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.
You’ve finished and published your first book, congratulations!
But now what do you do with it?
Well, if you’ve published through an online program like CreateSpace, Blurb or Lulu, then your book will be available on their websites, plus any of their partners, but what if you’ve had 1000 copies printed offshore and they’re sitting in your garage? What if you just want to see it on the shelf somewhere?
The idea of seeing your book sitting on the shelf in either bookstores or libraries is definitely appealing, but the cold, hard truth of it is that it is both difficult and unlikely to help pay the bills. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it!
Before approaching bookstores, you must have created the most professional looking book that you can; it must be almost indistinguishable from a traditionally published book. That means: well edited, properly printed and correctly formatted. It must have an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). If you are publishing through the aforementioned companies, they will provide you with one, otherwise you must acquire your own, and you must have the bar code to match it (back cover, bottom left or right hand side is the traditional placement). This is essential, as it is how the bookstore will catalogue your book. Some bookstores may also prefer it to be listed on Nielsen Book Data.
Then, do some research. Small, independent bookstores are more likely to be approachable. The big, chain stores do not always make their purchasing decisions at store level and, although it is not impossible to get onto their shelves, it is no mean feat. Choose your target wisely, and make sure that the store actually stock books of your genre; some stores do specialise. Approach the staff member politely, introduce yourself and your purpose and ask to speak to the book buyer or manager, or arrange an appointment. Remember that different stores have different policies regarding independent authors, and respect their decision.
So, if you ARE accepted into a bookstore, what can you expect?
Book stores have three main ways of taking in independently published titles:
Consignment: they accept the books, and shelf them, but you do not get paid until, or unless, they sell. You can, pretty much, ask for the books back at any time (although some contracts may require you to give notice first), and you may be required to pay postage if they need to be delivered. They may require you to take them back after 3-6 months.
Sale or Return: The book store will pay you your wholesale price upfront (usually around a month after receiving the stock), but will agree to stock it for a set period, generally 3-6 months. After that period is over, you may be required to buy back your remaining stock at the amount they paid you for them.
Firm Sale: They pay you up front and they keep the book until it sells. It is highly unlikely that any retailer will agree to this without you proving that the stock will almost certainly sell. And you might find your books in the bargain/clearance bins at some point.
You will also need to determine your wholesale price, and from this your RRP (Recommended Retail Price).
Firstly, determine how much each copy of the book cost you to buy in the first place. You do not want to sell your book below cost, for obvious reasons!
Then you can figure out either how much profit you wish to make for selling the book to the retailer, and how much you would expect their customers to pay for it. For a rough idea of pricing, you might like to look at similar books in a range of stores first, or check out the information on a publisher’s website. Most list the RRP of their titles (just make sure it’s a New Zealand site).
Stores will be looking for a 35-50% margin, and if you are not GST registered, then they will also be taking GST into account.
Therefore, say you wish to charge the retailer $15 per copy of your book.
Firstly, they will add in the GST 15 x 1.15 = $17.25
Then they will add in their profit margin (let’s say 40%) $17.27 x 1.6 = $27.60
So you could set the RRP to $27.99
Whilst your book is in bookstores, it is considered good form not to undercut their pricing when selling direct; you should still charge $27.99 when selling copies to customers yourself.
I have spoken to two of the independent bookstores in Christchurch, and obtained permission to mention them by name.
With stores in Riccarton and the Central City, Scorpio Books are a local institute (they’ve been around almost 40 years) and have two beautiful stores. They are willing to consider independently published books on consignment, for a 3-6 month period. Although they are open to most types of books, they do stock a diverse range of fantasy and have a beautiful children’s section, as well as an indepth non-fiction (especially for “coffee table” books). It is helpful if your book is listed on Nielsen.
Piccadilly Books are a lovely bookstore/post office in Avonhead Mall. They will consider independently published titles on a sale or return basis, for the 3-6 month period. They favour new releases and specialise more in non-fiction and adult fiction, rather than young adult and children’s.
Some bookstores may only accept books via a distribution company. There are very few distribution companies in NZ, and even fewer that deal directly with independent authors (most deal with small printing houses). Indeed, the only one I can name offhand is Nationwide Books, in Oxford, North Canterbury.
- get upset if they turn you down. They are a business and shelf space is at a premium, also, they know their market better than you – if they don’t believe it will sell, then accept that.
- sneak a copy of your book onto the shelf in your local bookstore without their permission/knowledge. Worst case scenario, you could be accused of shop lifting should you try and remove it later. Best case scenario, if a customer ever does take it to the counter to purchase it, it will not scan through the tills, nor will the staff member know what to do with it. Also, you’ll never get paid anything from the sale, so you might as well leave it on a park bench.
