Need-to-Know Exposition

Need-to-Know Exposition: Telling your readers just enough and not too muchYou had a grand plan for your character, Jack. His adventure would rival Frodo’s in the minds of your readers. But they never got that far. They read as you set the stage of a war-torn kingdom. They pushed on through the report of Jack’s father’s demise and the subsequent decline of his mother’s health. They slogged through the process of farming magic beans. They drew the line at the only way to kill a giant.  Jack’s adventure was derailed by exposition.

The above story is a classic example of an infodump. It exposes too much, too soon. Infodumps aren’t limited to beginnings, though. You have to guard against them throughout a story.

Readers get bored without action or characterization. They want to get sucked in, and learn about a character as they would a new acquaintance. And they definitely don’t want to learn exactly how the conflict will be resolved before it ever begins.

The Number One Rule of Exposition

Keep it on a Need to Know basis. Push yourself to double check, “Does the reader need to know this now?

  • Sometimes, they do. Foreshadowing is a valuable tool, but it must be done with just a hint, not an infodump. Major details also need to be conveyed early. Other than that, wait until the last plausible moment, while spreading it as thinly as possible. Having Jack lay down his axe when his mother comes out to ask him to go to town would be a good hint or possible red herring.
  • Most of the time, they don’t need to know yet, especially at the beginning. Don’t deprive your readers of thrills by giving away key conflict resolutions before their time. It destroys the tension. What if you were to tease with the possibility of a different outcome for the giant, rather than explaining at the beginning how he would be killed?
  • Sometimes, they don’t need to know at all. Do they care how the beans were grown for sale or the exact battle Jack’s father died in?

When no word is wasted telling what doesn’t need to be told yet, every word counts just that much more, and your foreshadowing becomes that much more artful.

How to Artfully Expose Readers to New Information

  • Stay in your POV character’s head. Of course, this requires you to have the right character’s head. If your character wouldn’t explain it to himself, find some other way to deliver the information.
  • Keep the story moving. Exposition can’t take over if you have some sort of plot development in every other sentence and character development in another quarter. Tie everything into the story thread.
  • Let action speak for itself. You don’t need to have the character think, “I was hoping I wouldn’t run into him. I don’t have his money yet” when the bookie is sending in his goons and Jack is fighting to blend into the market crowd.
  • Keep it casual. If your tone changes suddenly, the reader can be thrown out of the story.
  • Use new information to create tension. Turning points are often based on learning something new.

“If these were magic beans, you wouldn’t be able to just give them to me. I’m broke, not dumb.”

  • Subtly foreshadow something to come. This can be through a similar situation, an ironic joke that turns out to be true,  a detail that becomes important later, or a red herring to purposefully give the wrong idea to both the character and the reader.

“I have gained more than you know. Go have them tested, if you wish.”

  • Weave small but highly specific details into the action and dialogue. A single specific word can draw a more abundant picture than a vague sentence.You can use the “extra space” to develop character and plot.

A colorful bird flew by on its way to its nest in the jungle.

OR

He barely noticed a toucan flying by as he tried to figure out how to tell his mother.

  • Inform an uninformed character through dialogue. Do not use an informed character for this. “As you know, Bob…” is an obvious ploy to even the most oblivious readers.

“Ma, heh, I have a crazy story to tell you…”

The Anti-Exposition Challenge

Write a paragraph, a short story, or the first few pages of your novel, using as little exposition as possible. The point isn’t to avoid it altogether, but to find the least common denominator.

 

What’s your favorite way to avoid infodump? Comment with your thoughts. 

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About MJ Bush

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Comments

  1. I read about the “As you know, Bob…” syndrome in Writers’ Digest years ago, and it just tickles me.
    Just now I had a little flashback to “The Great Muppet Caper.” When Miss Piggy first meets her, Lady Holiday starts rambling about her family troubles. “But I don’t even know you. Why tell me all this?” Miss Piggy asks. “Plot exposition,” Lady Holiday explains. “It has to go SOMEWHERE!” :)

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  2. Linda, now I want to see The Great Muppet Caper. That clip isn’t on Youtube: I checked.

    Maybe I should do a post listing good examples of meta-humor in books and movies. What a great start!

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  3. Thank you. Have to keep my exposition in check!

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  4. Wow! This is fantastic; it’s filled with lots of good insight! I can’t wait to start applying it!

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  5. Shelley says:

    When I write my first draft I know much of it is infodump. When I begin the editing process, I look at each line and ask three questions. Does my reader need to know this? No, really does my reader need to know this? Be completely honest with yourself, are you just in love with your prose or does your reader really need to know this? The final test is when I am reading if my mind starts to roam onto other points in the book, scene or what do I want to cook for dinner, the section is most likely a dump and needs to be dumped.

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    • That’s a great addition, Shelley. I’m so glad you commented with it!
      I love the “final test.” What a practical way to detect them.

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