The great challenge of writing fantasy fiction is also one of the genre’s strengths. Fantasy fiction transports us to a world different from our own. There’s often magic. The new world immerses us and magic amazes us. Fantasy fiction’s strengths present challenges to the writer. How do we communicate the nature of a fantastic world, and the workings of magic, without turning the prose into a textbook?
Don’t info dump.
What’s an info-dump? Any prolonged passage in your story that exists to communicate world information to the reader.
Why are info dumps bad?
Info dumps are boring to read and ruin the flow of your book. Never forget that we’re in the business of entertainment. Spend a few paragraphs telling the reader about the background information of your world and the plot comes to a standstill. Your story momentarily becomes an essay. The reader wouldn’t be in your fantasy novel if they wanted to read an essay.
Exposition can be hard to avoid in fantasy fiction but you can do to make it work for you instead of against you.
If you need to info dump, at least make it entertaining.
The key to info dumping responsibly is disguising exposition as other things. A paragraph on the history of magic in your universe will be very transparent to a reader. The words serve to educate and offer the reader nothing else of value. Most often, this educational material isn’t immediately pertinent to the plot. Readers want to a read a story, and when education happens for education’s sake, the story takes a back seat.
Try and educate your reader on the world through action, character, and by satisfying their readerly curiosity. Writing exposition well comes down to show don’t tell.
Don’t tell your reader how the magic works. Show them. Demonstrating magic in plot-relevant action illustrates how it works more effectively than telling. Showing the magic doesn’t stall the narrative. Explaining how the world works through action is much harder than simply telling, but it’s also far more engaging.
A POV character’s thoughts can reveal the workings of a fantasy world. I touched on POV in an earlier post and how it’s important to cater the description and prose to the character. You’re not writing your thoughts on the scene, you’re writing your characters thoughts. Your character was born in your fantasy world and they have insight that illustrates the machinations of the society, the world, and any other expository elements. Tap into a character’s voice to educate the reader and no one will feel like they’re reading an info dump.
Some elements of your fantasy world won’t come up naturally in the methods above. Try developing mystery in the world, kindle your reader’s curiosity, and feed their questions with expository answers. If you do this well, they’ll be pleased with a little telling because it answers questions drawn naturally from the narrative. The info dump doesn’t feel like an info dump because it’s answering questions the reader already had.
I believe exposition works well when it fits naturally into the context of the larger story. When you need to break from the narrative to educate a reader, you’re at risk of boring them and turning your novel into an encyclopedia.