Exposition in Writing
Although crucial to any story, excessive expository writing can severely hamper reader enjoyment. In this article, we define exposition and look at its common pitfalls.
Nov. 21, 2020 · 9 Min Read
One of the more frequent criticisms levelled at writers is that their writing is too expository. At first, this may seem vague and even unfair; however, upon closer inspection, it often becomes clear why the critic feels that way. Exposition deals with backstory, and backstory is a crucial element of storytelling. However, when exposition takes center stage, it can quickly become what is colloquially referred to as an information dump (infodump).
Exposition is the presentation of backstory. This can be done by using:
1.) The dialogue or thoughts of characters.
2.) A narrator explaining past events to the reader.
3.) Writing within the story world (flyers, newspapers, letters etc.).
Exposition is crucial; without it, the events of a story unravel in a vacuum.
Dialogue exposition example
One way to introduce backstory is by bringing it up in a conversation between two or more characters. In the following example, the writer needs to explain the history of a particular place. This is necessary for the book’s plot.
“It is haunted, you know,” Olivia said.
I looked at the house on the hill. Its dark chimney rose into the sky unimpeded, but the inside was not visible—every window and door had been nailed shut.
“Twenty years ago, the family that lived there just disappeared.”
“Are you making this up, Olivia?” I asked.
She shook her head. “They were called the Robertsons. It was a husband, his wife, and their two children.”
As you can see, the writer has conveyed the history of the haunted building through dialogue. Why is it important for the reader to know that the house is haunted? There can many reasons, but without attaching a tragic history to the building, it is just a house on a hill. Obviously, if the book is meant to have a paranormal slant, then its focal point can’t be ordinary.
Interior monologue exposition example
Backstory can also be divulged through a character’s thoughts. In the following example, the writer reveals the protagonist’s history with a love interest.
I’m a fool, I thought as I watched her walk away. I had the chance five years ago in that library! I should have told her then that I love her!
The more subtle the exposition is, the better. In this example, the writer cloaks the backstory with a character’s frustration.
Narrator exposition example
Another common method of exposition is for the narrator to explain something directly to the reader. Have a look at the following example.
I looked at the beach for what felt like an eternity. The people strolling over the sand were tourists; I could see it in how they dressed and pointed things out. To them, it was just another place to tick off on their tour down the West Coast. To me, it was much more. During the summers, my family would rent a cabin not far from the exact spot I was standing on. I had had my first kiss by the rock pools, and the sound of crashing waves always made me feel like I was twelve years old. I shuddered, for the sound reminded me of something else as well. When I was a teenager, I saw someone being stabbed to death in the surf. The sound of the waves has never left me.
In this example, the book is narrated in the first person. The narrator first makes it clear that the beach is important to him. He visited it often as a child; his parents frequented the area. The backstory is further filled out by his claim that he saw someone being murdered. Why is this revelation important? Without it, the man is just staring at a scenic beach. Now, however, he is confronted with his childhood and a gruesome memory. It is no longer merely a man staring into the distance, it is the beginning of a story.
Writing and other media within the story world
Media within a story world is often used as a tool for exposition. Newspapers, articles, books, pamphlets, posters, and TV news bulletins are handy for delivering important, relevant information. They offer the writer a way to deliver short, relevant bursts of backstory without coming across as overly expository. Have a look at the following example.
William took a deep breath, then handed the newspaper to Dan.
“What’s this, then?” Dan said.
Dan look down. The front page read:
MUSEUM ANNOUNCES FIND OF THE CENTURY
On Tuesday, the Grand Heritage Museum announced the discovery of a Song Dynasty vase in Northern California. By itself, the discovery of a Song artifact is not groundbreaking. However, the vase was buried in a pre-Columbus Native American ruin. This discovery proves that Chinese explorers were the first people from the Old World to set foot on North American soil.
In the above example, the newspaper article gives the reader a quick, dense dose of information. In most other situations, this amount of backstory would have to be stretched out with dialogue, questions, and comments from characters. However, since it is presented in a format that the reader is familiar with (a newspaper), the impact of the exposition is lessened. In fact, it feels natural.
Stories have to have exposition. But what happens when too much information is presented to the reader too quickly? This is what is referred to as an information dump (infodump for short). Writers often assume that information can be force-fed to the reader at the beginning of a scene, passage, or chapter—and that the reader will immediately memorize every detail before moving on. This is, of course, not true. The vast majority of readers will not re-read a paragraph multiple times to memorize details. Readers expect information to be delivered to them in manageable bits as the story unfolds.
This is not only a stylistic, paragraph-level consideration—it is also structural. Plot usually suffers when information is gathered and presented in dense passages. Remember, half of storytelling is about maintaining suspense; the reader will not stay engaged if important events are laid bare at the get-go.
In the following example, the writer is writing a crime novel. However, the protagonist is not the lead detective; she is still learning the ropes. The crime has been investigated for months, so it is important to bring the reader up to date. To do this, the writer has made the lead detective deliver an ill-advised block of information through dialogue.
