Writing Excellent Exposition and Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

book store with an "info dump" piles of books, illustration for writing great exposition article

The Key to Great Exposition

Have you ever asked someone what should have been a quick question, only to have them ramble on and on until you wished you’d never opened your mouth? Annoying, right? If you’re not careful, your story can end up making your readers feel that way, too. If your story piles on too much information too quickly, cramming in more facts than your readers want or are able to remember, your exposition starts to feel like an “info dump.”

It’s easy to include more backstory and world building than your readers will want to read. Writers spend ages thinking about every detail of our little, imaginary worlds, everything from the telepathic tax accountants to the AI that runs the coffee makers, so it’s easy to want to explain everything. But if you do, readers will often lose interest and skim past it, or even worse, stop reading altogether.

How do you do exposition in the right way? You have to ensure that readers care enough about the exposition to keep reading. The key to great exposition is relevance and pacing.

Scene Setting

When you’re describing a setting, give your readers just enough details to know where your characters are. You want to draw a picture the surroundings, so your characters feel like they’re real people in a physical place, and not just talking heads floating in a void. But just a quick sketch is enough.

If you’re writing a fantasy story about wizards at a magical awards show, briefly explain that the characters are at a lavish auditorium for the Annual Spell Casters Awards where the best wizards will be recognized for their contributions to the magical arts. It’s probably not necessary to describe the decorative sconces on the wall, the potion stains on the rug, or the hundred-year feud between Water Wizards and Sky Sorcerers over who has legal jurisdiction over rain spells.

How much scene setting is too much? Generally, the more differences your fictional world has from the real world, the more scene setting you will need. This means that science fiction and fantasy writers can and likely should include more scene setting details than literary (non-genre) authors.

If your story takes place on a disk-shaped planet resting on the back of a giant turtle flying through space, your readers will need a lot of things explained so they can develop a clear picture of your world. You can include a great deal of scene setting without risking your readers getting bored. However, if you’re writing a story about a guy selling phones at a strip mall in New Jersey, most readers will be familiar enough with your setting, even if they’ve never been to Hackensack. You should probably keep your scene setting short.

Keeping Exposition Relevant with the Big Three Story Elements

Beyond setting the scene, most exposition should be connected to one of the Big Three Story Elements: plot, character, and theme. This is the key to keeping exposition relevant, and keeping your readers turning the page. The clearer the connection to the Big Three is, and the more connections there are, the more exposition you should include.

Are you writing science fiction? Before you expound on the legal battle over android civil rights, ask yourself if you can connect it to the Big Three. Do you need to include this bit of exposition right now, or can it wait for a point in the story with a clearer connection?

  1. Is it relevant to the plot?  Does this section of the story actually concern android rights, or can it wait until the big Robot Independence Day scene?
  2. Is it relevant to the characters? Are any of the characters androids, robot rights activists, or lawyers? If they aren’t, can it wait until you introduce a character who is?
  3. Is it relevant to the theme? Is the theme of the story connected to android rights, civil rights in general, or freedom?  If not, can it wait for a more thematically appropriate story?

The closer you are to a relevant point in the story, the more exposition you can add. If your vampire story just began and none of your characters even know the undead are real yet, you can briefly mention folklore about vampires hating garlic, but you should spend most that section of the story focusing on your characters’ day-to-day problems as high schoolers. On the other hand, if they are busy packing their bags to go on a vampire hunt, you can include paragraphs about undead powers and their weaknesses. If you also connect the exposition to the characters and to the theme, you can make the discussion even longer. Did the protagonist’s dad love camping so much that he carved his own tent stakes? Do the tent stakes symbolize his father’s strong character and sharp temper? Then your “Vampire Killing 101” discussion can go on for pages.

Exposition and Pacing

Keep in mind the pacing of your story. Exposition slows your story down, and delays the next step in the plot. Whether this is good or bad can depend on your story’s genre and where the exposition is placed in the story.

Action-heavy stories like thrillers, space opera, and super hero adventures should generally be fast-paced. Keep your exposition shorter to avoid taking long breaks from the excitement and ruining the tone. Stories that are more thoughtful, slower paced, or dialogue-heavy, like “slow burn” horror and cozy fantasy can include longer bits of exposition without it feeling out of place or distracting.

