Best ways of delivering exposition?

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Green Glasses Girl
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Best ways of delivering exposition?

#1 Post by Green Glasses Girl » Sun Oct 18, 2015 3:23 pm

I think one aspect that always seems to plague me with writing is coming up with good ways of addressing exposition. Usually it comes off as clunky or hackneyed, and coming up with good or unique ways with bringing up a character's backstory, overview of their world, or explaining terminology is becoming frustrating for me. While there is the notion of "Show, don't tell," it's expected that there is going to be (at some point or another), a character telling you terminology/backstory/explanation in order to convey information to the reader.

I guess my question is: what are good ways of delivering exposition? There are already a lot of devices, but I've seen very few in EVNs that have managed to pull them off effectively. I think the most common variant is the lengthy introductory "This is our world..." that sort of comes off like a Powerpoint presentation if it gets too long. If done poorly (as in giving us too much information at once), it doesn't give much for the reader to discover when the story actually begins.

So I am interested in examples either off the top of your head or drawing examples from fiction that you thought was successful!
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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#2 Post by Fluxx » Sun Oct 18, 2015 3:57 pm

You mean in the beginning? Usually you're gonna have to do those boring explanation scenes sooner or later. I'd do it after an action or after a tension building scene. Or during a action scene in the form of thoughts or Narration. You could spread information about your world slowly out through small nuggets of conversation between characters and light explanations. Just always make sure something is going on. I feel like the backstory is for the author the most, the reader can learn more about the world later on or on their own.

An example I can think of is when Rin was explaining the rules of the holy grail war through narration, while characters Archer and Lancer were fighting a death battle in front of her in fate stay night.
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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#3 Post by KittyKatStar » Sun Oct 18, 2015 4:02 pm

Same here! I sadly fall into the "show your research" traps where - because I pour hours into studying facts and trying to show (semi) realistic stuff - I want to show my work. >_<; And it's hard to avoid just uh throwing it all in there at once. And it sucks when I have to remove 2-3 paragraphs explaining something because I realize it has no bearing on the story.

Trying to think of a few games/shows where I really liked the exposition shown... Note my memory might be hazy on some stuff, so sorry if a few details are wrong =,D

Blood Blockade Battlefront - It DID start off with a short exposition (IIRC?) but a lot of it was through a news report on TV with shots of New York. Everything after that was just organically shown or explained through characters or typing up reports - they'd flash a term and explain what it meant on the screen. It'd only last a few seconds, but it was effective and explained key things before they continued.

Mass Effect - I like how it literally dropped you on this planet to recover something before it all goes to heck. You could spend hours picking up new information in the Codex, but honestly I never felt I had to read that thing besides a few terms. (Thankfully, the text displayed on my TV screen was so tiny >_<; ) You just learned about the world around you by talking to NPCs, or seeing how it works through the main story. It also helped it had characters with vastly difference beliefs and ideals to give you different perspectives in its world building.

A Bride's Story - I... the manga panels are so beautifully illustrated it tells its own story pretty much! I can't really explain - it's just gorgeous and you feel so immersed in its setting. ^^; If you see it around, I do recommend just reading a chapter to get a feel on its storytelling!

I think there's usually a rush to explain everything, especially at the beginning. I played one VN where it went on for paragraphs explaining each magical attack, what it did, and why it was special or uncommon. I then remember a video game did exactly that (super similar intro and everything too), but waited until *after* the battle to clarify a few things. I think it's okay to spread information out and fill in the gaps as the story goes on. ^^; It can be tricky...
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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#4 Post by YonYonYon » Sun Oct 18, 2015 5:04 pm

Also there can be an oblivious character who doesn't know anything and works as readers/players surrogate.

But I'm more a fan of spreaded-through-the-story exposition. At least I want some things that trigger an exposition piece.

