When we write stories, more often than not there is contextual information your readers need to know to follow along with the story. Unless you’re writing some sort of artsy, ambiguous fiction, you’ll need a way to reveal certain information to your readers in a masterful way.
An issue many inexperienced writers (and sometimes even experienced ones) is what is called info dumping. Info dumping is basically unceremoniously dumping a ton of information in your reader’s lap without concern as to the quality of your writing. Or, as this website explains it, info dumping is “the process of giving information clumsily and inappropriately.”
Exposition is tough to do well. I know for myself, fear of info dumping drives me to the other extreme; I don’t share enough information and I end up with readers more confused than ever. Basically, I don’t have a magic recipe for success, but I do have a few things to keep in mind when dealing with exposition and info dumping.
Know your genre and style.
Perhaps you’re Ernest Hemingway and you want to keep things as ambiguous and unclear as possible. Perhaps you’re J.R.R. Tolkien and you absolutely have to start off your novel explaining to your readers exactly what a hobbit is. Knowing what you’re writing and how you’re writing it is essentially to know what form of exposition will work best for your story.
For example, I’ve seen criticism of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive in that it info dumps all its intricate worldbuilding in a bad way. I disagree, because for the genre and style and plot that it is, The Stormlight Archive is in need of voluminous exposition to ascertain that readers are keeping track. Info-dumping isn’t always bad, as long as it’s done well.
Your readers aren’t stupid.
I promise, you don’t have to spell out every single detail of your story to make sure the readers get it. If your character Joanna storms inside the house, throws her backpack across the living room, and slams the door to her room, we don’t need her mother explaining to the neighbor how Joanna is upset because she failed a calculus exam. If you show that Joanna is upset, you don’t need a follow-up explanation.
Imply things. Show things. Trust your readers are smart enough to figure it out. If they’re not, it’s not your problem.
Do you really need this to begin with?
For example, in her article on info dumping, K. M. Weiland talks about technical info dumping, where a writer has done meticulous research on a certain element in their story, and they’re just dying to include every single detail of what they’ve learned in their story. In the article, she basically says, if it doesn’t add to the plot, cut it out.
This doesn’t apply only to technical information. If there’s information that seems awkwardly placed in your story, ask yourself, is it really necessary?
You can strategically stretch exposition.
In the aforementioned article, Weiland calls this the “wait and weave” method in relation to revealing a character’s backstory. “Weave only the most interesting and pertinent parts of your character’s backstory into the narrative, but wait until those aspects actually become necessary to advancing the plot or understanding the character.”
This technique is employed pretty well in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, concerning Kylo Ren’s heritage. In the opening scene, Lor San Tekka says that Ren cannot deny the truth that is his family. Later on in the film, we get bits of information, such as Han telling Rey and Finn about an apprentice who turned on Luke, Ren referring to Vader as “grandfather,” and finally Han telling Leia that he saw their son. In this way the film feeds us bits of information and gradually helps us form a picture in our minds.
This technique can be used for other information besides backstory. Perhaps you want to slowly feed information about the city’s infrastructure until the climax where your main characters have to infiltrate the town hall via the sewage system. Basically, to avoid info-dumping, stretch out the information.
Consider different methods.
Dialogue, internal thoughts, descriptions–there’s lots of different ways of relaying information. If something sounds off, consider using a different tool to communicate the information.
Take this example:
“There’s two security cameras in the office,” I thought as I ran down the hallway. “I’ll have to disable them before Scott can get in. If I can get to the circuits in the utility room, I can turn them off in time.”
First of all, the fact that there’s two security cameras is not something anyone would spend mental energy to form into a sentence. It’s just something one knows. Nor do anyone’s thoughts ever run that smoothly, especially not in a dire situation.
There were two security cameras in the office. I’d have to disable them before Scott could get in, I realized as I ran down the hallway. I had to get to the circuits in the utility room.
“Don’t get in before I disable the security cameras.” I yelled to Scott as I ran down the hallway.
“How are you gonna do that?” he called after me.
“The circuits should do it!”
Keep it realistic.
“Do you remember the time twenty-three years ago when we played by the dirty frog pond behind grandpa’s red brick house in Vermont?” Liam asked.
“Was it the pond you pushed Dorothy in, the third-grader you had a crush on before she moved away?” said Mark.
No one talks like that in real life. Stop thinking about the information you need your readers to know and focus on what your characters would realistically say and know and do in their own world. When talking about worldbuilding in her article, Weiland says: “What you have to do is pretend to ‘take it for granted’ that everyone—characters and readers—have a basic understanding of your world.” Even if you’re not writing speculative fiction, assume that everyone in your story is familiar with the context and backstory, and “wait until the moment the information becomes necessary” to tell your readers in a masterful and smart way.
Writing is hard and it has no hard and fast rules, but with lots of consideration and careful writing, you can weave in exposition in a talented way.