Whatever the genre, it’s vital to place exposition at the right point in the story. Stories are often structured in units called “scene and sequel.” Scene and sequel is an important topic worthy of its own article, but for now, let’s keep things simple. First, let’s clarify the terminology. Most of the time, “scene” is used to mean simply “a section of a story, novel, or play that takes place at a single location,” and “sequel” is used to mean “the next book or movie in a series.” In story structure, the terms are used differently.

Essentially, a scene is the action of the story. A scene is a short story segment where something changes and the plot moves forward. Your character(s) goes after their goal, runs into conflict, and something goes wrong.

A sequel is the reaction to the scene. A sequel is a short story segment about characters. Your character(s) react to their misadventure, discuss what they should do next, and come up with a plan B. A sequel often includes important moments of character growth and development

Scene and sequel comes in pairs. Your plot influences your characters, and then your characters decide how they are going to influence the future of the plot. A series of scene/sequel pairs makes for an engaging story and helps keep your readers engaged and turning the page.

If you’ve just had a scene, a sequel will give your readers time to absorb what just happened. Following a scene with a sequel is like underlining the passage. It ensures your readers know what just happened was important and will affect the plot going forward. Your characters should pause, discuss the recent event, and what they have to do next. This is a great time to include exposition, such as background details about the casino where the big heist will happen, or the history of monster that needs killing. Again, exposition slows things down, but when you’re writing a sequel, that’s exactly what you want to do. You want to let your readers catch their breath.

Occasionally, a story will be a bit overwritten, and there will be a delay between a sequel and the next scene, a slow bit where nothing much happens. You might feel like this dull spot needs filled with something, but this is the worst place to add exposition. If you haven’t had any action or important plot points in a while, your readers will be eager for the story to move forward to the next scene. If you try to include exposition at this point, the story’s pace will drag. Your readers will be more likely to skim past the exposition to get to “the good stuff.”

How to Present Exposition

Remember that showing exposition will be more effective than relating it through dialogue. Reading long passages of expository dialogue can feel like a lecture. Anything your characters experience directly will be less likely to come across as an info dump. If you want to explain the unique creatures that live in your world, it’s more effective to have your characters go out and meet them than having them go to the local university to listen to a biology lesson.

If you do present your exposition through dialogue or a character narrator, ensure that your character has a strong voice. Don’t just present bare facts, such as, “The Annual Spell Casters Awards were held at Merlin Auditorium, an aging building on Fourth Street that used to be a school.” Let their opinions show. Did they enjoy the awards show, or think it was boring and pompous? Did they go to the school before it became an event space? What do they think of the school being shut down? Do they miss it, or were they glad to see it go? Slang, idioms, and other word choices can also be used to make them sound unique and their exposition more entertaining.

Exposition Techniques

Still not sure where you include your world building details? Here are some techniques you can use to fit exposition in your story:

  • Make it newsworthy! Connect your exposition to the plot or to character development by making it important news given to a specific character. It can be positive or negative news, as long as your character has a strong reaction to it. When a character views the exposition as important, your readers are more likely to do so, too. Let’s assume your protagonist is a Sky Sorcerer who learns that Water Wizards have been given legal control over all rain spells. Without being able to cast rain spells, your Sky Sorcerer can’t water his crops during the drought and his family will starve. Or reverse the legal decision and make it good news. Sky Sorcerers control the rain, and now your protagonist can cause a flood and drown all the bullies at his high school. As you’re explaining what this means and why it’s important to the way your magic system works, show us your protagonist’s devastated or overjoyed reaction to underline the importance of your world building.
  • Put it in an argument! Connect your world building details to character development by showing your characters’ differing opinions. Do your space adventurers agree with android rights or not? Why? What part of their personalities or personal histories developed their opinions?
  • Make it a teaching moment! Bring in a character that is new to the situation and needs to be brought up to speed. This can be a student, an intern, a reporter, anyone who doesn’t already know what’s going on. A job interview, a first date, or other situations where people naturally relate stories about themselves also work well. This is another way to make your exposition do double duty by connecting it to character development.
  • Make it a joke! If you’re funny enough, you can digress into world building details for long stretches and your readers will enjoy every minute of it. See The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the Discworld series for endless examples of this.
  • Lampshade it! This is cheating, but if you don’t use this technique too often, your readers won’t mind. For those unfamiliar with the term, “lampshading” is including something absurd, improbable, or cliché in a story while pointing it out to the reader. You’re winking and saying “Yes, I know this is bad writing technique, but at least it’s funny, right?” To lampshade an info dump, have the characters point out the info dumping and how ridiculous it is. Have a character prattle on about how the magic system while the other characters discuss how boring the lecture is. Have a mad scientist explain how his giant robot works while the hero says he sounds like a comic book villain. Have a character explain the local ghost folklore while the others laugh and say, “this is just like in a horror movie where the creepy, old man explains that folks don’t go up into them hills anymore!”
  • Make it weird! This is another cheat. If you throw in something bizarre, dramatic, or violent in the scene, you can include world building details while readers are too distracted to notice. Have Tommy Time Jumper explain how the time machine works while the tour group is being chased by dinosaurs. Have Sara Slayer explain the rules of vampire hunting while she’s performing an autopsy of a recent victim. Or have Daryl the urban fantasy detective discuss how your unique magic system works while the moon is being ripped in half by Cool Thooloo, the sunglasses-wearing octopus god. The longer you can keep readers distracted, the more exposition you can include.

