Let’s be honest, fellow fantasy writers. Plenty of authors have turned the word “exposition” almost into a curse word, and we with our epic plots and magic battles are the worst offenders. The very mention of the e-word makes all of us shudder, writer and reader alike, and yet when readers pick up a new fantasy book, they almost expect us to throw a heap of backstory at them. And I too am guilty of writing unimaginative exposition.
But do we really want to settle for such low expectations? It’s time for us to break the chain and make our backstories interesting! This week, I’m exploring the three biggest offenders in fantasy: prologues, infodumps, and villain monologues. Next week, I’ll share the ways that I avoid these three rascally problems. Ready? Here we go.
Starting with Act I, our first offender is the entirely dispensable prologue. You could find it in almost any fantasy, from The Lord of the Rings to Eragon. This prologue appears just before the first chapter and usually (though not always) has very little to do with the book except to introduce us to a fantasy world. While it might seem like the most efficient way to break in a new reader, it is also the most yawn-worthy. Case in point:
In the days when dragons flew and elves still walked beneath the trees, when kings warred and wizards worked magic, two travelers walked slowly on a country road under a canopy of stars.
“I wish we need not have taken this journey,” sighed the first.
His companion nodded without turning. “No one wished it- but someone must get the message to our allies. We must find the one with the Mark.”
“How will we know him?”
“The elves always said that the Mark was given to the only survivor of his village. In elder days we fought wars with…”
And so on.
This prologue of mine is rife with problems, and not just stylistic ones. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, most readers expect a boring prologue in a fantasy book. Therefore, they will automatically skip the paragraphs under the heading “Prologue” and so miss any vital information that I might put in here. No way around it; people just don’t read prologues. Honestly, when was the last time you read the prologue?
Secondly, the other guy most likely knows all this by heart. Why does his companion need to explain it over again? And for that matter, these characters are insignificant to the story. Why don’t I just start with the one with the Mark in his daily life? Most of this information will need to be re-explained to the protagonist when we find him; why not wait until then to share all this information?
Our second troublemaker comes in the form of a big infodump, typically toward the beginning of Act I. This is in essence exactly the same as a prologue, only rewritten and placed in a new chapter. We overcome the temptation to write a prologue only to transfer that lengthy explanation of backstory to another chapter. There is of course a right way and a wrong way to do it. Most new writers do it the wrong way by having our hero’s Mentor plunk down and explain the history of whatever fantasy world we have in our heads.
What is the problem? An infodump is simply too much, too fast. By definition, it dumps information on us all at once, devoid of elbow room or breathing space. Often this information isn’t even relevant to the plot. In an old draft of a story I never published, the hero is chosen for a quest (sound familiar? He even had a magical sword to go with it) and has to have the entire history of the world explained to him in a nice chunk of exposition. In one sitting. People just can’t read paragraphs like that. It’s not interesting to them, and they won’t need all this prior knowledge to enjoy the rest of the story.
If we can move past the prologue and infodumps, we might still end up throwing exposition at readers even in the third act of the story. I speak, of course, of our third troublemaker, the villain’s monologue. We have all seen this one before, especially in movies for kids. All the little kids watching Frozen (spoilers…?) just won’t understand why Hans wants to take over Arendelle- despite the fact that he already told Anna about his twelve elder brothers. When we encounter this illusion of a problem, we usually end up writing a scene in which the antagonist faces the protagonist (usually in a jail) and explains all the ins and outs of their complex plan- under the guise of “gloating”.
Here’s the thing: some villains might be inclined to gloat, but most antagonists aren’t that foolish. If you had your mortal enemy in your power and were just about to execute the final crushing move, would you reveal every part of your plan to them? Of course not. Hans, for example, has no reason to tell Anna that he deceived her- she knows that by now- or to explain that he’s going to kill Elsa.
And that, fellow writers, covers our three biggest enemies in exposition. Tune in next week for part two, and I’ll share my own techniques for working in the backstory.