Writing Tip of the Week: Delivering Exposition to the Reader

Dimensional characters in fiction exist beyond the confines of their current story.    These characters came from somewhere and will be headed somewhere else once the events of their current story end.    They enter the story in one state of mind, and through the trials and tribulations thrown at them throughout the story, they change and evolve into something new before moving forward.

But how does an author deliver this past information, crucial need-to-know information, and other relevant details without dragging down the story?

Let’s talk about it!

The Dreaded Information Dump

Have you ever seen a movie, TV show, or play where characters speak information to other characters that clearly isn’t for anyone in the scene but for the audience’s benefit?    This can often be referred to as an information dump. 

And often, it can be exhausting and tedious in its execution.

Viewers and readers are very perceptive and can pick up on context cues that inform them of what’s going on in a scene based on the setting, tone, and essential dialogue.    Often, there’s no need to write a lengthy monologue for a character in an office or conference room that begins with “As all of you already know…” or, “As I said before lunch…” since these are indicators that the characters in the scene already know the information.

Some ways to get around this problem that I prefer are…

The Outsider

By bringing in a character that is not in the know about who your character is, their past, or their current situation, you can give the reader this info and make it seem organic and natural.  

Which sounds better?

Tammy nervously checked her watch as she waited for her brother to exit his flight.

A man sees her and walks toward her.    She smiles. “Hello, Steve,” she said. “Wow, I can’t believe you’re my younger brother whom I haven’t seen in six years since you moved to Ohio with your wife, Susan.”

OR

Tammy nervously checked her watch as she waited for her brother to exit his flight.

“Is everything okay?” a tall woman next to Tammy asked.

“Yes,” Tammy said. “Thank you.    My younger brother is on this flight. Haven’t seen him in six years.”

“Six years?” the tall woman said, amazed.

“Yeah.    He moved to Ohio after he got married.    We never got the chance to reconnect until today.”

“Tammy!” she heard her brother’s voice say across the crowd of passengers.

Tammy looked toward him and smiled. “Steven!” She ran through the crowd and hugged him. “Where’s Susan?”

“She’s getting the kids situated,” Steve said. “Told me to come out and find you.”

By having an outsider ask questions, Tammy can deliver needed information to the reader without it feeling forced or clunky.    The tall woman doesn’t know anything about Tammy or her family, so she is subbing in for us as the reader.

And in the previous example, where a meeting can sound like an info dump, make sure those in the conference room aren’t experts like the speaker.    They are there to receive information, not there for it to be rehashed.    That way, they can ask questions, and you can break up the speechifying that can often occur in scenes like this.

Sprinkling the Exposition

When developing a character and their story, think about what relevant information the reader needs to know that helps them connect with your character.    Did they suffer a traumatic event in their past that has caused them to react a certain way toward events in the current story?    That is important information the reader needs to know at some point.  

Providing the reader with insight and knowledge about the characters and their pasts through conversations with others and a few paragraphs here and there help connect past events with the current ones.    Your characters don’t live in a vacuum, and like real people, what they did before informs how they do things now.  

While these are important things to know, provided the exposition and backstory on an as-needed basis will help keep the story moving and not get you and the reader bogged down in past details.

What About Flashbacks?

Suppose there is an event in the character’s past that is so formidable, so impactful that you need more than a sentence to really showcase how it has affected them.    In that case, a flashback might be an effective way to present this information.    You could have the flashback at the start of a chapter before jumping back to the present day.    You can have the character think back and reflect on this past moment, then go into the flashback before bringing them out.    There are many ways authors utilize flashbacks and many ways to format them.

The key to using flashbacks is to present important information that helps the reader understand the character and their current circumstances. Don’t throw in a flashback of their wedding where nothing related to the current story happens.    The last thing you want is for a reader to say to themselves: Well, that was pointless.

Make each flashback matter, and remember that…

Relevance Counts

Does your main character have a great aunt Millie who knits cardigans for her dogs? That’s great.    Does it have any relevance to your main character’s current story?    No?    Then I would leave it for another time.    Keeping the backstory and exposition relevant to what’s happening is important to keep the writer, the story, and the reader on track.    While Millie is a colorful character, unless the main character makes a pit stop at her home or an anecdote about her is the key to saving the world, she’s best kept in your notes.

I recently finished Billy Summers by Stephen King (highly recommend), and this is a story that presents all aspects of the main character’s life before, during, and after his assignment.    Everything King delivers to us about Summers’ backstory is relevant to his current situation and the events that transpire throughout the novel.    King presents exposition in various ways that make Billy Summers a three-dimensional character that the reader cares about and roots for from start to finish.  

Remember, if it doesn’t add to the story or give us further insight into the characters and their choices, cut it out.

Final Thoughts

Your reader has chosen to go on an adventure with you and your characters.    They want to know who these characters are, what makes them tick, and why they are where they are at this particular point in time.    Making sure that you deliver backstory and exposition relevant and important to the overarching story can keep your reader invested and not confused about why certain details that didn’t have a point were included.

The next time you watch a film, a TV show, or read a book, see how the writer weaves in the exposition.    Is everything they mention relevant to the current story being told?  

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!  

Sunday Edition of Writer’s Workshop Wednesday: New Stephen King Interviews & A Conversation with Stephen King and George R.R. Martin

Stephen King is one of my favorite authors of all time.  In honor of his newest novel, Billy Summers, here are some new interviews about the book, and a Q&A with King and Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin.  

Enjoy!

Below is the King/Martin interview, which I was unable to embed, so please click the link below to access the video (there is profanity, just to let you know):

Back in two weeks with another writing series!

Happy writing!