How do you give readers the background information they need?

All my books seem to have a character like Teach, my learned con man from Daughter Am I, who tends to be a lecturer. The hardest part of editing that particular book was to take out everything that wasn’t essential to understanding the story. I worry that Teach’s talk about the history of gold is a bit much, but there is no way to understand why the gold was buried without understanding the history of the era. I did try to space the information to add a bit of suspense at times or to offer a respite from the action at other times.

For Light Bringer, I had to present various conspiracy theories, and instead of having a character like Teach to “teach” the theories, I created a discussion group, each member of which believed a different theory and vociferously defended it while denigrating what the others believed. It was a fun way to present the information without an extended information dump.

Here are some responses from other authors about giving readers the background information they need. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Donna Galanti, Author of “A Human Element”

I try to tease them with only a few descriptive details of backstory and setting as I go along. Give them only what they need at the time. Readers want to feel smart. They like to fill in the blanks, as long as there aren’t too many blanks. I try and look at all backstory and gauge if it serves the story. If it doesn’t out it goes. By introducing questions early on with giving just enough information to keep the story going, we involve the reader, take them along for the ride, and…build suspense. Hopefully!

From an interview with Sam Lopez, author of “Dead Sea”

Disputes between characters can provide helpful information but if there is no conflict, then sometimes you just have to spell out what needs saying.

What about you? How do you deal with exposition and give readers the background information they need?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire and follow the instruction.)


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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.

How do You Solve the Problem of Exposition in Your Writing?

“Exposition is a device for introducing characters, to provide setting, for creating tone, to explain ideas, to analyze background. Exposition should be immediately related to the event that causes its presence. The subject should be relevant to the circumstances, otherwise it’s a distraction that does not contribute.” -Leonard Bishop, Dare to Be a Great Writer

We all know enough about writing to understand that in today’s market, we need to keep exposition should to a minimum. Despite that, we often have to support our premises with facts or explain the reasoning behind that premise.

For my novel Light Bringer, I created a discussion group for people who believed in conspiracies. While each argued for his or pet conspiracy theory, sometimes quite humorously, I was able to expose an alternate view of history without having one character giving a long and boring lecture. The group also functioned as a cast to pull from whenever I needed a character to play a bit part.

For Daughter Am I, I created a character who loved to lecture. Though perhaps he told too much, it did go to character.

For A Spark of Heavenly Fire and More Deaths Than One, I had characters go in search of the information because I thought that if characters wanted the information badly enough, readers would also want the information and hence tolerate the intrusion of fact.

So how do you solve the problem of exposition? Do you dump it in all at once to get it over with? Do you parcel it out a bit at a time? Do you have one character tell another? Do you have a character seek it out? Do they read it somewhere, such as in an article or online? And how do you make it interesting for the reader?

My writing discussion group No Whine, Just Champagne on will exchange ideas about exposition during our Live Discussion on Thursday, October 16 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there!

Where Do You Insert Dialogue?

Someone asked me where they should insert dialogue into the novel they were writing. I went blank for a moment, unable to comprehend the question. Insert dialogue? To a great extent, dialogue is the story.  The most personal way people interact is by dialogue, and a story is or should be about people interacting,  about relationships. Even  action-oriented stories come down to a basic relationship: the hero vs the villain. 

A better question might be where to insert exposition, but even that is a specious question. Nothing in a novel should be inserted. Each element should flow one into the other, making a cohesive whole. I’ve heard people say that they’ve finished writing their novel, now all they have left is to go back and insert the symbolism. If you have to insert something for the sake of inserting it, it’s better to leave it out. Symbols, like other elements should flow out of the story. 

Novels need to balanced. Dialogue interspersed with exposition or action makes for a more interesting story than dialogue or exposition or action alone. A novel that is mostly dialogue seems lightweight; a novel with too much exposition feels heavy-handed; a novel that is all action gets boring after a while. 

One way to make sure the elements flow together is to know what you are trying to accomplish. What kind of story are you writing? What is your story goal? What is your premise? What is the core conflict? Once you know the core of your story, you can make sure every element connects to it. Sometimes you won’t know the core until you’ve finished the first draft. In which case, just write, let the words flow out of you and into the story. Then, when the draft is finished, read it to see what you have. Do any themes jump out at you? What is the gist of the story (the core conflict)? How can you use the various story elements help you bring out that conflict? Does every action have a reaction? Does every reaction have a cause? Which element will bring the conflict into sharper focus? If a particular conflict is a physical one, then action interspersed with terse comments is best. If a particular conflict is personal, then dialogue interspersed with bits of action is best. 

Where to insert dialogue, then, is not the real question. The real question is what do you want to say, and how do you want to say it?