Avoiding Exposition Dumps

How do you get information across without it turning into an exposition dump? Writer Seb Reilly offers some points to consider.

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© 2015 Seb Reilly / Used With Permission

You’re writing a story and you need to get some information across. You’re worried it will be a thick passage of explaining, which will read as boring. How do you include it all without writing an exposition dump?

© 2013 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

© 2013 Flash Totty / Used With Permission

An exposition dump is, quite literally, when a writer dumps a load of exposition on the page. Instead of showing this information, or drip-feeding it throughout the narrative, it is just dropped in a big pile.

Fairly obviously, you want to avoid doing this, so if you feel like you’re about to vomit exposition, ask yourself these four questions.

1. Does the reader need to know?

Let’s say, for example, it’s a story about zombies. These zombies are infected with a man-made virus initially designed as a hormone treatment for soldiers, developed by a bioweapons wing of the military on a secret base in the desert. The virus induces permanent brain damage and reduces the infected to a state of constant aggression. They want to kill and eat everything; not just people, but all moving things. And they smell really bad.

Is it necessary for the reader to know about the military base, or can you hold that back for a later twist? Can the virus element itself be saved for a reveal further into the story, along with the effects on the body? The behaviour of the zombies can be shown throughout your characters’ first few encounters with them, as can the smell. So the only information you need to give is that there are zombies, and the best way to introduce them would be in an action scene. So, in essence, you don’t need to tell the reader any of this information at all.

2. Do you have to explain it at the beginning?

What if your story is set on another planet, about a race of giant winged rats who breathe nitrogen and consume fire for energy? They have regenerating cells and can heal from almost any wound, and are engaged in a war with the ostriches who live under the sea of liquid oxygen. The reason for the war is territory, naturally, as both the flying rats and swimming ostriches want control of the land. The third race, the eight-legged tuna, walk the land peacefully and are trying to avoid the fighting.

If your story is following the perspective of the rats, whether it is first or third person, then you don’t need to mention the ostriches or the tuna until they turn up in the story. That removes a large portion of exposition straight away. The regeneration can be shown rather than explained, and the optimal time is when a rat is injured and has to self-heal. Breathing nitrogen can be saved until the rats need to venture into enemy territory, beneath the sea of oxygen, in the second act. Consuming fire can be shown as and when required. All that is left for the beginning, then, is that your main characters are giant winged rats on another planet. You can just drop that in, if you really have to, like this:

Jasper was a giant winged rat, and like the rest of his race spent most of his time flying through the clouds around Venus.

In my opinion, however, that is a clunky opening. Better to show instead of telling:

Jasper swooped through the early morning hydrogen clouds, enjoying the wind as it flattened his fur. His wings stretched out as he glided over the barren landscape of Venus. His whiskers tingled in the sun.

Although far from perfect, that is a dramatic improvement.

3. Does one of your characters know all this?

There’s a diamond that gives psychic powers to whoever is holding it, and it is in the possession of a villainous gangster named Chuck Cage, who is keeping it in a safe in the basement of an industrial unit he owns under a subsidiary company called ‘Maxis Appliances’ in downtown Brooklyn. Unless one of your characters knows this, how will the reader know it? And if one of your characters does know it, how will they tell the others?

If your character just recites the text from the above paragraph, showing the planning of the heist to steal back the diamond is going to feel poorly written. So how to do it better?

Firstly, introduce the diamond earlier in the story. Even if it is just in a conversation, perhaps overheard, but have someone talk about it so the idea is already there. Then, when your character finds out who has it, have her tell the others. Hide the details in a realistic conversation that changes pace and has detours, with characters going off in tangents. Slowly reveal parts of information as the scene progresses, holding some back for later in the story if you can.

4. Can you remove it altogether?

The best way to avoid exposition is to cut it from your story. Yes, you need to know every detail of your story, but that doesn’t mean you need to put it on the page. You need to know all the facts, but you don’t need to explain them. You need to impart important details, but you can be clever about it.

What you don’t say is just as important as what you do say. Tell the story between the lines. Don’t assume your reader is stupid; allow them to figure out what is going on by themselves.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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