As authors we want readers to understand our books. That seems like a given in genre fiction, anyway. We may want to be distant, obscure, or sneaky, but ultimately, we’d like people to get it.
In writing mimetic fiction (that which is meant to resemble the real world as it is known), you don’t have to do too much explaining. People have a general understanding of biology, geology, ecology and local culture. If you get exotic, you may have to give a bit more information about the place and its people. But if you move beyond the norm, into science fiction or fantasy with strange places, unusual religions, fantastic creatures, the author has the task of making all of these unique elements clear to the reader.
Enter exposition, and its handmaiden, back story. Yes, all books need some of this–the background knowledge specific to a person, place or event that will place it in context and allow the reader to assign meaning to the things that happen there. The trouble for authors is two-fold: 1. we don’t know how to get the information in there and, 2. the reader really doesn’t need as much as we think.
The reader of genre books is often a dedicated reader. He or she enjoys lots of them. They are the primary diet of a voracious slice of the reading population, and part of the joy that reader gets is the sense of discovery. He or she is prepared to leap into the void with the characters, to learn first-hand what that strange new world is like. The experienced genre reader is likely already making assumptions and filling in gaps from page one of the narrative.
The author need not go along with those assumptions, but should at least respect that this process is happening. Deliver the exposition for the things about your world that are truly unique. Don’t bore the reader with the stuff he or she has already figured out or is just really not going to get interested in. To know the difference, the author must be familiar with genre expectations and their common subversions, and also ask the feedback of a similarly educated beta readership. I recommend having some readers who are *not* other writers, but a good critique group can be a beautiful thing.
As to the first point, the key to delivering exposition or back story is to give it to the reader when she *really* wants to know. We think we need to put it up front. Lots of beginning writers include all sorts of history of people and places in the first couple of chapters. The trouble is, nobody cares. The reader has no reason to be invested in these imaginary people and places at that time.
Chapter one should be about grabbing the reader by the hand and running together into the story you want to tell. Let the reader gaze around in wonder for a little while–riding your dragons, glimpsing your cities, hearing the rumble of your fabulous machines. Let the reader be intrigued by your characters, liking them, wondering about them, speculating about them. Then, when the reader is already tantalized by the specific actions and details of your world, you slip in the exposition. As the distant city grows larger in the reader’s view, you give a few sentences about its curious culture. As the reader’s curiosity about the protagonist becomes a rooting interest, you reveal a key moment from the character’s past.
If you first engage sympathy and wonder, then the intellect will follow. Just like meeting somebody at a party. You’re curious, attracted, interested–but if the person immediately launches into an anecdote about a childhood friend, you’re instantly bored to tears. The same anecdote, told later in the growing relationship could be captivating. When the reader already cares, then he’s ready to know.