Sneaky Exposition

The key to avoiding info dumps is to sprinkle covertly

If you think back, you can probably remember a really boring lecture you had to sit through. The droning on about history or fundamental concepts felt almost like condescension, and you wondered if any of what you were hearing would ever be useful in the future. You wouldn’t want to subject precious readers of your writing to that torture, would you?

Unfortunately, even successful, published authors do this on occasion. Their readers wince and try to move past it, but there is always a way to avoid an info dump.

The impulse to dump exposition on a scene comes from unprepared authors who have reached a point in the story where the reader needs additional information and they haven’t provided it yet. Instead of saddling your narrative, or worse your dialogue, with the additional burden of explaining history or how your society or world or universe works, go back to earlier sections and sprinkle it around in a sneaky way.

Adding to dialogue

Adding exposition to dialogue is very hard to do smoothly. (Check out Editing Tips: Dialogue and Editing Tips: Bad Advice for more on this.) Some authors will set themselves up with a student-teacher pair among their main characters. The teacher (like Obi-Wan in the Star Wars movies) fills in readers while he or she is instructing the student. The dynamic can also be achieved with a resident-visitor pairing, a tour guide and her or his patrons (as in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams), or by using a scenario where the narrator is recounting your story to a specific person.

Notice how you learn more about the speaker and his or her environment from each of the following snatches of dialogue:

“Oh, please don’t touch that. If it explodes, we won’t be free of the stench for days!”

“Please don’t be offended, if I forget your name. It’s a constant struggle for me connecting faces to names.”

“Where did the bunker go? It was right behind that tree yesterday!”

“I don’t know what–eep–you’re talking about–gah! I have no problem with–zeeyabba–impulse control!”

Adding to description

When adding important details in your descriptions, it’s still important to avoid giving the history or a person, place, or thing along with its physical description. It doesn’t have the same weight as those other details. How do you sneak them into description?

Sandra reached through the shower curtain and grabbed the rainbow-striped towel. Even without her glasses and through the translucent light of the plastic curtain, it was easy to pick out from the five other olive, black, and gray bath towels on the rack.

Notice how many facts I packed into just those two sentences:

  1. Her name is Sandra.
  2. She wears glasses.
  3. She probably shares a bathroom with five others.
  4. She is likely the most artistic or vibrant person in her home.
  5. Her shower curtain is not opaque. (Yes, that might be significant later.)

If you need to set up that a character has or doesn’t have something they will need later, have another character notice the item there or missing or give them another reason for using it or not using it.

The rack for Johnny’s rifle above the fireplace was so prominent, she immediately noticed it was missing when she passed through the living room to make breakfast.

She noticed her energy bill was lying on her desk, and with only two minutes to catch her bus, she grabbed it and her checkbook to mail from work, and that one impulsive, trivial act most certainly saved her life.

Adding to narrative

No matter how omniscient and close your narrator is, or whether you have a variety of narrators, you still need to resist the urge to teach or instruct your readers. Try to get all of that out of your system in the Foreword. Remember that a narrator who is not omniscient (and even some that are) may have an agenda, so it’s important to treat narrative text like you would any character’s words or thoughts. Always try to tie expositional details to the plot or characters at that moment, and reveal information that is pertinent at that moment as well as later in your story.

Dark clouds filled the sky, so each of them grabbed an umbrella on the way out.

Whether they needed to have umbrellas for some other reason, or you wanted just to communicate that it was about to rain, you have tied it to current action, and it can be a jumping off point for other information, or at the very least you have set it up for later: They have umbrellas. It’s probably going to rain.

The lighting in this conference room was unforgiving. Her dress uniform showed her neck, shoulders, forearms, hands, and lower legs, and there were scars on all of them. It was a deep navy blue, so it easily let the red and white bars on the left shoulder and the gold brocade on the right shoulder stand out. It made her feel like a tool.

The narrator here develops a mood that underscores the revelation in the last sentence. Notice that the justification for the statement at the end comes before it. Sometimes just the placement of details makes a difference. If you state a position (She felt like a tool) and then justify it, it sounds like your narrator is defending himself or herself, and  readers may lower their opinion of the narrator. If you slowly lead the reader to an inescapable conclusion, they are more likely to accept it, if you’ve set it up well.

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