Embedding exposition into your story

Sometimes you simply must include exposition into your story, especially in science fiction when you’re dealing with entirely new worlds, alien races and technologies. Good writers handle this dilemma by embedding expository information into their stories.

Here are some ways to that:
• Viewpoint character recalls the information – The “captain’s log” convention is a way to accomplish this. Note that most log entries are only a couple of sentence long and focus on conflict.
• Viewpoints character seeks out such information and discovers it in notes, journals, articles, etc. which is then summarized – Mr. Spock and Data often do this in “Star Trek” by giving the relevant facts from the library computer on extraterrestrial species, exoworlds and historical events.
• Another character tells this information to viewpoint character – This other character must have a plausible motive for telling it, however. In addition, the character who the information is told to shouldn’t disappear once he hears the background, instead he needs to play an integral part in the plot beyond being the receiver of an info dump. An example of this successfully being done is in Steve Alten’s “Domain,” in which the reader needs to know the basic layout of a psychiatric treatment center; in the opening chapter, Alten has the center’s chief of psychiatry explain it to the main character, who is on her first day of an internship at the center. Alten wisely limits the description to a few brisk sentence.
• Viewpoint character experiences the world through his five senses – The character should capture details that infer background information the reader needs to know. If you need to describe the physical makeup of a world, give the tour of it through the viewpoint character’s five senses.

Ultimately, it’s best if readers learn about the setting or novum as a byproduct of engaging action. As science fiction writer and editor Stanley Schmidt recommends, “Know as much as you can about your background – and tell no more than you have to.”

Whatever you do, avoid embedding exposition by having one character say to another, “As you know …” This is commonly known in science fiction as a “Stapledon.”

Even when exposition is necessary for expediency’s sake, it should appear sparingly. A quick sentence noting some historical event or a common trait of an alien species is fine. After all, on that rare occasion, showing rather than telling would add far too much length to a story. If falling into this situation, remember to only include just the amount of exposition that is needed to move the story forward.