Striking the right balance with exposition in a novel is a really crucial and difficult-to-master skill.
On the one hand, the reader needs to have enough information to understand what’s happening in a story, and it’s very easy for an author to lose sight of what is and isn’t on the page. On the other hand, we’ve all read aimless and boring infodumps that feel like they were more fun for the author to write than they are for us to read.
So how do you provide just the right information at just the right time? Here are some tips for utilizing exposition and weaving context into the narrative.
Forget about “show don’t tell”
Many writers go astray with exposition because they are misapplying the old writing canard “show don’t tell” and think it’s somehow against the rules to provide exposition or context. (For what it’s worth, I think “show don’t tell” has more to do with the way characters react to things).
Let’s get this out of the way first: It’s okay to just provide the reader with the information they need to understand what’s happening.
Sometimes writers think they’re being pedantic when they explain unfamiliar concepts, but the reader isn’t going to light up a red buzzer on you for “breaking” a “rule.” They’re going to be too busy appreciating that they now know what the unfamiliar concept is so they can just get on with enjoying the story.
If you don’t provide this context, things the reader doesn’t understand can pile up and pile up and it starts to feel exhausting because we can’t get our bearings within the story.
The crucial principle for exposition
So how and when do you provide exposition and context in a novel?
Here’s the crucial principle: The information is tied to specific events happening in the plot at the time of the explanation.
In other words, the key is that the information helps the reader understand the present narrative that’s currently unfolding in the story.
If the exposition or context helps us make sense of what’s happening in the novel right now? Great.
If the information is just being dumped on us just because “it will become important later?” Chances are it’s going to feel aimless, smushed in, and confusing and the reader will be tempted to skim ahead until they get back to the actual story.
We don’t need static introductions to characters or settings just for the sake of introducing them
When I’m working with authors on edits, often the first fifty pages of a novel will feel very aimless because all we’re doing is meeting characters and places for the sake of meeting them, but the story doesn’t get going until later.
Again: if we’re only getting the information because “it will become important later,” it’s going to feel meandering and a bit pointless. This is what people mean by “infodumps.” It’s information that’s disconnected from a story.
Trust that you can introduce characters and settings when they become important to the present narrative. Otherwise, if you’re trying to show a character’s life prior to the inciting incident, consider a mini-quest to give the opening some momentum, which will feel much more active than an opening infodump.
Backstory is only really important when it directly impacts the present story
Sometimes writers construct very elaborate histories for their characters and settings. Which is great! It’s helpful to know these things to flesh out characters and make their lives within a place feel more complex.
But just because you know the history doesn’t mean the reader necessarily needs to know it. Don’t smush it in just because you want to find a way to get your hard work onto the page.
That’s because: Backstory only really matters when it helps us understand what’s unfolding in the present narrative.
For instance, we don’t need to know every detail of the thousand year history of Black Knights in the magical kingdom in your novel if we haven’t seen any Black Knights yet. We do need to know who or what Black Knights are if they start chasing your protagonist.
And if that thousand year history has resulted in a very particular vendetta against your character, great. Give us some of the contours. That impacts what’s happening in the present. If it’s just a thousand years of jousting and ale drinking that doesn’t really matter to the chase? We can probably skip it. It’s great that you know it and it might add texture to your descriptions, but not everything you know about the world of your novel belongs on the page.
So how do you go about writing exposition and context?
It’s okay to just hit pause and tell the reader what they need to know
As author Lincoln Michel has pointed out, one of the most important skills a novelist needs to master is manipulating time. A second in real life time can be slowed down into a whole chapter in a novel, and whole decades or centuries can pass in a mere sentence.
So if you introduce a Silver Thingamabob in your story, it’s fine to just hit pause within a scene and quickly explain what a Silver Thingamabob is. You don’t need to wait for a quiet moment later in the scene, which then forces the reader to have to go later back and update their entire understanding of the scene with that new bit of information.
Even during a chaotic, exciting action scene, you can stop or slow down time to provide context (and physical description) when unfamiliar characters arrive, and then unpause and keep the action moving. Don’t wait to describe characters and provide context.
You also don’t need to concoct an elaborate way to back into explaining things, such as forcing two characters to have an unwieldy conversation about it. You can just explain unfamiliar concepts with the narrative voice.
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is a great example here. 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. But his narrative voice just fills us in as we go along as new concepts arrive.
And remember: you’re writing for someone in our world, not your character’s world. We need context.
Avoid envisioning scenes based on the information you think you need to deliver
Too often, writers approach scenes thinking about the information they need to impart to the reader rather than thinking about what could be happening in the novel or what the characters could be doing.
When all you’re thinking about is information, chances are you’re going to end up with two characters sitting around chitchatting aimlessly for the reader’s benefit, which at best isn’t super interesting, and at worst will feel extremely contrived. Or you’re going to give them a massive, out-of-nowhere info-dump.
Instead, think about how you can turn the acquisition of the information into a scene where the characters are being active.
This is how J.K. Rowling uses the pensieve in the Harry Potter novels. Instead of having Dumbledore explain key events from the backstory 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, say, 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. The act of acquiring the information itself is woven into the story.
Deliver the information a reader needs when they need it
Weaving in exposition and context is one of the “humps” novelists often have to get over as they gain experience, because there’s a strange disconnect at the heart of it. Providing exposition and context often feels boring and pedantic to a writer as they patiently spell things out, but readers don’t find deft context and exposition boring at all. They’re just glad to have the information they need to understand what’s happening.
Thus, as you’re writing, I personally would err on the side of making things clear for the reader. All doesn’t have to revealed straightaway, but you’re probably not being as clear as you think you are, and it’s so, so easy to lose sight of what is and isn’t on the page. It’s hard for a reader to invest in a story when we’re spending all of our energy sifting for clues about what’s happening entirely.
On the other side of the coin, there’s a danger in thinking you must “set up” everything that will become important later, which risks a scattered and aimless opening if you’re just info-dumping without a story unfolding. Focus on getting the story going first, and trust that you can bring the reader up to speed as you go along.
You have to strike the right balance. If you help the reader understand what’s unfolding in the present narrative with crisp, clear context, they can just focus on enjoying your story.
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Art: The Knight’s Dream by Antonio de Pereda