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A book that I'm currently writing called Surge features an enemy faction called the Degenerates that are heavily inspired by the Scythians (Indo-Iranian horse nomads that ruled the Eurasian Steppe and Central Asia from the 9th century BC to the 1st century CE) and consists mostly of humans that have been parasitized by a small worm-like endoparasite that has evolved solely to parasitize and radically alter the entire physiology of a wide variety of organisms from the phylum Chordata.

I have been toying with the idea of writing up in-depth profiles of the various Degenerate subspecies (which go into painstaking detail about their physiology, anatomy, weaponry, armour and tactics in straightforward, jargon-free manner) presented as excerpts from an in-universe book that was given to the protagonist, set between chapters as a kind of intermission. It's basically a chance for me to dabble in a bit of world-building without having to make characters constantly provide wordy info-dumps that consist entirely of scientific jargon or talk about what they already know while not treating the reader like they're stupid.

Is a good or bad way of handling exposition?

  • Hi LordOfGoodTaste. You aren't really asking about worldbuilding, but rather how to present your world to the reader, so I removed that tag. I also tried to give your question a title that better summarizes what you are asking about. Feel free to Edit further! Enjoy your stay. – user Feb 3 '18 at 11:34
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This is not a bad way of handling exposition.

I have seen what you describe work, and felt compelled to find it amongst the hundreds of books on my shelf. Thanks for the mindworm. I found a book that does this exactly: "Convergent Series" by Charles Sheffield. The back cover has reviews with high praise by both The Washington Post and The New York Times. The paperback version list a total of seven books by Sheffield, this one is described as "Book One Of the Heritage Universe". So he is not a newbie author and not reviewed as a hack.

For Sheffield, the book is about the mystery of Artifacts left behind by some mysterious race(s?) of aliens called "The Builders". Each of these excerpts looks to be less than 500 words (two pages) long, I'd guess 400 plus words.

All are attributed as

--From the Lang Universal Artifact Catalog, Fourth Edition.

Each is written as a kind of encyclopedic entry; Name, estimated age, Galactic Coordinates, closest star / planet, when discovered, the physical description, exploration history, speculation on purpose, etc.

I will note that Sheffield does not follow every chapter with one of these excerpts, only about half of them. He does have a "prologue", and follows it immediately with an important Artifact entry (important to the plot), and has another Artifact entry follow Chapter 1. The next is after Chapter 4, then one after Chapter 6, etc.

I'm out of time, so I didn't review them all or google Sheffield. I likely bought and read this book 25 years ago. But you get the idea. He does not count these excerpts as "Chapters".

I don't think this is a terrible way of giving details, it isn't a book killer and shouldn't get you rejected out of hand. The excerpts are presented in encyclopedic narrative (story) form, with some citations (for example speculations are attributed to scientists or scientific teams e.g. [Ikro & H'miran] or [Parzan & LuLan].)

I would not make this writing 100% descriptions, however. Readers want to see conflict, even if it is not important to the plot, nothing should proceed easily. So your expository stories can be linked to history, battles, discovery, first contact, first conflict, attempts by or on your species for subjugation or slavery or conquering, etc.

Like all writing, it must be interesting, and if you get repetitive reciting a bunch of facts about biology, and try to leave the consequences of these features to the reader's imagination, no matter how obvious you believe they are, readers will get bored and skip these entries. If your plot depends on one of these features, then because they skipped your boring list of facts they will become confused by your plot, or whatever happened will look like a deus ex machina:
Fortunately, their captors did not know the H'C'Olan could deflate their wrists and hands to escape the steel shackles..."

Sheffield's approach with "Builder Artifacts" was a standardized list of about six lines, followed by interesting little micro-history scenes (say 80 to 120 words) of discovery & exploration (sometimes lethal), scientific analysis (at times with disagreement) and subsequent protection or commercial exploitation of the Artifact (at times against protests).

Those micro-history scenes made the excerpts fun and worth reading. You need to do the same: Somehow do your excerpt so it is NOT just a recitation of facts (telling) without noting any dramatic consequences (showing). Facts are boring, always, if they have no discernible consequences (preferably on the main characters or the plot).

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    seconding this. As long as your interstitials are interesting and eventually relevant to the plot, I think this is a great way of getting information to the reader without "As you know, Bob" or infodumping. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Feb 3 '18 at 12:44
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Different readers like different things. There are quite a few books that give worldbuilding background before chapters, in tales told over the campfire, in documents that the characters read, or elsewhere. As books get published that way, I guess that there must be readers who like to read plot-free worldbuilding.

That said, I never read those sections because I find them both boring and irrelevant to the characters and their story.

Reading your question here, I see an author who is infatuated with their imagination and has lost view of what a narrative is (it narrates) and what (most) readers want, when they buy a novel (instead of the encyclopedia to a fictional world): they want to know what happens next.

I always use the example of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. No other author has created their fictional world with as much detail as he has, and yet the Silmarillion is not included in that novel as excerpts before each chapter. Some readers do buy the Silmarillion because they want to get deeper into the world of The Lord of the Rings, but the majority are quite content with the novel itself and would be bored if they had to read more about the background of that narrative.

What I would suggest is that you build your world with as much detail as you enjoy, and then write your story with only as much background information as is necessary. When you are done, either see if you can enhance the reading experience by including some more background information. Get feedback from some test readers on whether this works or not. Or publish your worldbuiling in a password-protected area on your website as a special for those readers that sign up to your newsletter to be informed about future publications.

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I think you've come up with a good answer. My main suggestion would be to keep the excerpts as short as possible to avoid distraction from the story - a second suggestion would be to make each excerpt relevant in some way to what's happening in the chapter.

If you're looking for a model, Frank Herbert's "Dune" did this beautifully.

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