How To Keep From Having Too Much Exposition in Your Novel

In an online discussion today, a writer asked what was the best way to keep from having too much exposition in your fiction, and how to insert it if necessary. Apparently, her character spends a lot of time alone, and she needed to know how to insert exposition during the long scenes when he is by himself.

That is a tough situation. Characters alone are hard to write. They need someone to butt heads with, they need to show readers who they are through comparison or contrast with other characters, and they need allies and enemies. When a character is around others, tension is inevitable, so conflict comes naturally. When a character is by himself, he has perhaps less interesting conflicts — the environment, his own nature, personal disasters. A lot of books are based on such non-human antagonists or inner demons, but readers like to see characters acting and reacting with other characters.

In scenes with only one character, it’s best to keep exposition to a bare minimum and focus on the action. One character alone for long periods of time without another character to butt heads with gets boring for readers, and exposition only exacerbates the problem. Feed the exposition into the story bit by bit as you need it, and refrain from long exposition dumps.

My novel Light Bringer, available from Second Wind Pubishing, is based on myth, both Sumerian myths and modern conspiracy theories, and all of that background information had to be presented to show the sweep of history. I created a discussion group among several colorful characters, each with his or her own take on the situation, then used the various conspiracy theories to help create the the characters and show their differences, which became a lively and painless way of dealing with the exposition. In addition, I ended up with a cast of ready-made characters I could pull from whenever I needed a minor character to fulfill a role.

The best way to insert exposition, though, is to make one character desperate to get the information, that way readers will want it, too. I used that technique in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, also available from Second Wind Publishing. The thriller required a lot of background information about biological warfare. I made one character desperate to hear the information, but I parceled it out bit by bit to make his desperation for the truth grow stronger while he became increasingly sickened by what he learned.

But you can’t use that particular technique with a single character, unless perhaps he is ransacking someone’s files, all the while fearful of being discovered. With a single character, it’s best to keep with action. Exposition slows the pace of the book, so does a single character unless he is dealing with a lot of external conflict.

Exposition can also be used to give readers a breather between fast-paced scenes, but even so, information dumps seldom add to the excitement of a story, so they have to be used sparingly. Exposition is best spread throughout a book, feeding readers only that which they need to know in order to understand the current scene.

A common mistake beginning writers make is to think that readers need to know the entire backstory before they can get involved with the characters, and so first chapters are generally exposition-heavy. I have a great fix for that — leave everything as is until the book is completely finished, then cut out the first chapter. (Which is what I did for A Spark of Heavenly Fire.) You will be amazed at how much of that first information dump is spread delicately throughout the book when needed, making the first chapter redundant. Of course, if there is a bit of necessary information in the deleted chapter that does not appear in the remaining chapters, it’s easy enough to find the proper place to insert it. The first chapter of a book should begin in the middle of the action, not before the action even begins. And speaking of first chapters, please, don’t ever use flashbacks in the opening scenes. Establish your  story, and then, if necessary, use flashbacks judiciously.  By definition, flashbacks lack the immediacy of present action.

3 Responses to “How To Keep From Having Too Much Exposition in Your Novel”

  1. Rod Marsden Says:

    There is a lot of good advice here. Ending a chapter with a physical, spiritual or social cliffhanger is another way of proving the reader with necessary information. If you have the reader wondering at chapter’s end how some event came about then you can give this information in part or in total in the next chapter. I did some of this with Ghost Dance and I am doing it with my yet to be published work Desk Job. It is an old 19th Century trick perfected by Mark Twain, Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. When characters need answers so do readers. If a character on his or her own needs answers and must search for them that can also work.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Sounds like an interesting technique, Rod — make the exposition both a hook and a means of suspense. It seems as if any time backstory or information serves as more then simply an info dump, it adds to the story rather than slows it down.

  2. Rod Marsden Says:

    You got it, Pat. A hook and a means of suspense sounds about right.

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