Ajj, now I really want to talk about exposition. I’m a worldbuilding nerd. I write a lot of high fantasy. We all have our own preferences in our reading. Some love rich worldbuilding, some need it to be just enough to support the story. This might influence which subgenres of fantasy one might read, but it’s also a part of a writer’s style. The way we share exposition is a skill we all need to learn (if we want to write anything with intrinsic worldbuilding). On top of style, it also depends on the story you’re writing. Some need a lot explained before we can understand it, others work basically without any at all.
The way we deliver on exposition can make or break a story. It impacts pacing, can embolden and enrich, but it can also push a reader away. Infodumps are a notorious thing. I personally think it’s partly because people think they’re synonymous with exposition, as well as them often being handled poorly. You can’t just pour a wall of text on your reader before hooking them. You have to make sure they care, make them hungry, before you throw them the meat of your exposition.
So as someone who cannot stomach the long and poorly handled infodumps but loves the write rich worldbuilding, here are a couple of tips.
Weave it in naturally
You can add in all the infodumps you want, as long as you do it naturally. Your reader needs a way to get hooked on the story and stay invested. Exposition is often essential to that. Adding it in naturally means, you don’t do it all at once and let the story come first, worldbuilding second. Most of the time, it needs to support the story, not the other way around. If you want to do it the other way around, that’s fine too, there are people who love that. Tolkien’s an example of that, so…
Another thing to keep in mind that concerns this is to not switch styles between exposition and the rest of the story (unless you’re doing it in a way like they discover some kind of book page somewhere like codexes in games). If it reads very differently from the rest of your book, it will be jarring.
Spread the info out
Don’t just word vomit all your worldbuilding in one place. Make it manageable bites to give them a taste and make them hungry for more. This way you keep them invested and curious, but make sure you don’t leave them confused.
Inform as needed
Stick with what needs to be told. What does the reader need to know to understand what’s going on (or if you want them confused, puzzle out what to give, and what to keep). If you do it this way, you can keep the pace above a slug’s shuffle.
Balance is key
Sometimes scenes are heavy on an element, like maybe there’s a lot of dialogue. Maybe your scene is action-packed. Perhaps it’s a wind-down chapter where you just want your characters to breathe and reflect. It’s fine to have a scene or chapter focused heavier on one element over the others, but balance is still key. Don’t just paste dry dialogue on your page, add in action tags. Let us into your character’s mind. Exposition can add some flavor to your words. Though of course, the dialogue itself can be flavourful with personality and exposition as well, so, make your words work double shift if possible.
Mind your pacing
Pacing can be managed in many ways and be thought of in multiple ways. When you add exposition, you often slow down the pacing. This is fine. Pacing doesn’t always need to be fast, nor does it have to be the same all way through. In fact, I feel like having a sort of rise and fall is the best way to go (not the one who came up with this idea obviously. Probably won’t be new either).
Since exposition impacts your pacing, be sure you don’t leave large chunks of it during fast-paced scenes. Want to slow it down, don’t be scared to do your thing. Adding exposition gives people something to care about, so make sure you leave them some space and time to breathe while you give your main course.
There’s more than one way
Don’t just dump all your info like a textbook throughout the entire thing. Having it masquerade as dialogue without actually having it fit into the conversation your characters are having won’t make it much better either. Adjust it to the character’s personality, what they actually could know, and make is sound natural.
That said, sharing exposition through dialogue can be an excellent way to do it, especially during faster paced scenes.
Immersive vs Intrusive fantasy
I only read about this last year, but I like this distinction. Simply put, immersive means you get immersed in the world through a protagonist who’s used to the world. A character who’s been surrounded by magic all their life won’t just infodump the basics of magic to the reader because it’s an expected norm. Compare it to urban fantasy. No one will explain why there are cars or be surprised by cars when they’ve been around for decades.
Intrusive is when the fantasy elements are new to the protagonist as well as the reader. You get your introduction to is brand new world along with the characters. This is the easiest way to do exposition because you don’t have to sneak it in. You can explain it like the reader’s a five-year-old. Writing fantasy in first person is another thing that often complicates how we add in exposition.
Obviously though, it doesn’t mean intrusive fantasies are the easiest to write, nor that infodumps can’t happen in immersive first person books. Just keep in mind what your story needs to be supported and how to keep your reader invested.
Who’s your audience for your book? Like I said, we all have our own tastes and preferences.
The whole “show, don’t tell” debate
Like I’ve been saying since forever *annoyed groan*, this piece of advice gets a lot of bad rep because people 1) are often shoddy at giving writing advice and 2) don’t understand how to use writing tips. “Show, don’t tell” can’t just be ascribed to everything in your book, nor should it be an either or. You have moments where you tell and moments where you show.
This is another thing that impacts pacing. Showing can slow your pace while telling can speed it up. Don’t have a lot of space? Telling can help. Some things are best shown. What’s often the best thing to do? To combine them. These things become extra important when you’re writing shorter works. If there’s no room to wax poetically in excruciating detail for paragraphs long about how the moonlight glints down unto the water’s surface at the backdrop of your kissy scene, think of a better way to do it or just give up on having it be a short story xD.
So exposition can both be shown and told. Sometimes we want to explain a lot, but when you want to leave some room for the reader to speculate, showing exposition can go a long way. Figure out what you’re trying to achieve with a piece of exposition, then decide on the best way to deliver said information.
Exposition done well is everything. I can’t get enough of it. I hope my tips will help you out, but of course, also keep in mind that there’s more than one way to do it right, as well as people having different tastes. Some people love infodumps, some hate them.