In this Ask the Editor, I explain how exposition is the “sometimes food” of writing and how to serve it up.
What is exposition?
Exposition is the part of writing wherein you explain things that are important to the story at hand, but that aren’t part of your actual narrative. See the examples below (exposition shown in italics throughout):
“He was short and wide, like all Zabersnappians— the gravity of Zabersnap being ten times that of Earth. Like Earth, Zabersnap was covered mostly in saltwater, and the deep blues and greens reminded Annabeth of home.”
What is an infodump?
“Annabeth bent down to examine the bloody murder implement, an ice pick. She remembered seeing countless icepicks in the bartending course she took ten years ago, when she was still married to Mark, the coldhearted dentist cum vampire who kidnapped her sister Maria.”
It is undoubtedly important to the story that we know that the character was married to an evil vampire dentist, but this kind of exposition is called an infodump.
Infodumps, i.e. a bunch of artless exposition all “dumped” in one spot, are particularly dangerous to genre writers, given the need to establish so much more information to build a world.
How do I use exposition like a tasty seasoning?
- Brevity is the soul of wit.
Or, “smart folks don’t yammer on.” Don’t dwell on your exposition, introducing tons of extraneous items in one complicated dump. Compare the below with the infodump above:
“Annabeth bent down to examine the bloody murder implement, an ice pick. The feel of it in her reminded her of the bartending course she took years ago, before things with her ex started spiraling the drain.”
- Hide it in your mashed potatoes
Slip the exposition into the narrative in little bits. For example, if you need to present an element essential to someone’s nature, such as bitterness or feelings of abandonment, slip it into a necessary part of your narrative:
“Mindy’s eyes reacted instantly, puffing up like hemorrhoids. Mindy was not a cat person. Not since her mother packed up and took off. She took the cat, but left Mindy.”
- Flashbacks and other devices
You can use flashbacks, excerpts from books or newspapers, and other devices to include background information. Just remember that these can sometimes ruin the feeling of consistency in your writing, feel gimmicky, and like exposition anyplace else, can turn into an infodump.
Try to limit your use of devices to those which fit into your book in a way that feels organic and interesting.
- Allow for mystery
Remember, unlike a roleplaying game, a novel one does not have to explain every little thing about the world. You should consider not sharing every little thing about your world. Let your readers thirst for more. If you do a good enough job, you can save some of the revelations for following books.
- Jump right in
Try to start your book as though you are starting in the last quarter of the story. When you saw Star Wars: Episode 4, you probably weren’t old enough to read the crawl at the beginning. That crawl is all exposition. I bet you didn’t need it anyway because the script was effective in inserting explanations throughout as the movie progressed.
The best stories don’t need lengthy infodumps to help you understand what is going on. Pepper your writing with tidbits throughout to enrich and foreshadow.
In the next Ask the Editor: Show, Don’t Tell
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