Info Dumping with Ursula K Leguin
Sometimes, info is necessary, and even when it’s not, sometimes it’s the point of a novel, on some deeper level. This is often true with the work of Ursula K. Leguin.
Expository writing is disparaged largely because they are often boring and not done particularly well by new writers. They grind the plot to a halt and provide dry summaries of a world that should feel engaging and dynamic. But, as Kim Stanely Robinson said in an article on io9, info dumps are not just “necessary but mechanical and ugly,” they are “often necessary, crucial, beautiful and hard to categorize or even see.”
If you’ve ever read any of Robinson’s work, his opinions on expository writing are hardly surprising. To the degree that she is a similar writer, it seems that Ursula LeGuin would likely share this opinion. The question is, how do some writers provide exposition so wonderfully?
LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness exists almost entirely for the world itself–the book is designed with world exploration in mind, and focused almost entirely on giving a detailed account of the environment and peoples of this world. This is not always suspenseful (usually it is not) but it is often alarmingly beautiful, surprising and detailed. Here are two example passages, from much larger sections of writing, that I think show how an expository writer comes to love dumping info on us:
During the month of Kus I lived on the Eastern coast in a Clan-Hearth called Gorinhering, a house-town-for-farm built up on a hill above the eternal fogs of the Hodomin Ocean. Some five hundred people lived there. Four thousand years ago I should have found their ancestors living in the same place, in the same kind of house. Along in those four millennia the electric engine was developed, radios and power looms and power vehicles and farm machinery and all the rest began to be used, and a Machine age got going, gradually, without any industrial revolution, without any revolution at all. Winter hasn’t achieved in thirty centuries what Terra once achieved in thirty decades. Neither has Winter ever paid the price that Terra paid.
Call me a glutton, but let me take a moment to enjoy that last sentence again. It’s such a detailed and beautiful piece of writing, and so much attention seems to have been paid to it. The deep-in-your-throat breathiness of “exhalations” (instead of the all-in-your-mouth “breath”) and the way the cracking described by the sentence is also evoked by the repeated fire of the hard “c”s in cracking, firecrackers, and crystals. Sound is a key part of the pleasure of LeGuin’s expository writing, as we can see again in the first example, “death from cold or death from hunger,” that dramatic repetitive phrase also evoking “sure and prompt” with its use of quick, single syllable words. This expository writing isn’t just intellectual, it’s not just “info”–it’s also sensory. It’s in your head, sure, but it’s also pricking your skin, lighting your eyes, tap-tapping on your ear drums.
That’s of course on the micro level of detail and exposition. We can zoom out as well and see how exposition is made more effective in Left Hand of Darkness by noting how the book itself was designed to deliver this exposition. Genly Ai, the narrator of much of the book and the main character, has an overarching goal of bringing the nations on this (to him) foreign planet, called Gethen or Winter, into a federated group of worlds called the Ekumen. His role is first to persuade, but also to learn, observe, collect data so another can try if he fails/dies. LeGuin has in this constructed created a natural, story reason for Genly to provide us with so much exposition, and she has also created stakes for the story. If Genly fails to notice some important detail, he dies. That much is quite clear, throughout, and made explicit in the very first chapter. We know that every detail Genly delivers to us is movement toward his goal, is ammunition for achieving his desire. That’s an important part of the structure of this novel, which is, depending on how you tag it, at least 1/2 up to arguably 9/10ths expository.
Digging in a little closer to the technique used to deliver exposition, we can see that it’s almost always given to the reader on a plate of struggle. Most of the exposition in this novel comes during periods of travel, as can be seen in my second excerpt above, and involves the constant struggle with subarctic temperatures, huge mountains, narrow roads, and (truly) Ai’s impatience. The environment is a constant antagonist, and during the roughly 60 page voyage through the arctic north, we learn a lot about how to survive in and travel through icy, snowy terrain. That is the most expansive section of exposition in the novel, so it has the highest stakes and the hardest struggle, but we can also see a smaller scale version of this in the first excerpt. In this moment: “Here the clan looked after its own; nobody and everybody was responsible for them. They were a wild lot, chasing about over those fog-hidden hills and beaches. When I could round one up long enough to talk, I found them shy, proud and immensely trustful.” Notice how LeGuin sets up a struggle. The children are wild and hard to catch; this is a moment of struggle for Genly to learn about this world and attain his desire. He overcomes it quickly, by the next sentence, but LeGuin leaves us with an image of much time spent trying to capture a wild child. LeGuin keeps a constant eye for her character struggling, and will often spend time during long expository passages checking in on Genly–on how miserable, cold, uncomfortable, or afraid he is. The novel, very explicitly, forces Genly to struggle through all sorts of exposition.
But of course, even with both of those structural factors in place (struggle and desire) the exposition could be dry and boring. But it isn’t. It sparks with life (most of the time), and it feels like LeGuin is deeply passionate about what she’s explaining. How does she do that? In part, it’s because she does feel quite passionately about the topics she’s explaining. Take, for instance, the description of child rearing at the village, and in Karhide in general. LeGuin was a stay at home mother who spent much of her early life caring for her children, to great personal sacrifice, struggling with her own mental health, and had a lot of strong opinions about our society’s failure in raising its children. But the real question is how she takes that passion and delivers it in the text.
To me, it’s delivered through deep, intimate detail and especially through evoking sensations. LeGuin does not shy away from naming several examples of a phenomenon (“the electric engine was developed, radios and power looms and power vehicles and farm machinery”) or to pile on the adjectives (“I found them shy, proud and immensely trustful”) or from spending nearly 1/3rd of a page describing what it feels like just to breath in intensely cold weather. All of this is detailed, sensory and specific, to varying degrees, and it seems to speak to a person who’s just gotten a tad carried away with herself. It’s so packed with detail, it’s almost breathless, but it’s also hyper-focused. Like a cross-country runner bearing down on the finish line.
The details offered are also interesting usually because they are constantly delivered as something Genly notices because it’s different from how things are on his planet, Earth. And that’s a constant takeaway from LeGuin–the simple power of describing a world that is truly, deeply, and radically different from our own.
To sum up, it seems important to start from a structural place where exposition is both necessary and believable, but also tied to struggle. At the same time, only write exposition because it’s something you care deeply about–that will help it come to life on the page. And when it fails to come to life, think about how you might get a little carried away. What details can you add? What sensory experiences can you deliver while also writing informative, expository writing?
Do you have any favorite authors who use exposition exceptionally well, even in small doses? What are your strategies for approaching exposition in your writing?
Thanks for reading!