Like,
Dad looked distant for a moment. When he noticed that I was watching him, he hurried to apologize.
"I'm sorry, it's just... you smiled just like your mother when she was younger."
"Oh dad..." I didn't know what to say. It's been a year since the accident, but my heart still ached with sharp pain.
instead of
My parents were divorsed, my mom died a year ago, and I never lived in one town more than a months because of my dad's job.
I'm not saying that it's a stellar example, but it's at least something. Seriously, I saw about two or three games that started like the second snippet. No. Don't do that.
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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#5 Post by YossarianIII » Mon Oct 19, 2015 9:28 pm

Green Glasses Girl wrote:
I guess my question is: what are good ways of delivering exposition?

If you're in a Halloween mood and have a strong stomach, David Cronenberg's The Fly is basically a master class in exposition.

If you don't, here's a 12-second clip that summarizes the whole first half. Jeff Goldblum is a twitchy scientist who speaks nonsense, and Geena Davis is a put-together reporter who is alternately annoyed and amused by him -- you can pretty much see all of that in one 12-second scene of dialogue. For stuff like a character's worldview or even backstory, you don't necessarily need a separate part for exposition. It often just comes out organically in story and dialogue.

IMO, with the exception of a few genres like hard sci-fi and high fantasy, you can (and maybe even should) try to get away with a minimal amount of exposition. As you said, "show don't tell." Although actually, I think that if you keep the exposition sparing enough, readers are OK with characters occasionally "telling" expository stuff like "This bomb is going to explode in 30 seconds" -- yeah, it's not Shakespeare, but it gets the message across quickly. Lots of my favorite characters have said things like this, but I didn't realize it until I started looking for it because the moments pass so briefly that you don't even have time to question them.

Definitely not trying to discourage world-building, lore, or anything like that. This is just a way of re-framing exposition that's been helpful for me.

My parents were divorsed, my mom died a year ago, and I never lived in one town more than a months because of my dad's job.
Funnily, enough, this "bad" example is basically a couple of edits away from being the first line of Camus' The Stranger, which is generally considered one of the all-time great openings: "Mother died today." Adding is good, but always remember that subtracting is an option, too! :D


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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#6 Post by YonYonYon » Tue Oct 20, 2015 12:00 pm

Hmm, maybe things depend on the context. Like, in Beach Bounce it looked terrible.
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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#7 Post by kitsubasa » Tue Oct 20, 2015 5:03 pm

I'd second KittyKatStar's Mass Effect recommendation; the exposition there was handled very well, but I think the methods they used would only work in a walkaround game.

To elaborate on her description: in Mass Effect 1, your main exposition dump comes at the Citadel, the second area of the game. You're given some simple tasks to do while you're there (speaking with some major NPCs, getting into a bar fight...), which lead you around the area and past a variety of other NPCs and objects you can investigate. If you want to find out more about the setting, speaking to anyone in the area will give you information. There are ambassadors from other planets who will tell you about their species, monuments to historical events with plaques that describe their significance... but if you'd rather skip the info dump and get going, all you have to do is stick to the main story path and you can avoid the deluge of info.

For exposition that works in visual novel form, I think Ghost Trick is a nice example. Whenever you reach an exposition dump, you're given several options of dialogue to click ('who stole the cookie?' 'what was the cookie made of?' 'where is the cookie now?'), so you can pick the options you're more interested in first. You have to pick all of them eventually, and sometimes the choices will be replaced with new options based on what you learn ('who stole the cookie' -> 'why do you think I did it?'), so it can take a while. But the fact the method allows some interactivity in a potentially dull information-gathering process made it worthwhile -- it might be a good way to handle things if you HAVE to have an info dump somewhere.
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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#8 Post by YossarianIII » Tue Oct 20, 2015 5:42 pm

YonYonYon wrote: Hmm, maybe things depend on the context. Like, in Beach Bounce it looked terrible.

Oh, I agree that your bad example was a good example of a bad example (if that makes sense :) ). I was just trying to show another way to turn bad exposition into good exposition.


