One of the first rules in “So You Want To Be A Writer,” the beginning writer’s book of rules I have just now made up, is “Show, Don’t Tell.” A corollary of “Show, Don’t Tell” is: “Exposition Is Bad.” This is a good rule for beginning writers; it warns them against spending the first fifteen pages of their story telling the reader about the fantabulous history of the magical land of Xenovia, or the founding of the town of Humble Hill where their story begins, or the entire childhood of their heroine. Get to the action, let the action tell the story. Good rule.
Like any rule, though, it is not universal. There are times when you will need exposition, especially in cases where there is something different about the world that you need to communicate to the reader. How much time you spend on this depends on how difficult it’s going to be for the reader to figure out the world, and how essential figuring out the world is to the story. The Lord Darcy mysteries take place in a Renaissance-era England (I may be misremembering the time period, but it’s around then) where magic is a skill like woodsmithing or archery. The books do not start with a paragraph about how magic works. They set the stage (England circa 1700) and then quickly show a character performing a magic spell. This is not, we see immediately, unusual. That’s all we need to know.
But what if your book is set in an alternate Nebraska in the early 1900s in a past where the British won the War of Rebellion in 1778, the Confederacy won the Revolutionary War in 1865,
and highly evolved intelligent ears of corn are conspiring with aliens on the moon to increase rainfall in the heartland by 20%? Chances are you won’t be able to situate the reader in the world without a little explanation. So how do you go about it?
Don’t take the awkward solution of having exposition come out in dialogue. Readers react to that rather like you’d react to your parents trying to talk hip to you in high school. All the words are there, but something just ain’t natural. [This isn’t to say that the time-honored device of introducing your world to the reader by introducing it to a newly-arrived character is bad; it just has to be set up better, and informed in equal parts by dialogue and discovery. But that’s another post. Remind me to write that one sometime.]
My solution is to find the one or two elements that it is critical for the reader to understand immediately. Bring those out first. Start the story rolling. Introduce the rest of the world gradually. Maybe you’ve plotted out in intricate detail the brilliant military strategy by which General Lee led his Graycoats to victory at Appamattox. If that’s the core of your story, start there. But if your story is about a young girl who discovers the corn’s nefarious plot and is worried about the increase in mosquitos, then maybe you just need to start with “Vanessa caught the corn talking to the man in the moon one night,” and go from there. Let General Lee’s brilliance wait until chapter 5, when her father is talking about his wartime memories.
This sounds obvious, but what it forces you to do is take a step back, look at the construction of your world, and see how your story relates to it. There may be cherished elements of your world that are not important to your story at all, and so the reader may never know about them. That hurts; you’ve put a lot of thought into it. I have a solution for that, too.
Write another story.