- wander into bookstores and ask if they stock your book, without identifying yourself as the author. Whilst some staff members may find this amusing, others find it deceitful and disrespectful.
- wander into a bookstore and harass them for not stocking your book, or not stocking more than 2 copies of your book, or not putting your book in a prominent place, etc. It is their store, and their decision. Respect them.
Dialogue is not easy to write, and it can take practice to make it feel natural, especially if the characters are not clearly in your head, talking. So how do you go about making your dialogue less stilted? Your characters feel more real? Below you will find a few of the pitfalls that I have observed, as both a reader and a writer, and practical advice on how to make the dialogue clearer, and feel more real.
Remember, these are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Your story is your own, and how you choose to write it is entirely up to you.
The best advice on how to write better dialogue: Practice, read it aloud, then practice some more!
Note: All extracts are taken from my current WIP, Tail of Two Scions.
He said/She said
Dialogue tags are important to establish who says what but, so saying, when two characters are having a conversation, it is not necessary to establish this every line. Generally, you need to indicate it the first time either character speaks, and then can manage several back-and-forth exchanges before having to remind the reader again.
Note: it may be appropriate in your story to leave in the “he said/she said” for every line, especially if you are writing for younger readers, who may not be fully aware of the common conventions and thus become confused. Do not feel obliged to remove them.
“Care to make your report, ranger?” Riana teased.
“Trees,” Aurelia replied. “Lots of trees. A few crows.”
“Care to try again?”
“Give me a moment.” Aurelia scooped up the water flask, downing the contents in great gulps. She stiffened, drawing herself fully upright, as Simone sauntered over to them.
When more than two characters are involved, this becomes somewhat impractical to easily manage, and attribution tags will be required.
“As you know, Jim” (aka Maid and Butler)
Yes, it is a great idea to push the plot along and supply backstory or deliver clues via dialogue. However, you have to do this very carefully. Characters should NEVER have to straight out explain to each other what both characters already know.
“Remember how we met?” Riana asked. “In the hopitaly.”
Aurelia nodded. “Oh yes,” she replied. “You’d given yourself a concussion, flying on that funny glider thing. And I’d cut my hand, trying to climb the tsingy.”
“Why were you doing that again? Weren’t you showing off or something?”
“No,” Aurelia protested. “Not showing off. I was watching for Lanitra.”
Fixing this from stilted and awkward can be as simple as rearranging it to fit into context (in this case, Aurelia’s just tried one of Riana’s flying devices, with unfortunate results).
“Maybe I need to go back to the glider skeleton.” Riana sighed. “But we both remember what happened last time I tried that.”
Aurelia nodded. “A concussion,” she replied. “But if you hadn’t concussed yourself, then we’d never have met.”
“True, true,” Riana agreed. “And if you’d never gone all bravado, tried to climb the tsingy and cut your hand to pieces, we wouldn’t have been in the hopitaly together.”
“It wasn’t bravado,” Aurelia replied. “I was watching for Lanitra…”
In the latter instance, it’s still the characters telling each other what they already know, but it is integrated in a manner that feels more like gentle teasing/banter than a general info-dump. Other ways to avoid this can be: have only one character know and be training the other (teacher/student); use a mix of action and dialogue (ie: if you need to show how a machine works, have the characters fix it and discuss the process); have the two arguing about it.
Using Adverbs Excessively
Adverbs should, generally, be avoided, although there are times when they are necessary to establish the emotions of the characters via their tone of voice. They are a classic example of “tell, not show”. It is better to use an alternate verb if one is available.
But BE AWARE: overuse of said-alternates can also be extremely distracting in a story. Generally speaking, readers often overlook the word “said” and, whilst “raged” is far more concise than “said angrily”, one doesn’t want every dialogue tag to be a different verb. Also, sometimes the meanings will be different: “Raged” suggests a far more dramatic response than a simple “said angrily”, for example.
To test whether adverbs, or even verbs, are truly necessary, I remove them from the text and read the sentence asking myself: is the character’s mood/voice clear from context? Or do I need to keep it in? Does it matter if the reader interprets it differently?
There are some insane adverbs out there—J.K. Rowling is guilty of using some really extravagant ones. Generally speaking, the more syllables they contain, the more likely they are to annoy/distract the reader.
Use of non speech verbs as dialogue tags
“Smiled”, “yawned”, “sighed”, etc are not dialogue tags. Yes, you can smile as you say something, but the smiling is not what is causing the speech
Confusion about who is speaking
Describing action instead of using dialogue tags is a useful technique that can go wrong: You can avoid dialogue tags on occasion by having the character doing something instead. If this action follows on from dialogue, the reader will automatically attribute the dialogue to the named character. Be aware of this, and always use a new line if a different character is physically (rather than verbally) reacting to the previous speaker.