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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#9 Post by Parataxis » Fri Oct 23, 2015 9:50 am

I find that the biggest pitfalls about exposition are actually in the amount you deliver at once, and the efficiency of that delivery. Most people reading a visual novel don't mind being told things about the world that they're in and the characters they're dealing with--but they will probably get bored if you have screen after screen of just the character recapping to the audience things that the character should already know. It's really easy to go overboard with this, especially at the start of a story. BUT on the other hand it's also easy to overcompensate and forget that the reader has to know enough about the world/characters to engage with the story.

That said, I come to the second point: efficiency. I don't really believe in the bible of "Show, don't tell." There are plenty of things about your character that you don't need to fully dramatize to communicate to the audience, and a lot of times when you try to show things it can come off as shoehorned or awkward.

Imagine a story where you need to communicate that the main character has an older sister because your mysterious stranger/plot device is her sister's age in school. You also need to know that her sister is an aspiring artist who is applying to college but also secretly applying to art college because she doesn't think her parents would approve for a later subplot. If I was a player and I wanted to know about the mysterious stranger, I will get bored if you waste a page and a half of dialogue weaving this unrelated plot into a conversation. Writing the sentence "My sister loves to draw--she's even applying to art school, but she hasn't told Mom and Dad yet." is much better for me. Short, sweet, gets to the point.

Now I'm not saying you should never Show--for some things in a story the conversation is a ton more efficient. Consider communicating the idea "These two characters are best friends." Having the character think "This person is my best friend" is not just unnatural feeling, but it tells us almost nothing about their relationship. Having a one page conversation of them being friends with each other tells you infinitely more about both the characters and the nature of their relationship--and if you are clever, it can also move forward your plot or world building as well. This is narrative efficiency just as much as as the above.

Overall, I aspire to do my exposition naturalistically, where I split up the information such that things come up in the story in a way that feels natural to the characters involved. I think it makes it feel like less of a chore of you're only being asked to pick up one or two pieces of information at a time. But that doesn't always work especially for sci-fi/fantasy where you often need a lot of information right at the beginning to understand what's happening and they are things that the characters would realistically already know and thus not bring up unprompted. When given the choice between the info dump and that thing wherein two characters talk about something they'd legitimately never say to eachother. (As you might recall magic works this way blah blah blah) I tend to favor the info dump (which can at least be made short) over compromising the fidelity of the character dynamics.

But overall this question is a toughie. I think ideally you are doing everything all the time and just seeing what works the best.

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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#10 Post by Keryee » Mon Nov 09, 2015 1:21 pm

If your VN is set in modern day, then I think conveying significant events through a faux "Breaking News" type event can feel very natural. I think it's already been mentioned, but Blood Blockade Battlefront does this.

If the backstory exposition is something that's supposed to be a bit mysterious and only understood later by the player, though, then I thought that Hatoful Boyfriend (I'm still emotionally traumatized) did something very interesting. After each route, they gave you a little tidbit about the world-- through a journal article, a research report, etc. After that, the true route had more heavy exposition, but it was alluded to all throughout the game.

Still, although that was very well suited to Hatoful in particular, I don't know if it can really be applied to too many other games!

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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#11 Post by SundownKid » Mon Nov 09, 2015 2:28 pm

Whenever possible, deliver it in a natural way.

For example, instead of having a news broadcast about gang violence you could have a character say, "hey man, can you believe how much violence there is in the streets these days?"

Or instead of having a narrator say "In our world, dragons exist" a character could say "I hope there are no dragon attacks today, the last one was scary".

Telling stuff through a narrator should be a tactic of last resort, unless it's a fairy tale, or said narration is important to the plot.

