt: enough that she could hammer the mage in the head without getting the sword completely incinerated.

This passage packs in a lot of information. Since it mentions Russia and Berlin, the story clearly takes place on a version of our world. But it’s a world where magic exists, and where people with swords fight mages. Women can be part of military brigades. It’s possible for weapons to be enchanted, but those enchantments wear off.

Instead of just reciting these facts, I’ve created a scene where the facts arise in connection with showing off the sword. There isn’t a ton of drama in this scene, but even so, there’s some action. Characters are moving around, looking at things, and so on.

I could go on to have the narrator describe the sword in more detail, and I could use those details to reveal other facts about the world. I could also have Robin show the narrator other mementos from the room, perhaps dealing with later wars and other important events. In this way, I can convey a lot of background without much trouble.

Using objects is a simple way of turning exposition into an active scene rather mere passive statements. In future posts, I’ll look at other approaches.

[Sword diagrams from Nathan Robinson via the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

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