EXPOSITION 101 – Fablehaven
Exposition. Few words strike more fear into writers.
Not exposition! Noooooo!
Exposition is the explanatory stuff within a story. The background info on characters, locations, and events. On the one hand, exposition is necessary to flesh a story out and keep the reader from feeling lost. On the other hand, exposition can read like an info-dump that stalls the narrative, delays action, and jolts the reader out of the flow of a story.
Exposition gets even trickier when dealing with fantasy. Magic must be explained and settings require extra attention. After all, the story may be set in a world completely different from ours, with its own history, geography, and laws of physics!
Sure you can, Scotty!
Narrowing down which of these details to include is a troublesome task for writers, but even once an author knows what to include, it can be difficult to decide how to convey that information in an engaging way.
One way to make exposition effective comes from Brandon Mull’s bestselling middle grade fantasy series, FABLEHAVEN.
In the first novel, siblings Kendra and Seth spend a summer vacation at the estate of their reclusive grandparents, only to discover the estate is actually a sanctuary for magical creatures.
With so many enchanted creatures featured in the story, Mull has a lot of exposition to get across. And since Kendra and Seth (not to mention, the reader) are new to this magical zoology, most of the information they need is told to them by older characters. These conversations could feel dull–and the child characters could feel passive–but Mull is great at giving the child characters subtle actions and goals to focus on during these conversations. These small actions keep the kids active and help break up the big blocks of dialogue on the page.
Take this example from Chapter 9. Here, Kendra talks with Lena, Fablehaven’s elderly housekeeper. Lena used to be a magical creature herself–an immortal naiad–but gave up immortality to experience life as a human. Mull conveys Lena’s backstory and Lena shares some pretty deep reflections on the nature of aging and mortality. This could be heavy, slow reading, but Mull makes sure that while the characters talk, Kendra has something to do: she plays a solitary boardgame that she’s been trying to master throughout the novel. Her desire to beat the game gives her (and young readers) a goal to pursue that draws us through the conversation:
The triangular wooden board rested on Kendra’s lap. She studied the pegs, planning her next jump. Beside her, Lena gently tilted back and forth on a rocker, watching the moon rise. From the porch, only a few fairies could be seen gliding around the garden. Fireflies twinkled among them in the silver moonlight. “Not many fairies out tonight,” Kendra said. “It may be some time before the fairies return in force to our gardens,” Lena said. “Can’t you explain everything to them?” Lena chuckled. “They would listen to your grandfather before they would ever heed me.” “Weren’t you sort of one of them?” “That is the problem. Watch.” Lena closed her eyes and began to sing softly. Her high, trilling voice gave life to a wistful melody. Several fairies darted over from the garden, hovering around her in a loose semicircle, interrupting the warbling tune with fervent chirping. Lena quit singing and said something in an unintelligible language. The fairies chirped back. Lena made a final remark, and the fairies flew away. “What were they saying?” Kendra asked. “They told me I should be ashamed to sing a naiadic tune,” Lena replied. “They detest reminders that I was once a nymph, especially if those reminders imply that I am at peace with my decision.” “They acted pretty upset.” “Much of their time is spent mocking mortals. Any time one of us crosses over to mortality, it makes the others wonder what they might be missing. Especially if we appear content. They ridicule me mercilessly.” “You don’t let it get to you?” “Not really. They do know how to needle me. They tease me about growing old–my hair, my wrinkles. They ask how I will enjoy being buried in a box.” Lena frowned, gazing thoughtfully into the night. “I felt my age today when you called for help.” “What do you mean?” Kendra jumped a peg on the triangular wooden board. “I tried to rush to your aid, but ended up sprawled on the kitchen floor. Your grandfather reached your side before I did, and he is no athlete.” “It wasn’t your fault.” “In my youth I would have been there in a flash. I used to be handy in an emergency. Now I come hobbling to the rescue.” “You still get around great.” Kendra was running out of moves. She had already stranded a peg. Lena shook her head. “I would not last a minute on the trapeze or the tightrope. Once I played on them with facile agility. The curse of mortality. You spend the first portion of your life learning, growing stronger, more capable. And then, through no fault of your own, your body begins to fail. You regress. Strong limbs become feeble, keen senses grow dull, hardy constitutions deteriorate. Beauty withers. Organs quit. You remember yourself in your prime, and wonder where that person went. As your wisdom and experience are peaking, your traitorous body becomes a prison.” Kendra had no moves left on her perforated board. Three pegs remained. “I never thought of it that way.” Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull. Chapter 9, Pages 144-146.
Not only does the game give Kendra a goal to pursue during this expository conversation, it also reveals her personality. Unlike her brave but impulsive brother, Kendra likes to take a more thoughtful approach and puzzle out situations. The game helps her practice–and she’ll need the practice when she has to puzzle out some life-or-death situations later in the book!
Furthermore, as the scene continues, Lena takes a turn at the game, beating it easily. This shows how much wisdom and experience Kendra still has to gain as she grows toward adulthood, which reflects the novel’s overall themes about growing up and taking on responsibility.
So, when you’re writing a passage to reveal character backstories or explain an element of magical worldbuilding, remember that giving your protagonist a simple goal or small action to focus on can turn a scene that feels like dead weight into something truly enchanted.