A word on this–or a few hundred.
“Show, don’t tell.”
This is often considered the most basic rule of storytelling: a word that apparently we’ve misconstrued–or have we? Most major publishers and writing seminar professors do their damnedest to beat this mantra into our heads until we begin to feel like very literate pinatas. The trouble is that, like most rules in basic English studies, this one doesn’t hold water 100% of the time.
Take, for example, a novel written in the first person. In order to capture the narrator’s distinct voice, the writer has no choice but to “tell” at times. Barring this, the realism of perspective is entirely lost. Speculative fiction novels written in the third person limited perspective also require at least some exposition to let the reader into the unique world that the author has imagined. True, it’s possible to cram all the back story and world building into dialogue and internal monologue, and the story will move faster this way, but you run the risk of leaving the reader with gaps in understanding. (This also must be done skillfully; if you are not a strong dialogue writer, this tactic becomes more laughable than laudable.)
From the perspective of a fan, I’d rather the mystery surrounding a new world I’m taking the time to explore be presented to me intentionally as opposed to me wondering when in the future (or in what reconfigured version of the past) the story takes place and why I should care. A little exposition grounds the reader in the text, allowing him or her to explore more fulfilling mysteries commensurate with the plot line and the potential themes/subtext of the story.
So when is it okay to tell? In my increasingly humble opinion, the writer can get away with exposition when he/she has earned the space to breathe and to let the story expand a bit. If you begin with a strong hook that tantalizes the reader and invests him/her in the story, it’s okay to peel back a layer of meaning through exposition supplemented with either thoughts or dialogue. The “telling” doesn’t have to go on for pages–it should be as concise as possible within the workings of the craft. However, giving the reader a chance to catch his/her breath and process the world will ultimately eliminate the build up of questions that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief.
This is basic psychology: the harder something is to grasp, the more difficult it is to believe because belief comes with understanding.
I’m not arguing that the amount of exposition in a story should ever come close to the amount of action, description, or dialogue. But those three very effective modes of storytelling fail when we, as readers, fail to invest ourselves in a story because we can’t find basic elements like setting and characterization.
So breathe, people. A brief history of a planet’s struggles is okay if it’s grounded in the perspective character’s thoughts. It’s perfectly fine for a first person narrator to be opinionated and tell the audience what he or she thinks, so long as the fourth wall remains intact.
Don’t believe me? Pick up your favorite novel–not the one that just came flying off the editor’s desk, your favorite one. Grab a highlighter and go to town in every spot where the author is telling as opposed to showing. You might be very surprised. (Especially if you’re reading Tolkien.)