This is the key to exposition in novels: give the reader the right information at the right time.
Yeah. Not so much.
At some point while writing a novel, especially if you are creating a world that is vastly different from our own, it will be important to explain some stuff. Maybe you need to let the reader in on why your protagonist’s government is ruled by malevolent giant squids or how the bridge trolls became unionized.
Here are tips on how to weave exposition naturally into the story.
Everyone knows that infodumps are often boring and stilted. When characters sit down and start explaining things to each other, it can quickly feel unnatural and fling the reader out of the novel. Exposition can make a story stop feeling like a story and start feeling like a history lesson. Instead of being immersed in the narrative, the readers start imagining an author somewhere who is throwing up her hands and saying, “Crap! Now I have to explain how unicorns were invented. Kill me now.”
There is one very important key to exposition that will help smooth out the reading experience:
The information is tied to specific events happening in the plot at the time of the explanation
That’s it. As long as the information being explained is tied to the events that are happening in the story at that time, and as long as it’s crucially important for the characters, the reader, or both to learn this information, it won’t feel like an infodump. It will feel natural to the reader because they need the exposition at this time.
Trust your readers to go with the flow
You don’t have to explain every single mysterious thing about your world right away. Readers have a remarkable capacity to go with the flow and accept that they don’t know everything at first. In fact, this lack of knowledge can help preserve a healthy sense of mystery.
Instead, readers only have to know the information that is needed to understand the events transpiring at that precise moment.
There are two main ways of integrating exposition into a novel.
It’s okay to just tell the reader what they need to know
If the character already knows the information that the reader needs to know, they can simply tell the reader. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a great example of this. The main character, Wade, knows his world backward and forward, and in fact a huge part of the plot hinges on his exhaustive knowledge of the online world in which much of the action is set.
Instead of explaining every piece of its history all at once, Wade simply explains the information the reader needs to know when it’s important to know it. Since the exposition is crucial to providing context to the events in the plot, it feels natural to the reader.
A lot of writers get hung up on this approach because they mistakenly think you can never “tell” the reader something (note: this isn’t what I think “show don’t tell” means) or because they’re trying too hard to be realistic.
Remember: you’re writing for someone in our world, not your character’s world.
Transform exposition into a quest for information
If the character doesn’t know the backstory, it’s best to turn the acquisition of the information into a scene unto itself.
This is how J.K. Rowling uses the pensieve in the Harry Potter novels. Instead of having Dumbledore explain key events to Harry through conversation, they use the pensieve to literally see the events transpire. Another way to approach this is for a character to learn the crucial info by sneaking into a library where the bad guys are lurking or to steal an important map from the pirate’s lair. The character isn’t just having information explained to them, as the act of acquiring the information itself is woven into the story.
Novels are a snapshot in time. In great novels, it feels as if a vast history precedes the start of Chapter One and all the characters have rich backstories that influence the novel. But this history does not have to be explained all at once.
Instead, the information should arrive just when we need it.
Do you have any tips for exposition? Any novels that you think handle it exceptionally well? Let me know in the comments!
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Art: Weaver Facing Right by Vincent van Gogh