Whatever you do, avoid annoying your readers with an “as you know” scene. An as you know scene is where characters stand around discussing information that all the characters are already aware of, for no purpose other than to share exposition with the reader. This was often seen in 1950s and 1960s science fiction films where one lab coated character would say to the other, “As you know, if this science experiment goes wrong, it could have tragic consequences.” And the other would remark, “Oh yes, like the potential for zombies, as we discussed at the Necromancy Services Department meeting last week!” Of course, that’s not how people talk. These scenes are annoying because the lack of realism breaks immersion and takes people out of the story. In real life, the second scientist would say, “Yes, obviously. Now shut up and let me get back to work.”

If you find yourself writing an “as you know” scene, the easiest solution is to use the teaching moment technique and add a character that doesn’t already have the information.

When Less Exposition Is More

Remember that your goal is to keep people reading. Very often, omitting information will be more effective than explaining everything. If you keep some things a mystery, readers will keep going to find the answers.

Many horror movies are terrifying in the beginning, when the monster is just a shape in the shadows, but become laughable as soon as the monster steps into the light. Even just a shadow is scarier than cheap CGI or a man in a rubber monster suit. Poorly-written stories can make you feel the same way. A story can start out feeling exciting and mysterious, but become disappointing as soon as you reveal too much. If you hint at monsters beyond the village’s Iron Wall, but never explain them, your readers will fill in the gaps with their imaginations. Their imaginary monsters will frequently be scarier than anything you can create, because they will be born from their own unique fears and traumas.

If you’re writing science fiction, you can fill the background of your cantina scene with weird-looking aliens and make your story feel like it’s a part of a vast galaxy with endless worlds. The implication is more powerful than any exposition could ever be. If you explain who each of these aliens is, where they are from, and why they are at the cantina, your galaxy starts to shrink. Instead of an infinite array of bizarre and fascinating creatures, you have a few dozen, and most of them live on boring planets with a single defining characteristic. Instead of endless mysteries, you have Gary from the Desert Planet, Kyle from Casio World, and Steve from Forest Moon. What a yawner.

When Your World Building Still Doesn’t Fit

If you follow these techniques but still can’t find a good spot for your favorite bit of world building, don’t worry. It’s still useful. If the Iron Wall tower guard is depressed because his wife left him, you can always leave it as subtext. Let the guard’s depressed mood influence his actions without ever directly saying why. Maybe he feels life is pointless so he abandons his post, or even opens the gate to let the monsters in. Subtextual details like this are an effective way of creating verisimilitude. They make your story feel like it’s a part of a larger world, and bring it closer to this strange thing we call reality.

Even if your extra bits of world building and exposition don’t fit as subtext, you should always save them. Save everything you write. You never know when you’ll find a use for it. Extra world building details may become ideas for short stories.

Also, you can always save these extra bits of world building and reuse them in your book marketing materials, fan giveaways, and the like. Include them in your newsletter, turn them into social media posts, and share them wherever you promote your book.

Let's keep in touch.

Get my newsletter for the latest posts, book releases, and free stuff!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy at https://dnschmidt.com/privacy-policy for more info.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *