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How to do exposition without it turning into an infodump
Sneaky world building and layering of information
I was in conversation with the inimitableearlier this week, discussing the difficulty of explaining things to a reader without killing the story dead in its tracks. As Elle put it:
‘“how do you crack the whole ‘explain what needs to be explained’ without making it a boring dialog chapter?!”
Reader, I had thoughts.
Being able to ‘explain what needs to be explained’ is vital for all writers, and is arguably what storytelling actually is. Exposition gets both more important and more tricky for writers of speculative fiction, who don’t get anything for free. A contemporary literary novel at least gets to use the real world as a backdrop, which can be quite freeing. If you story is set in the future, or in space, or in a fantasy world, you need to somehow depict that place without turning into a dull lore encyclopedia.
It’s not just about world building. Exposition is relevant to plot, character, theme - just about anything of substance in the story. Some of the old ‘show don’t tell’ mantra is relevant and helps to distinguish a ‘story’ from ‘an explanation’. A dictionary’s job is to tell people hard facts; a story’s job, broadly speaking, is to reveal something meaningful about those facts.
This was also on my mind after reading this excellent post from:
I’ve spent a long time wrestling with exposition over the last decade. My first book was a high concept, deeply weird thing about shapeshifters that required a lot of heavy lifting to explain the world. My second was a fantasy adventure set in a fictional place, with a rich back history and a mystery at its centre. My third was a post-apocalyptic road trip that was as much about moving forward as it was looking back. And Tales from the Triverse, which I’m writing and publishing here, is a detective series with crimes to investigate and solve.
All of these books have needed a lot of ‘explaining’, so I’ve had practice at finding elegant ways to do that.
So. Deep breath.
Establish your setting
When you finally get to the chapter in which you explain everything, it’s tempting to dive straight in. Especially if you’re dealing with a big reveal, a rug pull or plot twist, or are about to explain the crux of the story. First, though, you need to anchor your reader.
Where is the scene taking place? Nothing happens in a vacuum: your character or characters will be in a physical location, somewhere. Think about how that might affect the exposition. Is there a particular setting that would actively aid the exposition scene, rather than simply being window-dressing?
Perhaps instead of having characters sat in a room, you could have them walking the streets, at the same time as explaining how the city works. I rather cheekily inserted a museum exhibition into one of my books as a way to explore some additional historical details - a bit on the nose, but it worked in that particular context.
Root it in character
This will vary depending on the narrative structure of your writing, and whether you’re writing 1st person or 3rd person, omniscient narrator or subjective, and so on.
3rd person omniscient is in theory the easiest form of narration for handling exposition: the narrator knows everything and can simply tell the reader at any point. That’s not always the most engaging way to go about it, though. You’ll either need a very strong author voice to bring it to life, or you’ll want to handle the exposition via your characters.
More subjective narrations offer additional opportunities to weave character in and around the exposition. Whether it’s an inner monologue or actual dialogue, you can filter the exposition through the character’s ideas and outlook. It’s a way to apply a translation between your own knowledge of the necessary exposition, being the writer, and the needs of the reader.
You could even work in some unreliable narrator elements. After all, if someone from the 15th century showed up on my doorstep and asked me to explain how humanity had gone from medieval to modern times, my explanation and recounting of several centuries would be extremely shonky. Ask a historian and you’d get a very different response. Apply the character context to the exposition and you’ll immediately start to get more interesting results, and the voice of the author will retreat into the background. The exposition is no longer just dumping info on the reader, but it actively exposing character traits.
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Pay attention to your staging
Establishing your setting at the start is vital, but don’t forget to come back to it. Think about the staging of the scene, as if it were a movie or theatre play. How are the characters interacting with the space? Are they moving through and around it?
Adding action to a scene is a great way to break up exposition and make it more interesting, or even to disguise and hide it entirely. This doesn’t mean an actual ‘action sequence’ with punchy punches: it can be as simple as walking down a street, or through a forest, or climbing a hill. Grounding the characters in the physicality of a space also keeps the reader anchored to the story.
This is especially important if you’re delivering exposition via dialogue. Don’t let massive dialogue chunks overwhelm everything else, because the narrative will start to feel floaty. The reader will lose any sense of geography and how and where the characters are interacting.
Change monologues to conversations
This one is reliant on having more than one character in a scene. But let’s assume that you have Character A talking to Character B and explaining something. Doesn’t matter what it is.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of having Character A start monologuing, because they’re the one with all the knowledge. The point of the chapter is for Character A to explain something, not only to Character B but also to the reader. And that’s how you end up with three on-running paragraphs of dialogue from Character A.
Thing is, that’s not how conversations normally go. Unless the scene is explicitly a lecture, there’s no reason to have Character B be silent. Have them interject, ask questions, and create interplay between the two of them. You can still get all the information across, but you’re giving both character some agency and allowing Character B to influence the direction of the conversation (and, thus, the exposition).
Think about the last time someone was explaining something complex to you. You probably interrupted, queried, asked for clarification and so on, rather than sitting there and simply absorbing data.
And actually, even if the scene is literally a lecture, there are still opportunities to create the sense of a conversation. Perhaps have Character B be the point of view character, and share their inner thoughts as Character A is delivering their talk. Or introduce Character C, so that B and C can bounce off each other and react to the lecture.
