Writing Science Fiction: How to Approach Exposition in Sci-Fi Novels

Good writing is good writing, no matter which genre you work in. But there are some areas of special concern to writers of speculative fiction. In this excerpt from the book Writing Fantasy and Science FictionEnder’s Game author Orson Scott Card explains why exposition can present particular challenges when you’re writing science fiction, and tips for overcoming those challenges. To learn more about this topic and other nuances of writing sci-fi novels, check out the 4th Annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Virtual Conference, July 20-22, 2-18.


Writing Science Fiction: How to Approach Exposition in Sci-Fi Novels

One area in which SF differs from all other genres is the handling of exposition—the orderly revelation of necessary information to the reader. … Information is to your audience as water is to a plant—it’s the life of the story, and yet you have to keep it in balance. Too much raw information up front and the reader can’t keep it all straight; too little information and the reader can’t figure out what’s happening. The result in either case is confusion, impatience, boredom. The audience quickly learns that you don’t know how to tell a story, and you’ve lost them.

Instead, information must be trickled into a story, always just enough to know what’s happening. … This balance is especially difficult to achieve in science fiction and fantasy because our stories take place in worlds that differ from the known world. We not only have to introduce characters and immediate situations, we also have to let readers know how the rules of our universe differ from the normal rules, and show them the strangeness of the place in which the events occur.

In the early days of science fiction, when the genre was still being invented, key information was given in huge lumps, often by having one character explain things to another. This was often badly handled, as when one character explained things to another who already knew it:

“As you know, Dr. Smith, the rebolitic manciplator causes the electrons of any given group ofatoms to reverse their charge and become anti-electrons.”

“Yes, Dr. Whitley, and of course that will cause an immediate explosion unless the rebolitic manciplation is conducted inside an extremely powerful Boodley field.”

“And the only facility in Nova Scotia that is capable of maintaining a Boodley field of sufficient power is—”


“That’s right. Dr. Malifax’s lab on his houseboat in the Bay of Fundy.”

I hardly need to tell you that this is no longer regarded as a viable solution to the problem of exposition. … So you have to reveal information very carefully, and usually by implication. The best way to tell you what I mean is to show you, by going through the opening paragraphs of Octavia Butler’s novel Wild Seed. (I’ve chosen this book because nobody handles exposition better than Butler—and also because it’s a terrific novel that you ought to read for the sheer pleasure of it.)

Let’s start with the first sentence:

Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his
seed villages.

You have just been given an astonishing amount of information—but it has been done in such a way that you probably aren’t aware of how much you already know.

Abeyance

What do we learn from this sentence? Doro didn’t intend to meet the woman. His purpose at the time was to see what was left of—what? A “seed village.”

What in the world is a seed village?

We don’t know what a seed village is. And Butler doesn’t tell us—because Doro, who knows perfectly well what a seed village is, wouldn’t stop and think about that information right now. But in due time we will find out what a seed village is. So we hold that question in abeyance. We have a hook with the label “seed village” over it; we trust that the author will let us know in due course what information should be hung on that hook.

This principle of abeyance is one of the protocols of reading speculative fiction that makes it difficult for some people who aren’t familiar with the genre to grasp what’s going on. Experienced SF readers recognize that they don’t know what a seed village is, and that the author doesn’t expect them to know.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing: How to Build Fantastic Worlds

Instead, this is one of the differences, one of the things that is strange in this created world, and the author will in due course explain what the term means. … Science fiction and fantasy writers handle exposition this way, by dropping in occasional terms as the viewpoint character thinks of them, and explaining them only later. The SF reader doesn’t expect to receive a complete picture of the world all at once. Rather he builds up his own picture bit by bit from clues within the text.

Implication

Butler is not being obscure; she is being clear. While “seed villages” goes unexplained, we are told that this is merely one of them, and that Doro thinks of more than one seed village as “his.” Furthermore, “seed village” is not a wholly obscure term. We know what a village is; we know what seed means when it’s used as an adjective. Seed potatoes, for instance, are small potatoes or parts of potatoes that are planted in the ground to grow into larger ones. By implication, Doro is somehow using villages as seed—or perhaps he has the villagers growing seeds for him. We aren’t sure, but we do know that Doro is working on growing something and that he has more than one village involved in it.

This, again, is one of the protocols of reading SF. The reader is expected to extrapolate, to find the implied information contained in new words. … The SF writer is thus able to imply far more information than he actually states; the SF reader will pick up most or all of these implications. Indeed, this is one reason why you must be so rigorous about creating your worlds to quite a deep level of detail, because your readers will constantly be leaping past what you actually say to find the implications of what you’re saying—and if you haven’t thought things through to that level, they’ll catch you being sloppy or silly or just plain wrong.

Literalism

The protocols of abeyance and implication, which give you a great deal of power, also remove one of the tools that mainstream writers rely on most heavily: metaphor. Especially at the beginning of a speculative story, all strange statements are taken literally. “Seed village” isn’t a metaphor, it’s what the village actually is. …

This is one of the key differences between the SF audience and any other. When confronted with a strange juxtaposition of familiar words, both groups say, “What does the author mean by this?” But the SF audience expects the term to be literal, to have a real extension within the world of the story, while the mainstream audience expects the term to be metaphorical, to express an attitude toward or give a new understanding of something that is part of the known world.

When a SF writer says, “She took heavy mechanical steps toward the door,” there is always the possibility that in fact her legs are machinery; the mainstream writer assumes this metaphorically expresses the manner of her walking, and would regard that word usage as a grotesque joke if she did have artificial legs.

This doesn’t mean that you, as a SF writer, are forbidden to use metaphor. It does mean that early in a story, when the rules of your created world are not yet fully explained, you have to avoid metaphors that might be confusing to experienced SF readers. Later, when the rules are firmly set, your readers will know that terms that imply things that are not possible in your world should be taken metaphorically.

Do recall the difference between metaphor, simile, and analogy. Similes and analogies, which explicitly state that one thing is like another thing, are still available; it’s only metaphors, which state that one thing is another thing, that are forbidden. … [But] as a general rule you should use only similes and analogies that would also be available to the characters in the story, so that the entire experience of reading contributes to the illusion of being in the story’s milieu.


Learn more about writing science fiction in the 4th Annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Virtual Conference, July 20-22, 2018.

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