Tips, Tricks, and Doodads: Watch Out for Exposition! It’s a Plot Killer!

I can’t tell you how much I hate exposition. I know hate is a strong word. But it kills my plot. There I am plotting along. Happy as can be. I love plot. Plotting along is my favorite thing to do. Then here comes “necessary info.” And in order to do my favorite thing I must engage with the thing I dislike the most.

The type of exposition I’m referring to is most commonly known as the “info dump.” It’s necessary information–often backstory–about characters that ultimately keeps the plot moving forward. So if you’re reading about someone traveling to Tahlequah, Oklahoma for the Cherokee National Holiday, where they are about to reconnect with a long lost Cherokee sibling, you’re going to need to know what first set them on this trajectory. The why and how is the plot. But nobody likes the what. It’s all about the how. Everybody loves the how. How do I know this? Because how is the reason why I hate the what.

All kidding aside, I tend to minimize this type of exposition. Sometimes it involves introducing the characters in the novel. Readers must know all the major players. I tend to want to put this at the beginning of the novel so it doesn’t disrupt my plot at critical moments later in the story line. I feel like it’s early in the novel where readers have the most patience for this type of information. The “who’s present” and why and how they effect the main character. It’s like the main character is the sun, and the supporting cast are the planets in a solar system. Sometimes explaining gravitational pull is like pulling teeth. I know I’m mixing metaphors here but that’s what exposition does to me. It makes me crazy.

Where was I? Oh yeah, I try to get away with as little exposition as possible. On a first draft, I info dump. I get it all out there. Then I start to whittle it away as I move through the revision phase. What’s the smallest amount of exposition I can use without losing the “necessary info?” I want to start the reader in the middle of the action, and once I have the plot moving forward I don’t want them to pause. Exposition makes them pause. So by reducing the amount of back story I can usually hide it with voice, using my personal colloquial method of capturing story on the page. If there’s too much exposition, it’s hard to hide it from the reader.

There are a number of other suggestions out there about handling exposition, like a character asking questions or spreading it out in small pieces, which are great and I use those from time to time as well. Mostly, I do what I mentioned above. I cut it down in size and flavor it with my writing voice. Typically, it works great but it can take many pass-throughs or revisions in order for it to feel like I’ve gotten it right. I’m a bit meticulous when it comes to this. Since it’s such a hard disruption of plot, my perfectionism kicks in for the purpose of smoothing out the hard edges of exposition. I want to read through it as easily as I read through the rest of the novel.

If you have any suggestions, or methods that work best for your writing, I’d love to hear about it. How do you get through the “necessary info dump?”

One thought on “Tips, Tricks, and Doodads: Watch Out for Exposition! It’s a Plot Killer!

  1. Hi Oscar, I’m the opposite to you in this. I’m usually so stressed about getting the plot down, that I write that first along with any dialogue. My first read through I often have to laugh (so I don’t need to grit my teeth) about the number of non-understandable actions my characters take, and talk about. So my second pass is all about adding exposition. By reading Orson Scott Card’s (science fiction) novels, I learned to add exposition in single sentences right after they are needed. Meaning I can add the exposition in a character’s voice, similar to your strategy.

    Liked by 1 person

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