Saturday, October 12, 2013
Published: February 13, 2013

Sometimes exposition is unavoidable. The reader simply must know certain facts to understand what is happening, and we can’t write the three hundred pages required to show it to him. Often in genres, such as science fiction or fantasy, writers create unique worlds, races, or technology, and the reader needs certain bits of history or information to understand. Experienced writers will achieve this without using pages of exposition by weaving this information into the action.

Weaving exposition can be done in a variety of ways. What we’ll do depends on the story and the information needed, as long as we don’t dump the information in large chunks. Very few mistakes will turn a reader against a story faster than “info-dumps.” 

Let’s look at techniques we might use to weave exposition into the action.

Let characters recall the information.

Using techniques like journal entries, dreams, or captain’s logs, characters can recall important information without slowing the pace and dumping a chunk of information into the middle of the action. These are often only a sentence or two in length and feed necessary information to the reader. Captain Kirk’s logs (Star Trek) are an example of weaving. These logs always began with “Captain’s log, stardate…” and then crucial information was relayed to the reader within a couple of lines. This isn’t a technique that is used often in a single manuscript, but it’s an option should the writer have no other choice.

Show the POV character searching for information.

Writers often use this technique to provide technical information or history for the reader while keeping the pace moving along. The character may research something or find a note or a journal which contains the information. For example:

Jack sorted through his wife’s belongings, desperate for answers. The nightstand drawer resisted his pull. Locked. He yanked, breaking the flimsy lock. He closed his hand over a thin book and pulled it out. He fingered the worn cover. Carrie’s journal. Should he read it? Her life might depend on it. Jack opened the furry pink cover and flipped to the days before her disappearance.

July 31, 2005
Met with Carl. Promised to meet again on Saturday. Doctor called yesterday. Pregnant!

Jack’s throat tightened. He blinked away the tears that threatened and turned the page.

August 5, 2005
Agreed on a price. Thought his baby would be worth more than $5000, but need the cash. Have to get the hell out of here.

August 7, 2005
Jack coming home tonight. Need to figure something out. Carl said he could be dealt with. Don’t know what to do…meeting buyer tomorrow.

The remaining pages were blank. Of course, Carrie disappeared two days later—pregnant with his child. A child she never intended to tell him about.[1]

This excerpt contains some exposition, but it’s sparse. The journal entries fill in blanks that Jack and the reader need to know. The wife was selling a baby, perhaps a motive for murder or a staged death. In a mystery or thriller, it’s important to keep the pace moving, so adding little bits of information in this manner keeps the momentum of the plot, while providing the reader with important information that would otherwise require a full scene to show.

Show the information in dialogue.

Another character can provide needed information to the POV character. However, we must ensure that the character has a believable reason for sharing this knowledge, and we can’t let them vanish once they’ve given their little bit either. The information should be something integral to the plot, not some family history that will never be mentioned again or the history of a place the POV character is only passing through.

Use a protagonist or POV character’s senses to describe a scene.

If we have to describe a new scene, particularly in fantasy or science fiction where the world may be a creation of the writer’s imagination, we can rely on the character’s five senses to show it to the reader, rather than giving him a straight description.

Shouts and thumps announced the crowd lining up outside the doors and the room suddenly went black. Just as quickly, red lights flashed to give the room an eerie glow. It reminded Gabriel of how things appeared in a blood haze. Grudgingly he admired Aedon’s fondness for theater.

Everything took on a richness of color that captured the eye. Newcomers looked from one shade of red to another, seeing little else. At times, it could be dizzying and overwhelming for many humans. Just as Aedon intended.

Gabriel raised his gaze to the balcony wondering if Aedon watched the floor. From up there, through two-way mirrors, he could see the entire club in privacy. Gabriel felt his anger. It burned at the back of his mind, sending sparks of heat down his neck, but he couldn’t sense Aedon’s eyes on him.[2]

Here, the POV character, Gabriel, is walking through the room, and the writer uses his senses to describe it to the reader. Action is woven in to keep the scene moving, but at the end of the scene—which is much longer than the example—the reader has a full picture of a vampire haunt called “The Bite.”

Letting readers learn about setting as a by-product of the action or dialogue should be a writer’s goal. We should only resort to telling if no other technique is available.

Occasionally, there is no way that the writer can weave the exposition into the action. This is fine, but if he must use exposition, he must strive to do so sparingly. A brief sentence (two at most) about an event or to describe the origins of a fantastical species never seen before is okay. If showing rather than telling would take far more time, then of course, the simplest route is often best, but we must use only enough exposition to move the story forward.

If a writer fears cutting out too much exposition and leaving the reader to scratch his head, we can attempt to put that worry to rest. Often it’s impossible to cut too much exposition. Yet, the story should never include writing that slows the momentum of the plot. Exposition in large amounts equals reading a dictionary or a history textbook. No fun at all. If the reader scratches his head, it’s most likely that we’ve failed to flesh out the scene properly, and not that we’ve cut too much exposition. Telling is lazy, the easiest route to achieve a goal. Taking the time to include the necessary information is an essential element in the writer’s craft. But this can be achieved by weaving it into the action—so that the reader can fully understand the story without being pulled out of it by a lazy dump of information.

Writer’s Companion, Renee Miller & Carlos Cortes

[1] Renee Miller, The Auction
[2] Once Bitten by Renee Miller 

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