Expose It Yourself

Just don’t do it by unzipping your clothes.  Okay, fine, not by unbuttoning them either.  And on no account wear a maniacal grin.   And, if you absolutely must do any of the above, do NOT tell them Sarah Hoyt said to it.

Because Sarah Hoyt is, of course!, talking about literary information.  A concerned fan (mostly concerned I’d run out of blog topics), recently sent me the following Heinlein quote:

The door dilated. – Beyond This Horizon (1942)

This offhand mention has become the simplest (three words!) and often-quoted exposition of the wonders of a different world, where what would be novel today has become simply the way things work.


Because of the way the  paragraph with the quote came at me, I’m not sure who said it, but it sounds like something out of a writing manual.

However, the point bears making, and I’ve seen it in a dozen how to write books, quoted as the example to emulate.

Heinlein was, of course, the master of writing this sort of thing, which is why he bequeathed us the term “Heinleining” for how to introduce exposition to anything.

So, how do you do it?  Well…

A few techniques:


The sly – you can think of this technique as a cat sneaking up behind people and stealing food from their plate before they realize he’s there.  The door dilated might be perhaps the best example, but you can contrive your own less spectacular ones:


The car took off, low altitude at first, then rising.

Every morning at six am, the Mars launch rattled the house and woke me up.

My suit needed reprogramming.


The misdirection – you simply present this as something everyone knows but focus the attention of the sentence elsewhere. Let’s try:

It seems like all the representatives of the fifty planets were fixed to give us their sort of law, again, long on graft opportunities and short on substance.

The corn crop was going to be terrible, of course.  They’d been terrible the last fifteen years, since the Mage War had devasted Krevalen.

Mina was not going to use a magespell to make herself prettier.  She always thought the girls who did that and got elected Queen of the Prom should be flayed with a butter knife.


The matter of fact – which you need to be careful about, so it doesn’t become ridiculous, with characters telling each other things both of them should know.  You know, the “As you known, Bob, we were invaded by Martians in 1945.”  The way to do it is by combining the previous techniques.



It probably was going to come to war, and when fifty civilized planets get in a war, every world was likely to get time-bombed out of existence.


You see what I did there?  Of course, other bits of hidden exposition have to tell us what the heck those things mean, but for now try those for yourself.  Give me more examples in comments, and forgive me the short post.  There’s a workshop in town which I’m getting a chance to audit, (Which you should take as a minor lesson.  Yes, I have 24? 25? – I haven’t counted lately – books out, but I still take every chance possible to listen to more successful professionals telling how they did it.  I’d have paid for it if I could, but this one is really very expensive, so getting a chance to audit is nothing to sneeze at.) and my deep freezer just gave up the ghost.  It’s always something.


  1. Is this what you mean? From my short SF story (on my blog) “The House of the Vord”

    I was intrigued. More; smitten. I made my move, late one night at the traditional after-party for those ‘going home’ – in our little world it meant we would never see them again, and it always hurts – the acamaraderie is intense, but time and space cannot be twisted twice in the same direction, and each ‘leaver’ takes knowledge back but once.

  2. From the first volume of my WIP, no title yet. The heroine spent the night in a very old mine, and a glint of metal caught her eye the next day:

    What she found left her so dumbstruck that she forgot her bruises and aching muscles. The light of the sun bounced off mica and a piece of polished metal framework, illuminating crates and machines. It was a cache of equipment, all from the time of the Great Fires. Elizabeth approached with great care, not wanting to trigger a trap. The crates looked like the scraps of “plaztik” that she’d seen in the royal collection of curiosities. Oh, she could do so much with these things! Could that be a mining machine? The beautiful, smooth seams on the metal fascinated her and she wondered how it had been done. Was it a casting? And what coated the metal to keep it so shiny and well preserved? Could the cases hold writings, explaining how to run the machine, or maps to the mine, or something more?

  3. I used a shopping list in one of my books 😉 Well, more of “things to look for in this huge collection of wrecked spaceships that we’ll need later on”.

  4. — Chapter 1 —

    In the time it took Sarah to refill her coffee mug, three more temporal-transit packages appeared on the counter-top, all of them meowing for attention. Her psychotic time-stalker was making good on his promise to bury her in cats.

    “Dan,” she called. “Will you /please/ get the Ein-shield repaired NOW?”

    1. Nice. Reminds me of a story (Terry Pratchett?) where an escaping prisoner talks the door into letting out all the nails that poke it.

  5. One of my favorate examples from Cordwainer Smith’s Scanners Live in Vain

    “Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgment, not by sight. When he saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci’s face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg were broken. It was not. Scanner to the core, he had to scan himself. “

  6. ‘I am not a zombie. I am not undead. I’m not in any Corps. I am a Corpse Man.’

  7. This is from a first draft, so apologies all round:

    Newly-minted bards regularly earned extra money by summoning canal boats for travelers. Even so, without the standing agreement between the bards and the jacks, it was likely Kiro and Tran would have had to make their own attempt to convince the nixes to show, or hope that one of their party could sing. As was, the sleep-rumpled lad who came with them was yawning so hard between his complaints about being roused before the sun rose, it was a wonder he managed to play at all. Luckily, the nixes didn’t care at all what the time was, so long as the music was satisfactory and the money good.

  8. He waved at the first office on the right, “Lieutenant Davies handles Vice. That’s drugs, prostitution, gambling and magic. Mike Winslow over there handles theft.”

  9. “Uncle Tolly,” Belinda said, poking her head into his office, the small office where all the work was done, not the big impressive office where he entertained guests, “That unicorn is back, around in the alley. She wants to talk to you.”

  10. He never had any problem seducing women. The key was, once he’d shapeshifted into their ideal lover’s form, to approach subtly, letting his pheromones work on them until he came face to face with him and they melted into his arms.

    I love brushing my wife’s long brown hair, and especially the hair on her arms; her pelt gets matted something fierce, and her claws never fully get all of the knots out. But she keeps me warm on the worst winter nights.

  11. When a twelve-tonne auroch cow wants a maple candy, it gets a maple candy. Which was why when Joe Park finally walked back into my life, my shirt was drenched with maple-colored slobber.

  12. The dam was gone. It hadn’t washed away, or been demolished, leaving visible signs of its former presence, but gone, as if it had never been there to begin with. The only signs of its former existence was the mud halfway up the sides of the valley where the water had piled up behind it.

  13. In one of the long term storage vaults in the University at Buffalo’s exotic containment facility, Steven Fleming slept. His hair and beard were long, slightly curly, and dark brown with streaks of white. He was about five ten, and his face and hands said that he was unhealthily thin, while his bulging torso said otherwise.

  14. The bowstring glimmered in the sun, causing him to squint as he eyed the devil.

    He closed his eyes momentarily, exhaled and readied himself…

    “He sang ‘fire on the mountain, run boys run…'”

    ; )

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