If you read much fantasy or science fiction, you’re probably used to sloppy exposition. SFF writers routinely err on the side of a) giving too much information and b) not giving enough. Most struggle particularly to find the right balance of doling out details at a manageable pace. After all, readers rarely agree on how much information is enough and how much is overkill.

Some writers still knock it out of the park, however. This article explores how Naomi Novik handles exposition in her 2020 novel A Deadly Education.

Alternate approaches to exposition and reader onboarding

Before getting into Novik’s approach, I want to talk through some alternate approaches to onboarding readers into the writer’s creation. There are all kinds of rules and tricks to try smoothing the playing field for a variety of readers. Some bank on reader taste and individual preference, while other types of exposition work more unilaterally.

Staggering character introductions to lighten the exposition load on the reader

If you’re writing something like The Lord of the Rings, your readers will need to learn a lot of people’s names. So, you could spread them out. Writers often introduce just one or two new faces per scene or per chapter, for instance. Tolkien isn’t known for playing by anyone’s storytelling rules, but even his approach to exposition paces character introductions fairly evenly across the sprawling story—and readers do in fact remember the ones that really matter.

Further reading: Actual Data on Why People Love The Lord of the Rings

Spreading out unique terms to keep things readable

Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch introduces a lot of distinct terms, places, magical phenomena, etc. for how short a book it is. Okorafor keeps the reading experience very manageable, however, by putting forward new instances of magic, novel locations, never-before-seen demonic entities, fresh serial killers, all the stuff. This is very similar in concept to staggering character introductions, though clever writers (like Okorafor) overlap these techniques by giving enough familiar material to keep things recognizable as they move along.

The “show, don’t tell” bit

In defense of that old and 50% useless adage, many current SFF writers try to avoid overt explanations of anything in their settings. “That’s telling, not showing,” many of them say.

It’s not, actually. All writing is telling. It’s just telling readers surface information instead of telling substantial stuff.

The “show, don’t tell” adage serves writers well when they find ways to show meaningful information. Even though show-don’t-tellers tend to write bulky books where little actually happens (because they’re so fixated on not narrating anything directly), this remains a popular approach to overall exposition.

A Chekov’s Gun angle into exposition and worldbuilding

The majority of science fiction and fantasy writers today seem to favor a sort of Chekov’s gun approach to worldbuilding. They accomplish this by introducing key information before it becomes truly relevant to the reader and then repeating relevant tidbits when the big moment of arrival comes. The argument is that this rewards readers who’ve been paying attention. In reality it’s probably more about simplifying the reading experience. After all, plenty of readers need that second or third iteration to get new information down.

Naomi Novik takes a simpler worldbuilding route

At risk of oversimplifying, here’s how Novik takes on most of the worldbuilding challenges in A Deadly Education.

When readers need to know something new, she gives them the information.

And that’s just about it.

Yes, it sounds uber basic. The straightforwardness of the technique belies how tough it is to do. It’s also hard to find examples that both make sense and show impact in context. Here’s one, however, to show how this works:

“I was sitting with my back to the queue. That’s the safer way to sit—if you’re friendless—since it puts you that much closer to the mass of moving students, with a better view of the doors.”

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

This brief passage gives new information (that is surprisingly relevant) about our narrator’s survival practices and social life. it does so in a moment that readers need the information. It shows—via our narrator’s actions—and offers exposition to make sense of the action.

Here’s another passage immediately after the author introduces monsters called maw-mouths.

“The one and only way to stop a maw-mouth is to give it indigestion. If you rush into the maw-mouth on your own, with a powerful enough shield, then you have a chance to get inside before it can start eating you. In theory, if you manage to reach the core, you can burst it apart from there. But mostly people don’t get that far.” 

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

At risk of spoilers, let’s just say that it’s important for the reader to know about maw-mouths. But it wouldn’t really have been important 50 pages earlier.

Why more straightforward exposition works for Novik and others

There are some real benefits to this no nonsense approach to exposition. First, it limits the need for repetition. Ancillary to this, it makes for shorter books overall (something Novik has done well for nearly 20 years but which many SFF authors never achieve). Novik’s expository style is actually a very efficient way to support more plodding deliveries of information too, since she doesn’t have to do plot gymnastics to fabricate excuses for why readers can now get the needed information (another common failing in SFF writing).

The dangers are many, however. If you wait until the moment to give the needed information, you might interrupt the flow of something pivotal to the plot. The background lore might be boring in comparison. Your exposition might come across as the dreaded infodump that SFF authors employed so heavily in the 70s and 80s. These reasons are probably part of why authors have shifted to less obvious, direct methods of exposition.

The reality is that some readers have come to call this kind of linear exposition “bad writing.” I beg to differ.

Here’s a non-Novik example from Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. I share this example as counterpoint since Sanderson makes consistent, strong, even vocal use of the Chekov’s Gun approach to giving information in advance. But he also finds mileage in a more step-by-step system of producing the right information at the right moment.

Here’s the example from the middle of a series-central assisination scene:

“[Szeth] slammed the door just as the guards arrived.

“The Stormlight held the door in the frame with the strength of a hundred arms. A Full Lashing bound objects together, holding them fast until the Stormlight ran out. It took longer to create—and drained Stormlight far more quickly—than a Basic Lashing.”

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Small interruption, some useful information that informs many following scenes, and then the scene goes on. It’s that simple. This sort of exposition makes things so easy for readers. If only other writers would get over themselves and just give the information they want their readers to have.

My typical caveats: There are other ways to handle exposition

There are plenty of excellent writers who never dip a lone finger into such obvious exposition. That’s fine too. There are other ways to impart what readers need to know. I’m working on a blog post about Steven Erikson’s Malazan books, actually—and he leans far away from this approach to giving readers’ information.

My point is not that everyone should do it the same way. I’m not even saying to throw out the “show, don’t tell” saying (though I should write more about that sometime because it’s not great writing advice by itself).

Rather, I submit that there’s nothing wrong with just sharing what readers should understand in your world. No need to beat around the bush or mask your exposition—especially when, as Novik does in A Deadly Education, you can let the narrative voice freewheel at the same time you inform the reader.

If you want a short, punchy book, there’s a lot you can learn from Novik’s polished technique. And you’ll probably enjoy the book too.

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Headshot of epic fantasy author Stephen Taylor.

About the Author

Stephen Taylor is the author of The Witherclaw Trilogy as well as short fiction appearing in The Future FireMYTHIC Magazine, The Centropic Oracle, and other publications. His short story “Only an Ocean” won a Silver Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. When he’s not writing, he’s often playing my violin or wandering in the woods.

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