Exposition and Your Audience

Everyone knows that info-dumping is a major no-no. Most readers won't take the time to read paragraph after paragraph of details about the history of your world. But how to you tell a story in a complicated and foreign world without stopping to explain things to your readers?

The first thing to remember is that readers are pretty smart. They don’t need to be handfed. They pick up a lot from context. If you know things about the world and your characters know things about the world, there will be a lot of context for your readers to use to figure out things like whether or not the subjects of the king love him or hate him. The character reactions and dialogue will convey such things to them without you having to stop and explain the details.

"I hate her!" Marianne insisted. "How dare she insinuate that I might marry...of all people...King Jasper! He's an absolute pig!"

But sometimes there really is too much to easily be understood from context. When readers need to know specific details and not just general impressions, it can be hard to find a natural way to work those details into your story. For example, if you need to define a word that your characters know, but doesn't refer to something the readers would have a concept for in their own lives. It can be hard to use context clues to provide a full and complete definition.

Luckily, there is a trick to it. As long as your POV character or omniscient narrator knows the detail that you need to tell to readers, you can insert a single sentence into the moment where that details becomes relevant, and explain it to them directly without slowing down the story.

Let me show you an example.

Tasha glared at the arrogant sun wizard, wrapped in his bright yellow robes. “Keep your theories to yourself, darkspot,” she hissed.

"Darkspot" is not a word that readers are going to use, as they probably have never had an argument with a sun wizard in their own lives. They probably could guess from the context clues that it isn't a nice word or that Tasha doesn't like the person she's calling "darkspot." But that might not be enough information. If "darkspot" is an insult specifically to sun wizards or perhaps even a term that carries specific historical weight, as many negative terms for specific races do, the readers will need a little help understanding the specifics of this insult.

Many writers would use a character's internal monologue to work in the relevant explanation. It is a frequent mistake to have a point of view character staring into space, remembering their first spell or their first fight with their arch nemesis and then have them jarred back into the present when the explanation is over. But this is clunky and interrupts the scene.

Tasha glared at the arrogant sun wizard, wrapped in his bright yellow robes. “Keep your theories to yourself, darkspot,” she hissed.

The wizard gasped in shock. No one had used the insult darkspot in a hundred years, not since the treaty between the light clans. It was the worst insult you could make to a sun wizard, worse than “blackness” or “fool” or even getting mud on those ridiculous robes they wore. It wasn’t technically against the treaty to say it. No one had sat there writing out all the rules of politeness. But everyone understood you were supposed to be diplomatic.

Rather than having one of the characters think about the history of the word in the middle of the active scene, you can simply explain the current detail directly to the reader.

Tasha glared at the arrogant sun wizard, wrapped in his bright yellow robes. “Keep your theories to yourself, darkspot,” she hissed.

The wizard looked appropriately offended. Darkspot was the worst insult you could make to a sun wizard. She probably was a little bit carried away, but there would be time for diplomacy later.

The line "Darkspot was the worst insult you could make to a sun wizard." is definitely telling. But a little telling can help keep the scene moving towards the action that readers actually need to know about. If you use a word I don’t know, define it. If you mention a person, paint a picture. If you can keep it all to a sentence or two, and if it is information your point of view character knows, then readers won’t even notice it’s there.

The trick is to wait until the detail becomes important to the reader. It is highly unlikely that the reader will need to know a world or character's whole backstory right way. As a good editor friend of mine says, treat your readers like they are in the CIA. Need to know only.

I don’t need to know the geographical location of the main character’s hometown to understand what kind of person they are. But there may be a point in your story where their upbringing becomes relevant, whether it determines what information they know, what opinions they hold, or how other characters feel about them.

If, and only if, the backstory becomes relevant, that will be the time when you can introduce the details to the readers without slowing down your story. For example, if your main character is from a teeny tiny middle of nowhere town, they might be confused about public transportation or easily get lost on big city streets. They might use slang terms that no one else understands or be homesick for relatives they never get to see. The combination of the action in the story and your own explanation will make the detail interesting and memorable to the reader.

Anna looked over the bus schedule one more time. She had been sure the bus was supposed to come at 12:45.

Her watch flickered the current time at her. 1:04. She was going to be late.

New York sucked. She never used to have this kind of problem in Greenville. There the buses were always on time and there was no traffic to make you late for very important appointments. And New York thought small towns were unpredictable. They had it completely backwards.

Anna pulled out her phone and texted her boss: Will be late. Coming as fast as I can.

Once again, the details about Greenville are told directly to the reader. There is no need to show the readers a day in Anna's past where a bus came on time. Because the bus schedule is relevant to the current moment and to Anna herself, readers don't notice that they are being told these details. And because Anna doesn't seem to stop and think about her annoyance for very long, the scene has a sense that things are still moving and Anna's rush to get to work hasn't been delayed by her missing her hometown. There is no sense of separation between her actively checking her watch, her internally missing Greenville, and her actively sending a text. It all fits one right after the other in a natural flow.

In each of these examples, the key to keep your readers interested while still providing context is to focus on being as brief as possible. You wait for the detail to come up in the story, a specific detail and not a whole backstory all at once, and then you work the detail in as briefly as possible. Being brief might mean providing context clues in the wording of your dialogue or your character's reactions. It might mean using a sentence to directly explain things to your reader. It might mean making sure to keep the scene moving around your character's reaction to avoid pulling the reader out of the current drama. Regardless of the method, the important thing is to keep the information short and sweet and let the active scene keep moving around it.

Happy explaining!

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