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There are several ways to present your story's universe to the reader. One way is to have an omniscient narrator tell the reader the details they need to know. This happens in the opening pages of The Hobbit, in which the narrator tells us everything about hobbits -- where they live, what they look like, what they eat, etc. (Although it's been a long time since I read The Hobbit. Correct me if I'm mistaken.)
Another approach is to reveal things in a less direct way. Neil Gaiman is a master of this technique.
Take the opening scene of The Graveyard Book. It begins at night with the man Jack, who has stabbed to death all the inhabitants of a house except one. The family toddler has managed to escape his crib and wander out of the house into a nearby graveyard, where some friendly ghosts hide him. The man Jack realizes the toddler has escaped and pursues him to the graveyard. He climbs the fence to look for the child, but he runs into a stranger who tells him he has to leave the graveyard. They have the following conversation.
[The stranger] selected one large key from the keyring, said "Follow me."
The man Jack walked behind the stranger. He took his knife from his pocket. "Are you the caretaker then?
"Am I? Certainly in a manner of speaking," said the stranger. They were walking towards the gates and, the man Jack was certain, away from the baby. But the caretaker had the keys. A knife in the dark, that was all it would take, and then he could search for the child all through the night, if he needed to.
He raised the knife.
"If there was a baby," said the stranger, without looking back, "it wouldn't have been here in the graveyard. Perhaps you were mistaken. It's unlikely that a child would have come in here after all. Much more likely that you heard a nightbird, and saw a cat. They declared this place an official nature reserve, you know, around the time of the last funeral. Now think carefully, and tell me you are certain that it was a child that you saw."
The man Jack thought.
The stranger unlocked the side gate. "A fox," he said. " They make the most uncommon noises. Not unlike a person crying. No, your visit to this graveyard was a mis-step, sir. Somewhere the child you seek awaits you, but he is not here." And he let the thought sit there, in the man Jack's head for a moment, before he opened the gate with a flourish. "Delighted to have made your acquaintance" . . . .
"Where are you going?" asked the man Jack.
"There are other gates than this," said the stranger. "My car is on the other side of the hill. Don't mind me. You don't even have to remember this conversation."
"No," said the man Jack, agreeably." "I don't." He remembered wandering up the hill, that what he had thought to be a child had turned out to be a fox, that a helpful caretaker had escorted him back out to the street. He slipped his knife into its inner sheath. "Well," he said. "Good night."
I'm more impressed here by what Gaimen didn't write than by what he did. If I were writing a scene like this, I would have been tempted to write a few lines like the following.
The man Jack hesitated, confused. What was he going to do with the knife again? He put it down and shook his head. He supposed it was a rather silly idea after all that the child would be in the graveyard...
You know, just a couple lines to make sure the reader REALLY GETS IT THAT THE STRANGER IS MIND-CONTROLLING THE MAN JACK. SEE, THE STRANGER CAN MENTALLY BRAINWASH PEOPLE! PRETTY COOL HUH?
Well, thankfully, Neil Gaiman is not me, and we instead get this deliciously subtle passage -- the type of passage that makes the reader go, "Wait, did he just do what I think he did?" A few pages later, he finally slips in a confirmation, almost as an afterthought. The following passage is from a conversation between Siilas (the stranger) and a ghost.
"You are a wise woman," said Silas. "I see why they speak so highly of you." He couldn't push the minds of the dead as he could the living, but he could use all the tools of flattery and persuasion he possessed, for the dead are not immune to either.
In other parts of the book, Gaiman is even less direct. For example, he drops many hints about the true nature of Silas's character, but he never really comes out and says it. For me, this was really fun as reader because it allowed me to be an active participant in exploring the world Gaiman created. It wasn't just handed to me on a plate -- I actually had to pay attention.
So what are you thoughts? Is your writing style subtle or straightforward? What style do you prefer to read?