Exposition: How to Avoid the Info Dump

You’ve spent hours building the perfect world for your characters to move through. It’s got every imaginative element you’ve ever wanted, and it’s got the rules and the structure it needs to remain believable in all its fantasy and magic.

But now you’re up against another challenge: How do you introduce the audience to your world without overwhelming them with exposition?

It’s a tricky scenario, because you have to make sure your audience understands enough to join your characters in their new world, but youcan’t just stop the narrative and explain the rules. You have to hold readers’ hands without them realizing you’re holding their hands.

You’ve got a couple options, here.

1. Show, Don’t Tell

The first is to show us how the world works through the characters’ behavior. For example, let’s say your world is run by a futuristic police force that’s known for overreacting. You could introduce it like this:

“Miranda saw a squadron of security hovercrafts gliding toward her. She knew she should be cautious, because the police force tended to assume anything unusual was criminal, and they always acted before they investigated. She hoped they wouldn’t notice her.”

or like this:

“Miranda saw a squadron of security hovercrafts gliding toward her and shivered. Remembering what had happened to poor Mr. Cooper when some officers saw him ringing his neighbor’s doorbell and assumed he was robbing the house, Miranda shrank back into the shadows, eager not to be seen.”

See what I’m doing? I’m showing you how the authorities work by showing you how my protagonist perceives them, rather than telling you directly. I’m not pausing the narrative, and I’m giving you something a little juicier to chew on than unadorned facts.

2. If You Must Tell, Be Deliberate

Commonly, the protagonists of our fantasy worlds don’t know everything about the world they live in, themselves. Harry Potter is trying to defeat a dark wizard who hasn’t been in power since his infancy; Divergent’s Tris knows there is something different about her, but she doesn’t know what; and in Libba Bray’s Divinersseries, the young Diviners are battling powers that existed long before they did.

So when it comes time to learn about these worlds, give the audience the same education you give the protagonist. Perhaps a teacher drops some intriguing history in class, or the protagonist overhears a conversation she wasn’t meant to. This happens all the time in the Harry Potterseries, but here’s a micro example:

Remember the Hippogriffs?These creatures were part horse, part Eagle, and they were critical to the plot of The Prisoner of Azkaban, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione had never heard of them, much less seen one. When Hagrid taught about them in class, the protagonists—and the readers—learned everything they needed to know without ever pausing to force an explanation. And JK Rowling used that first trick, too. Instead of directly telling us that Hippogriffs demand respect, she showed us by having Draco disrespect Buckbeak and suffer the consequences.

A Case Study: The Giver

Lois Lowry’s The Giveris arguably the first really significant YA dystopian novel (published in ’93, before either term was popular), and it’s a standout in terms of world building. Lowry’s protagonists don’t remember the way the world used to be or the events that led up to the change, but she does a stealthy job showing the audience through moments like this:

“Why do you think the visitors didn’t obey the rules?” Mother asked.

Lily considered and shook her head. “I don’t know. They acted like…like…”

“Animals?” Jonas suggested. He laughed.

“That’s right,” Lily said, laughing too. “Like animals. Neither child knew what the word meant exactly, but it was often used to describe someone educated or clumsy, someone who didn’t fit in.

Though nobody’s stopped the story to tell the reader anything, we now know we’re in a world that used to have animals, but hasn’t in so long that the word has lost most of its meaning.

And this:

 “What gender is it?” Lily asked.

“Male,” Father said. “He’s a sweet little male with a lovely disposition. But he isn’t growing as fast as he should, and he doesn’t sleep soundly. We have him in the extra care section for supplementary nurturing, but the committee’s beginning to talk about releasing him.”

“Oh no,” Mother murmured sympathetically. “I know how sad that must make you feel.”

Jonas and Lily both nodded sympathetically as well. Release of newchildren was always sad, because they hadn’t had a chance to enjoy life within the community yet. And they hadn’t done anything wrong.

There were only two occasions of release which were not punishment. Release of the elderly, which was a time of celebration for a life well and fully lived; and release of a newchild, which always brought a sense of what-could-we-have-done.

This instance is more abrupt exposition, but again, we learn a great deal about the world we’re in without putting a full stop on the scene while the narrator explains.

Give the first few chapters a read to get a sense of how Lowry weaves in the essential background information, and see what techniques you might like to adopt, yourself.

What are your favorite tricks for introducing readers to your novel’s world without info dumping?

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