By Katie Lewis
In 7th grade, my best friend lent me the first Wheel of Time book by Robert Jordan. As a veteran of Tolkien, including The Silmarillion, I was excited to dive into another high-fantasy series. Over a hundred pages in, after a detailed description of the Bel Tine festival and one village’s preparations, there was no sense of plot movement or even who our protagonist was meant to be. I closed the book and sheepishly returned it.
I remember fearing she’d be upset, but she only shrugged and admitted Jordan’s writing style wasn’t for everyone. I’ve never attempted to revisit those books. Still, I think about that experience often and why the initial overload of exposition turned me away from the series so quickly.
Note: I imagine a screenshot of the “Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” text scroll for this one. Just a suggestion.
Every writer has heard the golden rule of Show, Don’t Tell more times than they can count. However, it’s easy to forget about it in the excitement of sharing your world with your readers. I get it. I’ve done it myself (more to come on that later). It also doesn’t help that you, as the writer, need a complete picture of your world, including details that the reader needs to know upfront. The trick is knowing how and when to bring up those details so the reader never feels lost and overwhelmed.
When is Exposition Necessary?
There are probably more than a dozen perfectly valid answers when exposition is necessary for a story. Often, the beginning of any story will be more exposition-heavy than any other part, and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, it’s necessary. The reader needs to have a feeling of time and place. In cases of sci-fi or fantasy, there’s even more, need to lend familiarity to a fantastical setting. The reader needs to know the world’s rules and why things are the way they are. While these elements are essential, it’s up to the writer to decide how to dole out that information.
There are two factors I focus on when deciding what the reader needs to know. The first depends on how relevant the information is to the plot. The second is, quite simply, the length of the story. For example, Synth, a short story I wrote in 2019 for the Rise! An Anthology of Change.
Synth is about a person with a terminal illness who escapes their deteriorating body by having their brain transplanted into a robotic, synthetic body. The first draft’s entire first page was nothing but world-building. I went into great detail about how the public felt about this procedure. Recounting televised debates and protests held by people who felt the method violated moral, ethical, or religious beliefs. I enjoyed that part of the story. Throughout editing, however, I removed that section from the final version submitted for the anthology.
This was done based on the two factors I mentioned above. As I worked through my drafts, things first began to feel off when I considered the length of the story. This was a short story meant to be 5,000 words or less. As a writer, it was still vital for me to know how a character with a synthetic body would be received by society. For the reader, however, the exact details felt less and less crucial every time I read back over it. If I had been crafting Synth into a full-length novel, then delving into societal biases would have been necessary. For a short story, however, it simply felt like extraneous information. Ultimately, I narrowed all that exposition down to a simple acknowledgment that the procedure was controversial and let the story move on.
Beyond the length of the story, such extensive world-building also felt wildly unnecessary, given the actual plot of Synth. While waking up in a synthetic body is the story’s inciting incident, it’s not the focal point. The story is an exploration of gender identity. With that in mind, the body is just a vehicle by which the character begins questioning their gender identity. As a result, dwelling on the procedure of obtaining the body in the first place felt unnecessary to the ultimate point of the story.
So, that introductory exposition dump hit the cutting room floor with both length and plot in mind.
How to Make Exposition Interesting
In a more general sense, exposition dumps are best avoided. They feel tedious all too easily and, as in my Wheel of Time example, can not only fail to hook the reader but even actively turn them away. So, when exposition is necessary, there are ways to present it without burdening the reader with paragraph upon paragraph of world-building.
My favorite way to convey exposition is through dialogue. This is how we often receive such information in movies or plays since that visual medium often lacks an omniscient narrator. The easiest way to do this is with a “fish out of water” protagonist. To someone who has lived a secluded life or perhaps is transported to a new world, we, the reader, learn information along with the protagonist. Of course, there are other options. Maybe the protagonist is ideally at home in their world but still seeks advice from someone more experienced. This, too, allows the audience to gain information organically alongside the protagonist.
Dialogue can also play another essential role aside from directly providing exposition. Rather than lengthy exposition, dialogue can break up large world-building sections. Both this method and exposition via conversation are used by George R. R. Martin in A Game of Thrones. Sometimes we are given a paragraph of description as a context, followed by a discussion to bring the reader back into the action. Other times, a character is given a life lesson about the world through a speech from another character.
It’s also important to only offer exposition when it is needed. An example that jumps to mind is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margret Atwood. For those only familiar with the Hulu series, the book is written in first-person narration from Offred’s point of view. We follow her through her days as she explains life in Gilead and her role as a Handmaid. Rather than try and explain all aspects of her life in this dystopian society at once, Offred describes them as they become pertinent. This avoids the dreaded exposition dump altogether in a rather poetic fashion.
What’s your favorite way to convey exposition in your writing? How do you meter it out? I’d love to know!