Has anyone ever told you that your story was good, but included too much info-dumping?
Or maybe you’ve read a fantasy novel and found yourself unable to get through the first chapter because, no matter how hard you tried to pay attention, you couldn’t get past the textbook-like description of the worlds and characters.
Exposition is one of the most vital aspects of storytelling, and it’s one of the easiest things to do wrong. Being able to balance exposition in a story will distinguish a great manuscript from a mediocre one and change a clunky plot into a page-turner.
Read on to learn more about what exposition is, how it works, and how to use it effectively in your novel!
What is exposition in a story?
Plainly put, exposition is how the author conveys background information to the reader. For example, in a fantasy world, the reader doesn’t know everything about the world, cultures, and customs. This means the author needs to impart that information to the reader, and the way they do that can have a huge effect on the reading experience.
While exposition is most often discussed in the context of fantasy novels, where readers need to impart an entirely new world to a reader, it’s something authors in any genre have to reckon with. Any story is going to have information the reader needs to know which happened before the events of the story, so every writer will need to learn to balance exposition at some point or other.
Backstory vs. Forward Story
In her article “What Backstory Can Do For Your Story,” Jessica Morrell writes that while your forward story is made up of the plot itself and what’s happening to your characters in-scene, backstory is background information. Backstory fills us in on details about the world and the characters in it.
This does a few things: first, it provides context for the story, so the reader knows what’s going on. Second, it can reveal character motivations, thus raising the stakes. If we learn that one of our characters is from a kingdom which has long since been at war with another, that introduces conflict and tension. If we didn’t know that, we wouldn’t have that tension.
This is what exposition does at its best. It provides rich detail and reveals interesting information to enhance the reader’s experience.
One method of delivering exposition comes in the form of an expository paragraph. This is a paragraph or section devoted entirely to describing background information. You won’t see the forward story progress here, as this is entirely devoted to filling in the reader. It might look something like this:
“The Kingdom of Cheese Curls was founded by the goddess Cheese, and its current king, King Curl, came from a long line said to be descended from the goddess. The Kingdom was ruled by the King and his advisors. The Kingdom of Cheese Curls was rainy for most of the year, since it was positioned on the coast of a harsh, unnavigable ocean. Its main exports were iron ore from the mines and its main imports were lumber, since the terrain was rocky and harsh.”
Indirect exposition is when exposition is revealed gradually. This could happen in a variety of ways (which we’ll discuss in a minute), and it eases the reader into the world by filling them in as they need to be filled in. This makes the backstory feel natural and seamless, which creates not only a compelling narrative, but also a more immersive experience. This will also occur in-scene, which means it contributes to the progression of the forward story.
What kind of exposition should I use?
If you’re doing technical writing, you might need to use expository paragraphs to break down background information. But in fiction, you should always aim for indirect exposition. Having chunks of information isn’t a very efficient way to communicate that background info to your reader, and it halts the plot, which is something a writer should absolutely avoid.
So, now that we know what exposition is…
How do you write exposition in a story?
Let’s discuss how best to incorporate exposition into a novel. We’ll cover some common mistakes writers make first, then we’ll talk about better ways to work with exposition.
What to avoid when writing exposition
You know those fantasy novels that open with a five-page chapter that just explains the world as if you were reading about it in a textbook? Have you ever absolutely loved that? Me neither!
Info-dumps are essentially those expository paragraphs we discussed earlier. These stop your manuscript dead in its tracks to explain information to the reader. There’s no conflict going on within these info-dumps, and we aren’t really following a character or figuring out more about where the story’s going.
These are especially deadly at the opening of a story, which is, unfortunately, where a lot of writers tend to put them. It’s okay to put some exposition in your narration, but if you find yourself going off on a several-paragraph tangent describing the climate of your fantasy world, you might be in info-dump territory.
Clunky dialogue or narration
You also want your exposition to read effortlessly—it should slot alongside the rest of your prose. This can be a tricky skill to cultivate, but when done correctly, your reader won’t feel like they’re being pulled aside briefly to have a quick fact about the world recited to them. If a character is stopping to give a speech explaining the world, or if the narration has to pull away to abruptly tell us a character’s backstory, this is going to take the reader out of the story.
How to write exposition effectively
This may all sound a little daunting, but fear not! There are plenty of ways to convey exposition effectively. But before we talk about the tools you can use to convey exposition, let’s first cover the most important facet of backstory:
Reveal exposition only as needed
Most issues with exposition can be solved by only revealing exposition when it’s absolutely vital to do so. In other words, unless the reader wouldn’t understand what’s going on without it, skip it.
This can be especially tricky for fantasy readers, because they want the reader to know about this cool world they’ve worked so hard on, and it can be hard to tell what’s important and what’s not important. Even for a contemporary author, it may seem vital that the reader has a full understanding of the character’s childhood and upbringing.
When you’re starting in on exposition, ask yourself this: do I have to reveal this right now for the scene or story to make sense? What does revealing this information do? Does it raise the stakes, cause tension, or explain something that really needs to be explained?
Dialogue is perhaps the best tool a writer has for writing exposition. Having a character reveal exposition tells us something about the character, and it means the exposition is happening in-scene, which means we haven’t stopped the plot to give the reader a history lesson. A few quick tips for using dialogue for exposition: incorporate idioms or common expressions that reveal something about the world, keep the exposition in the character’s voice, and again, make sure that reveal is motivated. Why is the character revealing this information, and what purpose does it serve?
Of course, you can also put exposition in your narration. This is where some authors run into info-dump territory, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. It’s perfectly fine to have a quick sentence explaining backstory if the scene demands it. Just make sure the scene does demand it and that it doesn’t pull the reader out of the scene.
Also, consider point of view when you write exposition through narration. A first-person narrator will only be able to impart so much, while a third-person omniscient narrator will know anything and everything.
Ah, prologues. Is there anything so heatedly debated in the world of plot structure?
In a good prologue (and what makes for a good prologue is a whole separate discussion), the reader gets background information which is vital to understanding the rest of the story. A prologue should be specific, give key info, and lead the reader into the first chapter with some questions about what’s happened.
Basically, if your story makes perfect sense without the prologue, you don’t need it. The exposition in your prologue will justify its existence, if you’ve done it right.
Much like the prologue, flashbacks tend to get abused by new writers. It’s the most obvious way to convey background information—we’ll just show the reader what happened! At best, flashbacks are an immersive way to convey info to a reader. At worst, they pull the reader out of the story for no reason.
And this can be a great tool. Having this information unfold in-scene makes the reader more connected to it than if it were told in summary in an info-dump. However, when you go to write a flashback, ask yourself the same questions you’d ask if you were writing exposition any other way. Do I need this flashback to explain the scene? Is there a more natural way I could convey this information in-scene?
When working with all of your expository tools, stick to these golden rules: if it isn’t absolutely necessary to the scene, if it would pull the reader away from the scene, or if there’s a more natural way to get that information across, skip the exposition.