“Now look here, Emily,” Detective Stevens said as he pulled me aside. “The book was stolen on December 17, 1999. Our officers only found out about it on January 14, 2000. I know what you’re going to say: why are we investigating it? It's more than twenty years ago. Well, the simple answer is that the detective on the case at the time, a forty-seven-year-old man named Clive Reginald, botched the investigation. At that stage, he had been serving for seventeen years, four months, and twelve days—and he still managed to fail. What’s even more surprising is that he’s related to one of the suspects. This suspect, Gary Green, has lived in this very neighborhood for the last fifty years. He’s seventy-two-years old now and he’s a book collector. We’ve never failed to solve a crime in this precinct—save this stolen book.
“It therefore falls to us to solve the mystery. However, you’ll need to know a bit more about your colleagues. Will Gunner over there, the man with the blond hair, shiny shoes, and pinstripe suit, has been putting people behind bars for five years. He likes football, but he hates hockey. He’s happy on Fridays and grumpy on Mondays—so stay out of his way after weekends. He’s made mistakes, but he’s a good detective. That’s Nancy over there. She’s smart and has the hearing of a cat. She graduated only two years ago….”
Did you stop reading after the first few lines? That’s not surprising—infodumps usually cut reader interest in half. The example is not helped by its lack of speaker attributions, questions, and comments. Other characters and the surroundings are pushed to the wayside to dump information into the reader’s lap. Dates, names, and characteristics are all listed in rapid succession with the hope that the reader will memorize them. Although infodumps often take the above form—a character rattling off details through dialogue—it can also be presented through any other method of exposition.
Writers who dump information in this way often fail to revisit the details again. For instance, it may be stated once that a character has a limp, but it is never mentioned again in the novel—the writer just assumes that the reader always sees the character limping. However, the reader may well have forgotten this fact 50,000 words later.
Conversely, some writers constantly revisit specific sets of detail. This can be even more jarring; instead of disjointed, top-heavy information, the reader now has to slog through constant repetition.
Obviously, superfluous detail has the tendency to make writing tedious. Take our example: much care is given to the habits and personality of one of the officers, but how does this knowledge further the plot? The information doesn’t advance the story or build suspense—it’s just there. Who actually cares about a peripheral character’s favorite sports team?
How to Identify Infodumps in Your Writing
Stylistically, infodumps are usually easy to identify. When presented through dialogue, they lack character interaction. Speaker attributions (he said / she said etc.), comments, questions, and physical actions are usually missing. In some cases, writers forsake paragraphs as well. These considerations are less important when the narrator is the one divulging detail, but information delivered in a vacuum is still evident stylistically. In essence, these passages are all dense with very specific (often irrelevant) information.
Writers who present information in dense clusters tend to:
Completely ignore the stated information after it has been mentioned;
or repeat the information constantly throughout the book (sparing no detail).
Obviously, both of these structural issues can severely hamper a novel. A story comes across as top-heavy when extremely specific detail is mentioned only once. Usually, the rest of the book suffers from a dearth of detail; characters move from one location and event to another without much consideration for the surroundings or context of what they’re doing.
Conversely, when the same block of information is repeated with slight adjustments, it can be extremely jarring.
How to Fix Infodumps
How to fix infodumps at paragraph-level (stylistic issues)
Infodumps at paragraph level can be fixed by:
Adjusting the delivery of the information by adding more character interaction.
Regarding the first point, the writer trims the information as much as possible. Firstly, excessive adjectives and adverbs are removed to streamline sentences. Then, details that aren’t immediately relevant are removed—this usually necessitates cutting entire sentences.
The second fix involves making the information’s delivery more reactive. The writer usually does this by involving other characters. For example, instead of merely stating,
“This is ABC and XYZ.”
A comment or question is added from a second character, such as,
“This is ABC—”
“What about XYZ?” she interjected. “That’s the most important part!”
How to fix a novel impacted by infodumping (structural issues)
In cases where the narrator is delivering the exposition, then the environment should be used to offset information. For example, instead of rattling off a list of facts, the narrator can mention a few, then tie them into something close by he is seeing (or has seen).
Any story needs backstory, and the prerequisite for backstory is exposition. Characters and plot are only relevant when presented with context. In your story’s world, what happened and what might happen informs what is happening—no matter the type of narrative you employ. A protagonist is only strong, wise, or meek because of a history of being strong, wise, or meek.
However, readers quickly loose interest when the writer lists every detail about a person, thing, or situation in rapid succession. These expository passages often read like textbook extracts—something that has to be read, but not something you generally want to read. They feel clumsily constructed at best, and downright tedious at worst. In particular, original characters and intriguing stories often suffer the most from dense exposition. However, these issues can be fixed with meticulous revision at both paragraph and plot level.
At Manuscript Mentoring, we help our customers to identify and rectify excessive exposition. If your novel contains dense passages of detail, but you’re not sure what to revise, then have a look at our Services page. Our one-on-one editing is ideal for both novice and experienced writers.