What is Exposition?
Narrative exposition is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc. (wikipedia)
Exposition is an important part in any story–we’ve got a lot to tell, and a limited time to tell it–and thus it is occasionally necessary to give the reader decent chunks of information or backstory. However, excessive exposition can lead to what is known as an Infodump, and is something that many critiquers and beta-readers can be very harsh on. It can also be off-putting to many readers.
Why don’t I like Infodumps?
- They distract from the narrative flow by delivering a history lesson.
- Too much information, given too densely, is difficult to process.
- They reiterate what the canny reader has already inferred.
- I’m more interested in the characters than the level of world building or research the author has done.
- They are a prime example of Tell, not Show.
- They can ruin the flow of action if placed inappropriately.
How do you know if you’re Infodumping?
Generally the best way to know if you’re committing excessive exposition is to ask your beta readers. They should be able to highlight points where the prose has slowed, or even halted, to deliver information, be it world history, character backstory, or other. Also, if you have delivered information that is not actually relevant to the story that you’re trying to tell. Whilst you may have created an extensive world, with a dynasty stretching back five generations and encompassing the seven kingdoms, this may be better kept to a companion encyclopedia. Likewise, we don’t need to know your character’s entire life history, not if we can infer it by their interactions and relationships with the people around them.
When writing the first draft, don’t be afraid to throw in as much backstory and exposition as you like, especially if it helps you to develop the world and the characters in your head. You can always edit it out later and store it in another file. Then, when you’re a successful author, you can publish them as part of a companion book!
Upon revising your draft, take the opportunity to look for places where you have actually shown through actions, dialogue or other, the information you’ve previously explained. If you’ve shown it, you don’t need to explain it as well and can safely edit it out.
Explore the world through your characters’ eyes
Show your world building skills by sending your characters on an epic “road trip” that allows them, and by proxy the reader, how wonderfully you’ve developed your world. This is possibly why the Quest narrative works so well. However, try and keep their interactions and adventures somewhat concise and focused.
This is also why novices and apprentices, or the “innocent outsider” is so popular as a main character in Otherworld fictions. It allows other characters to explain things that the character —and the reader— need to know.
Hint at backstory in conversation and interactions
I have created many, many characters, and a lot of them have fairly developed backstories. However, as they are not major players in my stories, the reader doesn’t really need to know all the details, just enough to make them unique and give them a life outside the book.
Here’s an extract from my (very old and incomplete) Furritasia web-series:
“How ya been, lad? How’s Leif? Still playing the harp?” Julius greeted his old friend.
At the mention of the name, Titus’s face seemed to crumple in on itself. “I don’t know,” he replied, “I doubt it somehow. Last time I was permitted,” and there was real bitterness there, “to see him, he could barely string two words together.” He paused and shrugged. “Head injury.”
And that is all we ever hear about Titus’s ex-boyfriend, Leif.
Be aware of the “Maid and Butler” dialogue trap.
The ever popular “classroom lesson”
A popular way of telling the reader about world history is by sitting the main character in a class room. Whilst this can be a successful technique, it is also one that can come across as rather contrived, especially when the students are being taught about things they should already know. To be used with caution.
Sprinkle breadcrumbs of information throughout the narrative
Vague references to things such as “the rubble left by the 30-day war” or similar, can be great for rousing the reader’s curiosity in your world’s backstory. For example, instead of saying your world is post-apocalyptic, you could sprinkle the landscape with remnants of human civilisation –things the readers will recognise, but the characters may not. Let the reader infer what has happened in your world’s history. Drop hints. Tease them.
There are more alternatives, of course, if you have any suggestions, please feel free to comment below!
Placement is key
If you must insert exposition, chose the position wisely. Firstly, it must have relevance to characters or events and secondly, exposition slows prose and can be a useful tool. If you are writing a high-fueled, adrenaline adventure, it may be necessary to occasionally give your characters, and readers, time to breathe and relax. This is a good time to give expository information.
Having your character think about their past, especially in detail, feels very forced. If you are going to do that, have something trigger the memory, keep it fleeting, and keep it appropriate to the tone of the narrative at that point: if the character is fleeing for her life from a giant tiger, she might have a brief deja vu moment, but she’s hardly going to suddenly remember, in great depth and detail, seeing a similar beast in a zoo.
Likewise, don’t break the tension with an infodump. If the farmer has just pulled an ancient sword from his attic, so that he can run to aid his wife, who’s holding off raiders, we’re not going to want to know how he happened to have such a weapon. We might be curious, yes, but we’re more interested in whether he’s going to make it to her in time.
Please don’t start your book with an infodump (unless it’s contained within a prologue). If I pick up a book and it is an extensive world history, I’m going to put it back on the shelf. Start with your characters, then deliver — carefully abridged — exposition.
Some genres are more forgiving to exposition than others: epic fantasy, being immersive, the reader will be more open to it; crime thriller or fast-paced action, not so much.