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Contextual Distance and Exposition

This post discusses:

  • exposition in ethnography and SFF writing
  • contextual distance, a new concept for understanding the need for exposition
  • the uses of exposition in fiction


What does ethnography have in common with science fiction and fantasy writing? Extensive use of exposition is arguably one point of common ground.

SFF authors create new imaginary worlds. Ethnographers, meanwhile, describe social situations, events, rituals etc. – usually from a perspective that does not assume the reader is deeply familiar with that setting.

Ethnography’s ‘unlearning’ of the familiar, and description of the unfamiliar, can have a powerful effect on the reader: it can show them how society might be differently organised in the real world. SFF authors, meanwhile, often apply insights from this sociological imagination to their fantasy creations.

Describing a new fantasy world with new rules and logics involves lots of explaining.

As does describing the real world in a novel way that assumes nothing.

Contextual distance

If you write a thriller set in 1990s Manchester for people familiar with the UK context of that time, you can pass over many details. You don’t need to explain who Oasis are, for example. If a novel is set in the 2040s, then the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), as in Ready Player One, needs to be explained in detail.

This is because the contextual distance between the reader and the text is large, or in some ethnographies, deliberately made large. What I mean here is that there is a lot of context, i.e. details about the setting, for the author to explain to the reader. This is different to narrative distance, whis is more about how immersed the narrator is in the fictional world.

You can overcome this contextual distance in various ways. Protagonists can explain through dialogue or through their actions. One obvious strategy is exposition, i.e. telling the reader all the information they need to know.

Unsurprisingly, both genres tend to fall back on telling when showing could immerse and engage the reader more. Exposition can work out OK too, unless you overload the reader too early on.

But as a word of warning, not all readers can take a lot of exposition.

Different genres can handle different amounts of it.

And so, rather than shouting out ‘show, don’t tell’, I prefer to emphasize getting the balance between showing and telling right, in the context of a story and an imagined audience.

Literary fiction, arguably a close cousin of ethnography, is known for including more exposition than genre fiction. Meanwhile, SFF is famous for its infodumps and can handle more exposition than some other genres.

Exposition’s uses in fiction

Now let’s consider how exposition is used in fiction, before looking at what insights can be applied to anthropology. I’ve used Beth Hill’s division (pp. 195–203) here from her excellent book The Magic of Fiction, which I recommend as a toolbox to dip in and out of when writing fiction or creative non-fiction.

Fiction uses exposition …

1)     To reveal back story

You know those tv shows where something happens to a character and then we zoom back to a scene from their childhood or similar? In fiction, you can achieve this using exposition. You can use a framing device to do this (e.g. “Three summers ago …” / “Back when I was in the army …” and a change in tense). There are other subtle ways that you can handle this kind of exposition (especially in film), e.g. through a dialogue and discussion with a therapist.

Ethnography: As ethnography relies on a first person POV, we can only dip into the ethnographer’s backstory. For storytelling purposes, my guess is that this might come across as cheesy or contrived. It could work for analysing a ritual through a previous experience of another ritual though, and it might work in auto-ethnography. But as a rule, my guess is that ethnography uses it sparingly.

2)     To fill in characters and readers

You can use exposition to convey other information about characters: a physical description, a description of their life situation etc. Sometimes, a narrator will provide contextual information about the world, (other) characters, or events.

Ethnography: Ethnography likely often does this for interlocutors who play a really important role in the story.

3)     As a scene transition

In genre fiction, you want to keep the reader focused and immersed in the story. You can use exposition to transition forward to the next scene after, say, a boring hour.

Ethnography: Anthropologists don’t tell the reader every detail, e.g. “and then I walked 5 km back to my flat and spent 2.5 hours writing fieldnotes while drinking weak coffee.” This would be REALLY boring. How you use exposition as a scene transition may relate to how you encounter and deal with time in your ethnography.

4)     To say what happened offstage

Here, you fill the readers in on important events that weren’t experienced directly. Instead of immersing the reader in a scene, you summarise and relay to the reader what happened elsewhere.

Ethnography: This sometimes happens in an ethnography, again, usually through the reported speech of others. It particularly suits interview material where you recount particular scenes. You could reconstruct events through an interlocutor’s speech in the field, if you made notes in that moment, or if the account was particularly memorable and a verbatim reconstruction was not necessary.

Where you haven’t recorded dialogues, you could reconstruct them from memory (if short), or you could rewrite a story as an extended description

5)     As description

In SFF, these are the notorious ‘infodumps’. In ethnography, this can take the form of extended report-like writing or ‘quarantined’ boxes that deal with the historical and cultural context in a matter-of-fact way.

Ethnography: This is REALLY widely used in ethnography. There could be pages of descriptions of rituals, details of the historical context etc., in short, the kind of stuff that SFF authors love to write when worldbuilding, before they make some hard choices about what to reveal to the reader.

Exposition isn’t bad per se – it’s necessary. If you find yourself bored when reading excessively long descriptions of contexts, however, then fear not – there is another way!

I plan to update this blog post with examples at some point in the future, and watch out for a post on strategies to deal with exposition overload too.

In the meantime, I highly recommend these resources:

Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash

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