Explaining Things In Fiction

Image of a sledgehammer

Sometimes what feels like a sledgehammer blow of information to the writer may be just a gentle tap for the reader.

One of the things we spend some time on in the Writing F&SF class is how to explain things to the reader. As part of this, I usually give them the Expository Lump exercise from Ursula LeGuin’s excellent book on writing, Steering the Craft.

Many of us know the term “infodump,” where a whooooole bunch of information necessary for understanding the story gets thrown at the reader, sometimes in the form of dialogue, sometimes outright chunks of books, or some other form. We want to avoid these because they’re usually dry and a little boring, and because they put readers off.

But at the same time, there is information we -need- for readers to know. And sometimes we may not realize it. If we don’t give it, then events may seem unlikely or heavy-handed or even incomprehensible.

I’ve been reworking a novel for the final time, and one thing I’ve realized in doing it is that the progression of scenes in the last section is not clear. I needed to spend more time being clear that the characters were moving from one place to another so readers could understand where they ended up. And I’d been coy about it, to the point where the reader just wasn’t getting that information.

This is where getting someone else to read a piece is crucial. Because that progression is so clear in the writer’s head that we cannot perceive what’s missing for the reader. One of the most important questions you can ask a reader is “What questions did this leave you with?” or “What didn’t you understand?” Because it’s just as easy to be too subtle — perhaps even easier — than to be overt, since what feels very obvious to you may not be a fraction as apparent to your reader.

And holy cow, how is it that in this version, which I had sent out to my agent already, that I found this on one page: “(insert description later)”? ARGH.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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