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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#12 Post by LeonDaydreamer » Tue Nov 10, 2015 2:56 pm

Parataxis wrote:I find that the biggest pitfalls about exposition are actually in the amount you deliver at once, and the efficiency of that delivery. Most people reading a visual novel don't mind being told things about the world that they're in and the characters they're dealing with--but they will probably get bored if you have screen after screen of just the character recapping to the audience things that the character should already know. It's really easy to go overboard with this, especially at the start of a story. BUT on the other hand it's also easy to overcompensate and forget that the reader has to know enough about the world/characters to engage with the story.
I agree, it's a huge pet peeve for me when you have characters that have been friends forever or have been together for a long time, suddenly have the sort of conversation they might have on day one or two, simply for the benefit of the audience, or even just to fill time. If characters are having an expository conversation, there has to be a very good reason why it didn't happen earlier. For instance, maybe your character has lived their whole lives thinking one way, but are just now starting to learn the real truth about their world.

In general, I would be inclined to have the characters say almost nothing for the benefit of the player. Usually you would have to assume that the characters lived in their world their whole lives and have become comfortable with it. They don't have to go out of their way to talk about things that everyone already knows or about things they discussed years ago, it doesn't feel natural. Instead, I might have the characters deal with some of the everyday events that are normal in this world for you to get a sense of what life is like for them, and I could have the details of the story slowly emerge as you interact with others, rather than dropping it all off at once. But I might be more mystery-minded than others, and I can imagine cases where you would want to do just the opposite... If you need to preface your story with a description of the nature of this world to spare your characters awkward and unrealistic interactions, summing it up in a few short lines and then jumping into the story might not be a bad way of doing it. It can really depend.
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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#13 Post by RotGtIE » Tue Nov 17, 2015 3:48 am

I find that the problem is not so much in the delivery of exposition itself, but rather in the way that a story necessitates exposition to an excessive degree. Sometimes, the problem is inherent in whatever is being explained to the reader in the first place, and that problem is usually that the object in question - whether it be an outlandish setting or a character's incredibly complex past - is too far from the target audience's "baseline" to effectively communicate without having to go into a detailed explanation.

For this reason, I recommend anchoring closely to reality anything that you will expect to have to explain to the reader at some point. Preferably, you should not have to insult your readers by explaining things they either already understand or can pick up on with a few implications and context clues.

As an example, let's say you wanted to write about a low-magic fantasy setting wherein mages were a secret to much of the world, due to the dangerous powers they wielded. Rather than explaining this directly to the reader or via a monologue/dialogue from one character to another, you could instead write in a scene whereby the protagonist - a non-mage - encounters a suspicious person inscribing some glowing runes into a wall. The protagonist gasps in surprise, alerting the mage to his presence, at which point the mage turns on the protagonist and, lamenting that he cannot allow the protagonist to live after what he has seen, begins to churn up a fireball in his open palm. The protagonist staggers back, shocked and terrified by the display, then turns heel and sprints away in the hope of escaping with his life.

Through a scene such as this, it need never be explicitly stated that this setting contains mages, that their magic is a secret, and that their powers are dangerous. Use of magic is demonstrated through a character's actions, and the surprise of a protagonist at even seeing it demonstrates to the reader that magic itself is something he did not expect to ever see. It need not be said that magic is dangerous or that mages must keep their powers secret, for the act of the mage turning on the protagonist and attempting to kill him just for witnessing the magic tells the reader all they need to know about just how big a secret magic is, and the demonstration of a mage winding up a spell which has obviously lethal implications lets the reader know how dangerous magic can be. A great deal can be explained to the reader without the presence of anything like a lecture. The reader can draw their own conclusions after the scene demonstrates which norms they can expect to carry over from the real world, and in what ways they should be prepared to accept those expectations will be bent or broken.

If you find yourself unable to elegantly describe your setting or story to the reader in a way such as this, you might want to try backing off and re-approaching the telling of your story from a different angle - one which starts the reader off in a much more grounded part of the setting, so that you can gradually ease them into the deep end without having to explicitly tell them that they're departing the shallow waters of what they are already familiar with.

