You all remember Basil Exposition in Austin Powers—the stuffy intelligence chief played by Michael York whose sole purpose was to provide background information for the plot, i.e., exposition. I thought about ol’ Basil today as I was reading one of my favorite suspense writers because it seemed that he’d wandered into the book while I wasn’t looking. The amount of information the author had started cranking out was enough to choke a goat.
Exposition is a real pain in the ass for most writers. You usually need to explain some things that aren’t going to come up in the action, but you need to do it in a way that keeps the plot moving, or you run the risk of putting your readers to sleep.
The usual way to get the exposition in is via dialogue. The hero or heroine has a conversation with someone into which some of the more important info nuggets are tucked. Ideally, you do this a bit at a time, probably out of chronological order, so that the reader can begin to build a mental map of what’s going on. But if a fact is really important, you’re going to have to find a way to build it in more prominently while simultaneously hiding it so that the reader can have a pleasurable head-smack moment when the final plot twist is revealed. And if the connections are going to be particularly intricate, you may have to have one of those Big Reveal scenes in which all the characters gather to piece things together (if you’re writing a mystery or thriller, the villain may well be one of these characters so that she/he can grab a knife and a handy hostage at the end).
But what happens if you’ve got a lot of historical background to include (like Linda Fairstein or Dan Brown) or if you’ve got scientific information that has to be understood (like Kathy Reichs or Tess Gerritsen)? You can’t really drop those factual nuggets into casual dialog, particularly if they involve a lot of detail. Enter Basil (or Brenda) Exposition, a character or characters whose sole purpose is to explain the technical underpinning of the plot. The problem comes in working Basil or Brenda into the story because if their only purpose is to provide technical information they tend to stand out like very sore thumbs.
One way is to put the exposition scenes in an action setting. Maybe Basil is gassing on about the chemical properties of blood while the characters are careening across the countryside to a murder scene, or maybe Brenda gives you the fine points of the medieval theory of cosmology while the hero searches through the library, frantically looking for a clue.
But whatever you do to them, what they’ll do to you is bring your plot to a screeching halt while they fill in the blanks. If the information is interesting enough, readers will probably tolerate it. If it isn’t, you run the risk of having the reader throw the book into the return stack. Fairstein sometimes makes them villains, which, considering the amount of gab they’ve made us sit through, isn’t a bad idea. Other writers make Brenda/Basil a murder victim. I can definitely sympathize. I’m sure many of us have wished we could just kill those suckers off.