Don’t explain everything all at once
It’s tempting to get it all out in one go. You’ve been building up to this moment of revelation and you want to tell the reader everything! The risk is that you create such an information barrage that they can’t take any of it in, or miss key details.
Instead, consider what is essential at that point in the story. Save some of the other details for another time. Think of it like layers of an onion, peeling back one-by-one. In The Mechanical Crown I gradually unravelled the mystery, filling in backstory, but that process was spread through most of the book. Eagle-eyed readers would be able to piece together information ahead of time, and the clues were all there, but clarification and explanation were spread over a long period, rather than in a single infodump.
Even if you do want it all to land in a single chapter, can you sprinkle it throughout the chapter, rather than having it in a big lump?
Make it sensory
Some of the most powerful tools in a writer’s kit are to engage the reader’s senses. Touch, smell, sound. What’s the temperature? How does the ground feel underfoot? What wildlife can be heard? Establishing this at the start helps to do that heavy lifting, but you need to keep it coming.
In other words, don’t forget about your setting. Keep the characters interacting with the location. If you have them walking down a street, remember to mention what’s happening and where they are. Do they have to cross the road? Is the traffic busy? Is there a hot dog vendor? A busker playing music? All those incidental details will make the scene feel more real and will also break up the exposition.
As with much of this advice, it’s about disguising the expository elements: hiding them in and around the details of the scene. If you have paragraphs that are only exposition, the reader is going to notice. Intersperse it with other stimulus and it becomes far less obvious.
Wrap it all up in character reactions
If you have characters in your scene, make sure you use them. Don’t have them be passive listeners! If something is being explained or revealed to them, it’s critical to work in their reactions.
Every character will have a unique response to new information. Use that to add context and shine a different light on the expository dialogue. If Character A is explaining something they consider to be a Good Thing, what if Character B is less sure? Perhaps they have a moral objection! Suddenly you have a counterpoint, which shifts the scene from exposition to conflict: the characters can have a debate, which in turn helps you to explore the themes and information - the reader will actually get a deeper understanding of the details and of the characters.
My rule of thumb is that every single paragraph that I write should have at least one character moment. Ideally, every sentence. The most mundane observation can be a telling moment for the right character. If you’re mixing in character moments at every opportunity, it’ll not only disguise the exposition - it’ll make readers actively enjoy the process. By the end, they’ll have engaged more with the characters, and the infodump will have happened sneakily in the background without them even realising.
Again, it’s exposition via action. Not via powerpoint slides.
Always be doing more than one thing at a time
A lot of this boils down to having multiple spinning plates. If your scene ends up being only exposition, it’ll be boring. The reader’s attention will drift, and the information reveal will lose its impact.
But if your scene is simultaneously filled with action, and conflict, and character moments big and small, then the exposition won’t even be noticed. It’ll be absorbed by the reader subconsciously.
Tips from other writers!
This is one of those things that every writer has to deal with, and consequently every writer has their own approach. I asked in chat for advice and some really great stuff came back from the community. Here are some snippets:
“For me exposition is everything that isn't a character's thoughts and feelings. If a character is thinking or feeling it, then they need to be saying it or doing something to communicate it. I still fail at that, but I try to use exposition only for action, environment and events.”
“Possibly for both, I utilise a lot of setting and chronotopic devices for this. I like to - for example - let someone’s apartment tel us about them.”
“Depends on the style and pov etc you’re using. If it’s first person recollection, you can just be conversational. If it’s third person objective, you can do a cut to a past (or series of past) scenes. If it’s third person close, it’s a bit weirder and you have to transition differently depending on how the narrative voice is operating.”
“Photo album or object/relic that the character can engage with. Dialogue. Inner thoughts. Another character that servers as a psychological trigger. Check out Handmaid’s Tale (the book) Atwood needs tons of exposition to make the world work, but does it SO well.”
“My main character is naive/new to the world, so I've been able to have other characters explain things to her throughout the first two books in a way that doesn't feel info-dumpy.”
“…you should either be changing the world or changing how the reader sees the world. If you are just dumping information without changing anything, you will lose the reader.”
“I like to read it weaved through a scene/conversation where comments/objects/actions trigger the information the reader needs. But I also think (and I write fantasy so this probably explains my feelings on it)....don’t be TOO afraid of the dump! As long as it's relevant to the scene, you'd be surprised how much you can dump in one spot :)”
“...I'll sense an info dump when there's so much exposition it manages to pull me out of the action it came from. The fix for that could be to weave a few pieces of action back into the exposition. Say two characters are having a dialogue at a cafe - in the middle of the exposition, the waiter shows up with something and the characters briefly engage with him or each other. It's just a way to maintain the action so the reader doesn't exit the scene during the exposition.”
“EVERYTHING is exposition in some way and any trick a writer uses - dialog, interrupting/overlapping action, intercutting, movement within the scene, diegetic sources, blah-blah, is all about keeping the reader entertained while hopefully presenting an organic flow to the story so it’s not obvious almost everything is being spoon fed.” Mike Miller
Hope that’s useful. If you’d like to see me trying to put all this into action, you can read Tales from the Triverse right here for free, or you can grab a copy of No Adults Allowed in ebook or paperback form over on Amazon. I’d really appreciate the support!
Also: please do share your own tips down below! How do you handle necessary exposition, plot reveals and so on? Do you agree with the advice I’ve included here, or do you go another route?