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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#14 Post by Parataxis » Tue Nov 17, 2015 11:20 pm

RotGtIE wrote:I find that the problem is not so much in the delivery of exposition itself, but rather in the way that a story necessitates exposition to an excessive degree. Sometimes, the problem is inherent in whatever is being explained to the reader in the first place, and that problem is usually that the object in question - whether it be an outlandish setting or a character's incredibly complex past - is too far from the target audience's "baseline" to effectively communicate without having to go into a detailed explanation.

For this reason, I recommend anchoring closely to reality anything that you will expect to have to explain to the reader at some point. Preferably, you should not have to insult your readers by explaining things they either already understand or can pick up on with a few implications and context clues.

As an example, let's say you wanted to write about a low-magic fantasy setting wherein mages were a secret to much of the world, due to the dangerous powers they wielded. Rather than explaining this directly to the reader or via a monologue/dialogue from one character to another, you could instead write in a scene whereby the protagonist - a non-mage - encounters a suspicious person inscribing some glowing runes into a wall. The protagonist gasps in surprise, alerting the mage to his presence, at which point the mage turns on the protagonist and, lamenting that he cannot allow the protagonist to live after what he has seen, begins to churn up a fireball in his open palm. The protagonist staggers back, shocked and terrified by the display, then turns heel and sprints away in the hope of escaping with his life.

...

If you find yourself unable to elegantly describe your setting or story to the reader in a way such as this, you might want to try backing off and re-approaching the telling of your story from a different angle - one which starts the reader off in a much more grounded part of the setting, so that you can gradually ease them into the deep end without having to explicitly tell them that they're departing the shallow waters of what they are already familiar with.
I understand this point of view but I find it incredibly limiting to the stories you can tell. By requiring the story to start in shallow water, you actively cut yourself off from any story where the Protagonist is really a part of the world you are writing in. Now, I'm as happy with Harry Potter as the next Gal, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy some The Iliad or Ender's Game or The Golden Compass.

Like, imagine the same situation that you described from the mage's point of view: Oh sure, you could play it the way you mentioned--but if I was playing a game and in the first few minutes my character turned around and threatened to kill some random dude without an explanation, I'd be pretty put off. I might even get the exactly wrong information out of such a scene: "My character is a psychopath" rather than "Magic is secret in this world". Whereas a simple two sentences of exposition inside the character's head could introduce the dilemma nicely--you could maybe even a weave it into a short conversation if you're clever. But until you have the dilemma of a secret magical world, the character's choice about what happens next doesn't mean anything to the player.

Sometimes good and interesting and well done stories don't have a clear entry point for the audience, and that's OK as long as you don't make it too arduous a task to catch up, and yes that involves some exposition sometimes. Ideally it doesn't involve "lectures", or at least not long ones, but that doesn't mean that delivering exposition this way should never be on the table.

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Re: Best ways of delivering exposition?

#15 Post by czxcjx » Thu Nov 19, 2015 1:23 am

The best way is to write well

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. "

As we can see from the opening of Moby Dick, this paragraph simply tells us that Ishmael wants to go to sea, but:

1. There is poetry ("Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul..." and the whole rhythm)
2. There is sarcasm ("that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off")
3. There is a Classical reference ("This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.")

And since Melville has like 5-10 styles of languages throughout the book, even when he's just talking about shipwork and sailor stuff, he's never boring.

The answer I take to exposition is thus to ensure the information receives as many permutations as possible, acquires as many voices as possible, has rhythm, and, if possible, comedy. Ever since Hemingway popularized minimalism, this kind of stylistic flourish has been regulated only to the sidelines of the most obscure literature.

Either that or there's the Douglas Adams approach:

http://www.angelfire.com/ca3/tomsnyder/hg-1-00.html

As seen here, simply introducing Earth also includes one joke per line, as well as philosophical implications.

People always like to say 'show not tell', but I would prefer you just tell it to me straight in an interesting way, with the best of your writing capacities. Whilst structure, narrative, and all that is important, there is simply no escaping 'just write bloody good or entertaining prose' as your answer to anything.

Even in a visual format like Anime, the Tatami Galaxy is basically exposition + wit + visual imagery The Anime.
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