Roland stepped forward, head bowed submissively. “Forgive her, Royal Advisor.” He rose his head to meet Mephistopheles’s eyes. “She is young and headstrong, filled with fire and rage. We were just surprised to find you here, in this dark, dank and desolate place.”
Mephistopheles snorted. “I am entitled to wander where and how I choose.”
In the above passage, the reader should automatically attribute the speech to Roland, even though it contains no dialogue tags. When Mephistopheles reacts, it begins a new line. If it did not, the reader might become confused about who is talking.
Hiding dialogue in prose
Try to avoid burying dialogue in the middle of a paragraph of non-verbal prose. You can precede it with a sentence, or even two, if they’re short and concise, but if it is too well hidden, or there is any confusion over who might be speaking, start it on a new line, and dialogue or action tag it appropriately:
A gasp, then her eyes narrowed. Simone let her hand fall slack to her side and Aurelia turned her gaze back at the ground. “So, you are the one then.” Rancid slime dripped and oozed from Simone’s scent. “Heir to the royal dynasty.” Her lip twisted back as though she had smelled something foul.
As you can see in the above paragraph, it is unclear who is speaking. The new paragraph should begin at “So, you…”
For more useful tips and tricks on punctuating dialogue, see Shelley’s post here from 2013:
Some time ago, Shelley Chappell wrote us a good post on Punctuation and Grammar.
But here is a concise break-down for quick and easy reference.
- All first lines of dialogue by a different speaker should begin on a new line.
- Speech marks, either double or single (but be consistent) frame the passage of speech, in most cases, curling towards it. Other punctuation (full stop, comma, question mark etc) goes within these speech marks:
“I really like ice cream.”
- Use a comma if a speech tag follows:
“I really like ice cream,” said Felicity.
- Use a full stop if a non-speech verb follows:
“I really like ice cream.” Felicity grinned.
- Speech tags that follow directly after the closing speech mark should always be lower case, as they’re continuing the sentence, even when your writing program wants to capitalise them:
“I really like ice cream!” said Felicity.
- If another sentence follows, but is not a continuation of the first, then a full stop should precede it:
“I really like ice cream!” said Felicity. “I’m gonna have a goodie gumdrops.”
- But if it’s a continuation of the first sentence, it should be preceded by a comma:
“I think,” said Felicity, “I’m gonna have a goodie gumdrops.”
- If your character is quoting another character in dialogue, then the quote will be in the other form of quotation marks (in this case, single quotes).
“Mother always said, ‘you are what you eat’. In which case, I must be delicious.”
Now for some more complex punctuation, but be aware that not everyone agrees on how this should be done. Different style manuals suggest different ways in which to write your ellipses. One guide, the MLA, indicates [ . . . ]; the Chicago Style indicates [ … ] for omissions; the Australian Style Guide suggests [ … ] as well. Whichever you choose to use, the most important thing is be consistent.
- Ellipses should be used to indicate a pause in speech
“I think I’ll have the goodie gum drops … or maybe a chocolate mint.”
- Or when the person’s train of conversation just trails off
“My favourite flavour? Now that’s a difficult question. I guess it must be …”
- If a speaker is abruptly cut off or interrupted, dialogue should terminate in an em-dash:
“Or perhaps I’ll have a chocolate mi—”
“For goodness sake! Choose one already. Mine’s melted.”
The only punctuation after the closing em-dash should be the speech marks.
Dialogue is an important facet in most stories.
It can play many roles:
- Advance the plot
- Create conflict or drama
- Set the theme/tone
- Get across backstory (or foreshadow events)
- Reveal information and make it more accessible
- Develop a character
- Create and show relationships between characters
- Show, not tell
Almost every novel will contain dialogue — up to and around 66% — so how do we go about writing it well?
Firstly, dialogue is NOT the same as actual speech. If you listen to people talking, the speech is punctuated with “ums” and “ahs”, random pauses as they lose their train of thought, and often runs off on wild and random tangents. Dialogue in a book should not be like this — it should be concise and relevant to the story that you’re trying to tell. However, it needs to be written convincingly enough that the reader will believe it could be genuine dialogue.
Here are a few pointers:
- Use contractions and colloquialisms where appropriate.
- Give each character a distinctive “voice” and be consistent (no, I don’t mean give each character a catchphrase or anything like that, but a professor of literature will speak more precisely and clearly than, say, a fisherman).
- Keep it concise and on topic. If the characters start to stray off topic, pull them back in. Every bit of dialogue should fulfill at least one—if not more—of the above roles.
- Cliches (and idioms) are fine in dialogue, but please don’t over-do them.
- Bad grammar is also perfectly acceptable in dialogue, as long as it is true to the character.
