Use the UX concept of progressive disclosure to keep your readers interested and alert when describing difficult settings. Use of this concept will give facts a more organic, natural revelation.
This is the first part in a series on User Experience (UX) Concepts in Writing. For more information on UX and other important software design ideas, check out the Wikipedia article.
Let’s face it: fantasy and science fiction settings can get pretty complicated…
…And that’s okay. They’re like our reality, and they’re not, right? As a reader, it’s imperative that I understand your setting’s departures (and their ramifications) in order to comprehend the choices of characters throughout your narrative.
But here’s the problem: you have a wide array of facts, and you want to get them all into the my head as quickly as possible. Many writers would choose to start their story with a mythological monologue, framing the story from its outset with a set of facts. Here’s the opening to THE LORD OF THE RINGS movie:
I amar prestar aen. The world is changed. Han matho ne nen. I feel it in the water. Han mathon ned cae. I feel it in the earth. A han noston ned gwilith. I smell it in the air.
Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.
It began with the forging of the Great Rings. Three were given to the Elves, immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings. Seven to the Dwarf-Lords, great miners and craftsmen of the mountain halls. And nine, nine rings were gifted to the race of Men, who above all else desire power. For within these rings was bound the strength and the will to govern each race. But they were all of them deceived, for another ring was made. Deep in the land of Mordor, in the Fires of Mount Doom, the Dark Lord Sauron forged a master ring, and into this ring he poured his cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all life.
It keeps going like that for a long, freaking time–like, pages after. And for the record, I think this is a bad idea.
In other words, what do you do when you have too much information to fit into not enough space?
Software user interface (UI) designers face this problem all the time. When working with requirements documents, the spec often calls for a boatload of information and functionality to be available to users. Without a plan, designers end up with a dense tangle of data instead of a clean, easy user experience.
So what is progressive disclosure? To quote the Nielsen Norman Group:
Progressive disclosure defers advanced or rarely used features to a secondary screen, making applications easier to learn and less error-prone.
Pretty simple concept, no? You’ll see a lot of different instantiations of this from simple nested lists to the (much loathed) Microsoft Word Ribbon. Progressive disclosure is an attempt to compartmentalize information so we can create context and limit distractions.
We can apply progressive disclosure to fiction writing, if we’re capable of sorting the information into top-level and secondary importance.
Think of the top level as the initial impressions your readers will have of your world. It’s a mistake to equate “initial impression” with “most important facts to denizens of the setting.”
Let’s have an example. In your story, there is a huge corporation that owns all of the land in the world, even the property where your main character lives. That’s a pretty big fact, right? Is that your primary information?
Your main character is a wizard, and can cast spells at will. Some of these spells are ridiculously powerful, and could conceivably wipe out all life in the city. That also sounds important.
Now, let’s say that your main character doesn’t get along with her neighbor because the main character is a total jerk. Depending on where you start your novel, this may, in fact, be the most important information. Why is that?
Not getting along with someone right next to you is an active state. It’s omnipresent in our introduction to the character. Secondary to that is wizarding, because it’s part of the character’s physical identity. Our least important fact here is the megacorp, because it likely has little influence on the individual actions of characters. As a set of amalgamated actions, the megacorp’s influence may be overwhelming, but on a per-moment basis, it may be hard to see that kind of stuff.
So to sum up my initial guesses for the importance of character attributes:
You’re a jerk > Yer a wizard > You’re a wage slave
That means that the relationship with the neighbor would come out in the narrative long before the other two ideas.
I realize that most people writing in a fantastic setting will be eager to get to the War of the Elves and the Breaking of Proper Nounplace when exposing their setting. However, on a per-scene basis, your setting info us usually secondary information, only to be accessed once the narrative is completely understood.
When you talk about the Great Burning of the Ancient Lands, do you know who is speaking? No one. What does it look like? Nothing. We don’t know what a Great Burning is, and I certainly haven’t been to any Ancient Lands. Those concepts aren’t important to us. When they become important, there’s a quick guide you can follow.
- Make it memorable. Apply your concepts to the action in progress. If the Great Burning means that people from the Ancient Lands could spontaneously catch fire at any point, we’ll remember that. It’s an applied concept.
- Make it accessible. If we need to interpret a massive constellation of facts to inhabit your narrative, it’s not accessible. Break it down further on a per-scene basis to create maximum retention.
- Make it swift. Five opening pages of exposition won’t fly with me. Work it organically into the narrative in bite-sized chunks.
- Make it simple. Focus on just one fact at a time, if you can, and something that doesn’t require a doctorate to understand.
Image: Latitude 10 Tablet, by Flickr user Intel In Deutschland, used under a CC BY-ND 2.0 license.