The exposition swingometer

December 9, 2013 The Plains of Kallanash, Writing musings 0

The Brightmoon world is quite complicated, and ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ has an intricate social structure that’s unlike anything in the modern or historical world (as far as I know). It features multiple marriages, with from four to twelve members, which means that many conventional assumptions about the relationships involved simply don’t work.

For instance, it can’t be assumed that sex is an automatic part of the relationship, as it would be between a couple. With two couples, one couple can be sexually active and the other not, one husband may have both wives, or both husbands may share one wife. Even if they are all sexually active, the actual pairings may vary, and can be anything those involved want, from straightforward couples to a complete free-for-all. With more than two couples in the marriage, the combinations can get much more complicated. Anything goes, so long as they all agree to it.

I’ve complicated things by including official Companions (close friends of a husband or wife) who are also a part of the marriage, although an outer orbit, with the Karningholders (husbands and wives) the nucleus. Typically, the husbands and wives sleep with each other, and the male and female Companions can sleep with each other, but while the active wives are obliged to provide sex to their husbands, the female Companions don’t have to have sex with anyone. They are expected to service any inactive husbands and the male Companions, but they decide amongst themselves which of them will take on that responsibility and how. However, the husbands and wives can, if they wish, form pairings with the Companions. This is not adultery, since the Companions are part of the marriage.

Then there are the children. The wives’ children are credited to the lead husband (he is their official father), and the Companions’ children are credited to the second husband. It doesn’t matter at all who the biological father is, since there’s no concept of inheritance. Even in a basic two couple marriage, eight women can produce a lot of children. With six couples, six wives plus eighteen female Companions equals a lot of children. Yet all the children have equal status, are regarded as brothers and sisters, and have exactly the same education and opportunity to try to become highers (ruling elite).

Then there are the skirmishes, the religious system, the border war with the barbarians, the routine interviews, the sky ships, the moons, several thousand years of history and many other details of the background, both cultural and physical. How on earth to convey all of this, and make it understandable? How to avoid info-dumps? How to avoid endless references the reader can’t possibly understand?

There are various ways of doing this. The one least used these days is the external info-dump: a prologue, appendix or (occasionally) a separate book explaining everything. Or, at the other extreme, the Malazan approach: simply parachute the reader into the middle of the action without explaining anything, and trust him/her to get it, eventually. I’m told Malazan gets good somewhere around the middle of book three…

In between these extremes are the options most people use: dribble information out as and when you can, avoiding info-dumps but trying not to strand the reader in a fog of confusion. This is why I call it a swingometer, because a writer can veer about between the exposition and just-keep-up ends of the spectrum. There’s no one right answer. Too much explaining will bore the reader who got the subtleties already, too little is confusing, and every reader requires a different level of exposition.

Fantasy is both more difficult and less, in this context. It’s less difficult because fantasy readers understand that a reference to the Klurnst or the Hidden Craw Men or the Council of Larrooming (or whatever) will be explained in due course. It’s an unspoken agreement, and readers trust the author not to break it. There’s even a certain frisson of excitement at that first reference to magic or the gods or that strange moon in the sky.

It’s more difficult because, as shown above, there can be huge wads of setting and backstory to get across. It’s so much easier if your story is set in New York or London or the Australian outback; you can sketch the setting with a few well-chosen words, and the reader already has enough information to fill in the blanks. A couple of sentences about furnishings or clothes, and they already know whether the character is rich or poor, artistic or conventional, gregarious or a loner. With fantasy, the author has to do all the legwork. A recent book I read had several chapters at the beginning that were virtually incomprehensible to me, a veritable blizzard of meaningless names and titles and places and uniforms and references to customs and beliefs. It was a good 20% of the way through before things settled down and the plot really sparked to life.

And this is perhaps the point. It’s all very well starting books with a bang, but there’s also a need for the reader to get to know the main characters and learn a little bit about their world. They need to know what the status quo is, how that might change and what the stakes are. With fantasy, especially non-urban fantasy, this can take a very long time. But the general principle is that the crisis point, the moment of no return, when the main character burns all possible bridges, should come around 25% of the way into the book. There has to be some initial trigger before that, something that changes things and sets the main character on the road to irrevocable change, but it takes a quarter of the book to reach the first true crisis. In fantasy, where a book can easily be 150,000 words long, or more (some are twice that, and ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ is 220,000 words at present), this means a long, sometimes slow start. But that world-building, the settling in of characters, the drip drip of exposition, is all essential in laying the foundation for the action to come.

So no author should be afraid to leave things unexplained until later, or to take the time to explain slowly. But how to avoid info-dumps? One way is through dialogue. So long as it sounds natural, and not as though the characters are explaining things to each other that they already know (the ‘As you know, Bob…’ principle), this gets a lot of information across very smoothly and palatably. Another way is to toss in an extra sentence here and there with a tiny amount of information. If you do this well, the reader will hardly notice. Perhaps the best way, though, is a combination of these. Have a character mention in passing something intriguing, but leave it dangling as a hook. So long as there aren’t too many of these stray hooks left lying around, the reader will desperately want the story behind each one, so when the time comes to explain it, it will be: oh good, at last we get to find out about X.

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