- The character’s personalities and relationships will show through in what they say and how they say it. For example, if one character dislikes another then they may be sarcastic, or snide, when conversing with that character. Whereas, to another, they might show a more motherly empathy. Be consistent, and keep the relationships realistic to the plot.
- Read it aloud, with a friend if you can nab someone. Does it feel like a genuine conversation? Or does it feel stilted and awkward?
- Try not to involve too many characters in any given conversation. I am comfortable with up to three or four, but any more than that and one will spend the majority of it listening.
- Instead of adding dialogue tags to every piece of dialogue, have the character do something physical instead: pace across the room; fiddle with her cup; stare at her shoes. Even without the dialogue tag, the reader will automatically attribute the dialogue to the person doing the actions, provided it follows directly on (not on a new line).
Even more attractive than print-on-demand technology is digital – there are no upfront costs, your royalties are generally higher, your book will never go out of print, and it’s cheap enough that readers will be more willing to “take a risk” and buy it. But with all these digital players out there, which site is best for you?
Well, the advantage with digital books is that you don’t have to decide on just one site, you can join them all if you have the time or the inclination! But is it really worth it? Here, with a bit of help from my writer friends, I’m going to look at a few of the major ebook distributors so you can decide whether to keep it exclusive, or spread it around.
KDP are probably the biggest distributor of ebooks on the interwebs. I have three titles listed via Kindle and my sales have been slow, but I have made some (although not enough to reach the payment threshold).
What they offer:
- Free to join.
- Straightforward set-up.
- Pay royalties direct into your bank account (EFT).
- Popular marketplace.
- You can run promotions on your book: free days or countdowns (if enrolled in their KDP select).
- Entering your NZ tax number reduces the 30% taxation. Do not require US ITIN/EIN.
- Their ebook format is unique to their site (use a mobi converter or Scrivener).
- They do not keep a running total of earnings– you have to maintain your own records.
- Cannot set title to be permanently free (but there are ways around that, see below).
- You need to give Amazon exclusive rights if you want to take advantage of their special promotions (ie: not sell the ebook anywhere else).
What Smashwords offer:
- Free to join.
- A range of digital formats: epub, mobi, pdf and more.
- Their infamous “meat grinder” which turns your original file into the aforementioned formats automatically.
- You can price your book as “free” (if you set your book to free here, Amazon will price match).
- Will pay out via Paypal ($10 threshold).
- You can offer pre-orders.
- The meat grinder translator has issues with some format files (and instruction manual is written for Microsoft Word, not OpenOffice).
- Does not seem to be very popular with buyers.
- Seem to require a US tax number to avoid a 30% taxation on earnings (reduces to 10%).
- Smashword’s layout looks cheap and non-professional (petty, I know, but I do judge books – and websites – by their “covers”.)
When I first joined Kobo, it was really hard getting your book up on their website. You had to format everything, create a metadata file and upload it via FTP. Then they introduced Writers Life and things became so much simpler. I have had the epub (with colour illustrations) version of Fellowship listed on Kobo for years, but I just re-trialed the site by uploading Aroha’s Grand Adventure as well. The process was so quick and painless it was wonderful. Of course, in several years I’ve sold exactly 2 copies of Fellowship, but ah well, might as well make it available, right?
What Kobo offers:
- Free to join.
- Extremely easy and straightforward platform, allowing you to upload your epub formatted files, or translating alternative formats. It’s even easier than Amazon!
- Allows you to set your price in NZ$.
- Pay via EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) into your bank account after you reach the US$50 threshold (well, 45 days after).
- Royalties are 45/75% depending on sale price.
- Canadian company means no tax withheld and no ITIN required.
- Does not provide ISBN, but you don’t actually need them for ebooks. And you can get one here for free.
- Not as popular a marketplace as Amazon.
Wheelers: If your book is released in traditional form, it will automatically be listed on Wheelers book site, but ebooks need to be uploaded separately. Wheelers ebooks are available to schools and libraries. I signed up with Aroha’s Grand Adventure and get a lovely email once a month telling me I have no sales. The process is not too difficult as long as you have an ISBN, an epub file, metadata and a cover image, but is more time consuming (for little reward). Joining is done via email and involves filling in other forms as well.
iBooks: I have not looked too heavily into iBooks, as they seem to require you to have a Mac computer.From the website, their process looks fairly straightforward and very visually appealing, but appears more aimed at text books and pictorials.
Google Books: Are not accepting new authors at this time. Obviously more targeted at publishers rather than independent authors.
Note: ISBN numbers are linked to formats, so if you have your book available in paperback, hardback, and epub they should all have different ISBN numbers. However, most ebook sites don’t require them and will give you their own number instead.