We all know exposition and infodumps are bad. It's true in most genres, but especially in speculative fiction (fantasy/sci-fi). Somehow, you have to introduce the reader to a whole world -- cultures, languages, technologies, politics, systems of magic –- all without the dreaded infodump.
One solution is to drop context-based clues without the reader being aware of it (known as incluing). Occasionally, though, I'll run across beta readers unfamiliar with the genre, who let the clues stop them cold.
Take, for example, this opening paragraph:*
The netter’s timing couldn’t have been worse. I’d been in Savajinn a week, looking for a knocker named Tarc. A whole bleeding week. When Tarc finally agreed to meet, at the Sick Savaj, that’s when the netter decided to show up.
Two unusual terms are presented: netter and knocker. Readers unaccustomed to SF sometimes get annoyed at this, thinking the author is a poor communicator or the story is being intentionally abstruse. But an experienced reader knows they aren't expected to understand these terms right away. Orson Scott Card calls this the principle of abeyance, where the reader trusts the author to give them the clues they need, when they need it.
The trick for the author, of course, is knowing when they need it. In the example story, both terms remain unexplained until the characters in question appear. The knocker doesn't appear until a quarter of the
way through, for example. Until he does the reader is given very few clues as to what a knocker really is. And they're expected to be okay with that.
But it's not a good idea to keep the reader guessing too long. Netter is “explained” in the next sentence:
Netters were all over Savajinn –- had to be to catch their bounties -– but only one was gully enough to walk into a Savaj pub alone.As you can see, there's still no infodump –- everything is implied. The word 'netter' itself (i.e. one who nets), combined with the concept of catching bounties, gives the reader a reasonable idea of what this character is. (If you want to know what a knocker is, I'm afraid you'll just have to read the story**).
Incluing can, of course, apply to any genre. The keys are subtlety and necessity. Be subtle with your clues, and only present them when it's absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the story. Do it
right, and you'll never have to infodump again.
* These excerpts, btw, are from my recently published story, "Pawn's Gambit." You can read it here.**
** And if you're an Air Pirates' fan, and didn't see that bit of self-pimpery coming, maybe you don't know me as well as you thought.