If you have ever found yourself reading a novel and suddenly reached the point where you find yourself performing a mental double-take, as you realise that for some inexplicable reason the narrative has been replaced by what appears to be an extract from a textbook on advanced theoretical physics, then you have just encountered an expository lump. Originally a term from science fiction, the expository lump marks the point where the author has decided that you, the reader, need to know some important background information, but has put little thought into the method of conveying said information.

The expository lump has been identified as appearing in two distinct forms; the dialog lump and the narrative lump.

The dialog lump is perhaps the standard form in which the expository lump used to (and still does) appear in science fiction; otherwise known as the "As You Know, George, the Space Station's Orbit Is Degrading Rapidly, and We're Running out of Air" moment. In its classic form this where a character begins a sentence with the phrase "As you all know", and then proceeds to spew out a lump of background information which everybody already knows, except of course the reader. Thus whilst it appears as if there are two characters having a conversation, it is really the case of the author having a one-sided conversation with the reader. (Note that this very common technique has also been labelled as 'Rod and Don dialogue' by Damon Knight or 'maid and butler dialogue' by Algys Budrys.)

The narrative lump is where the reader is suddenly confronted with a page or two of text that appears to have been randomly inserted from an encyclopedia the author had conveniently to hand. Otherwise known as the "I've Suffered For My Art (And Now It's Your Turn)" phenomenon, or more cynically as the "I've Claimed A Trip To Hawaii As A Tax Deduction And Now I Must Justify It" ploy, in which the author unloads a few hundred words of undiluted research upon the bewildered reader.

What both forms have in common is the desire by the author to suddenly deliver a "brutal overload of information" to the reader in order to establish the credibility of the unfolding tale.


The expository lump is often referred to as a Campbellian device, after John W. Campbell, who as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction is often regarded as the father of modern science fiction, during the time when science fiction was often written by scientists who believed that there was an educational purpose to the genre, and by God therefore the reader ought to be educated. However, having first been recognised in science fiction, this phenomenon has now been identified in all forms of fiction, and is often seen in that sub-genre of crime fiction known as police procedural, in particular the sub-sub genre of the forensic pathology novel, and additionally crops up in the strangest places where detailed geographical descriptions of various exotic locations are often introduced in an effort to justify why the author was there only recently.

These days however the expository lump is generally regarded as a bad thing and a sign of poor writing. The advice to aspiring writers regarding the exposition of technical details (whether real or speculative) is that it is all probably best left unexplained. There are after all millions of people who use technology every day without the faintest idea of how any of it actually works, and it is extremely likely that the same will apply in any future world where an imagined positronic warp drive becomes a reality. Writers are advised to make sure that any remaining indispensible technical information is provided in a manner that is either sufficiently brief and deft that it is rendered inoffensive (a technique known as 'Kuttnering' after Henry Kuttner) or to follow the example of Robert Heinlein who was capable of ensuring that any technical detail was "worked unobtrusively into the story's basic structure" (when of course it becomes known as 'Heinleining').

If however all the above has failed, the final suggestion is to dispense with the idea of even trying to disguise the offending expository lumps, and to simply insert them into the text as such. (See for example The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which it could well argued is just a series of expository lumps stitched together with a loose plot and some jokes.) This technique has, at the very least, the advantage that it permits the reader the privilege of ignoring the technical text so inserted and proceeding with the story unmolested.


SOURCES

  • David Smith, Glossary of Terms Useful in Critiquing Science Fiction In Alphabetical Order Version 46: Last revised December, 2002
    http://www.davidalexandersmith.com/writing/GlossSci.html
  • Vonda N. McIntyre, Pitfalls of Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy, General Useful Information, and Other Opinionated Comments
    http://www.sff.net/people/Vonda/Pitfalls.htp
  • The Turkey City Lexicon
    http://quentinslist.com/turkey.city.lexicon.html

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