How to Write Great Exposition (and Avoid Infodumps)

Writing good exposition is one of the qualities that truly sets apart talented writers from amateurs. Exposition—the portions of your novel’s narrative that introduce information not shown through the action of the scene—is essential to storytelling, but writing it smoothly and skillfully can prove challenging, particularly in genres like fantasy that require lots of worldbuilding. The “infodump” occurs when a writer drops in large chunks of exposition that interrupt the flow of the narrative and effectively boot the reader out of the story.

So how do you write exposition that not only slips in seamlessly, but engages your reader and makes her want to keep reading? (Or, phrased another way, how do you avoid bad exposition that detracts from your novel?) It’s not impossible—here are some strategies.

Get voicey.
If you’ve already written a chunk of your book, one way to quickly make your exposition more interesting is to revise the paragraphs as much into your character’s voice as possible. This gives these paragraphs double duty: they relay information while also revealing character through voice. So, for example, a teen boy character might call his school “a total craphole” instead of “worn down and in need of repair.” Word choice matters (always!).

Attach emotions.
Bad exposition tends to exist in a vacuum, with the information dropped in for no reason besides the writer’s need to plant it in the mind of the reader. One way to revise this type of exposition is to use a character’s emotions as the catalyst that sets the exposition into motion. For example, a character grieving over a breakup might naturally notice—and detail—the parts of her surroundings that remind her of her broken relationship. The more sensory details, the better! Once again, this will make your exposition pull double its weight by also revealing backstory and/or character.

Relate information to the action of the scene.
What’s the central action point of the scene—the dynamic part of the plot that starts one way and ends another? Use that driving force to motivate exposition. For example, a chase scene early in the novel may include the POV character searching around for an escape route—conveniently allowing her to describe her scenery.

Give your characters something to do.
So-called “maid and butler” dialogue is one thing that editors dread and can make an agent stop reading. If the scene is two secondary (or even primary) characters simply discussing things they already know, then it’s a textbook example of bad exposition. (After all, you don’t start a coffee date with your best friend by saying “ever since we met in 11th grade, I’ve relied on you for advice, especially now that I’m deciding between two equally rewarding career opportunities.”) Still, sometimes writing exposition in dialogue is unavoidable, and that’s okay—just be sure your scene has a secondary goal in the form of an action. Have your characters pack suitcases, bake cupcakes, trim hedges, anything that allows for some action beats that break up the dialogue and avoid a scene of talking heads. Bonus points if the action moves the plot into the next scene!

Pare way, way back.
Truth bomb: maybe you don’t need that much exposition. Part of the psychological phenomenon (not to mention enjoyment) of reading is that the author and the reader meet halfway to create the fictional world of the novel. Trusting your reader to fill in the gaps will make her a happier reader—whether she realizes it or not—because it’s actively engaging her on the page. Try this exercise: rewrite your current chunk of exposition in half as many words as it takes now. Then halve the word count and revise again. Then boil it down to a single sentence. That may end up being a little too bare bones, but if your beta readers don’t feel confused, then it’s probably more than sufficient.

Create a character as conduit.
Particularly in novels with complex worldbuilding, a “new kid in school” character can be a great avatar for the reader in the world of the story. A new recruit, a stranger in town, or a literal new kid in school will provide a set of fresh eyes that naturally notices all the details that more situated characters are now accustomed to (and therefore would never actively describe). This isn’t a foolproof method—it can easily fall victim to the “maid and butler” dialogue, or take place in scenes with no purpose beyond exposition—but it can also be a powerful way to establish empathy with the reader and create a guide for her to navigate the world of the story, especially if you’re writing an ensemble cast.

No mirrors!
What do agents and editors hate, hate, hate reading in an early chapter? The clichéd scene of the protagonist standing in front of a mirror and describing herself. Yes, it’s convenient, especially in first-person point of view, and yes, people do tend to spend time in front of mirrors before heading out for the day, but that doesn’t mean it’s interesting on the page. In short, there’s pretty much no way to make this kind of scene interesting. Be more original: instead of showing your protagonist combing her hair, have her best friend tell her how jealous she is of her natural highlights. Rather than merely describing her outfit head to toe, have her spill a cup of coffee on her skirt and give her a natural opening to describe what it looks like—stain and all.

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

Write a Romance Novel with All Five Senses

How to Use All Five Senses When Writing A Romance Novel

A big part of writing a romance novel that sells—and captivates readers—is creating a world that’s immersive, personal, and thoroughly believable. But it’s easy to rely on phrases that tell the reader about the characters’ romantic relationships instead of choosing language that lets them feel every heart-stopping, pulse-pounding, stomach-fluttering moment of falling in love. So how to write a romance that’s unique, and never cliché? Go deep into the character’s sensory experience.

Here’s how to use the five senses to write an unforgettable romance.

Sight
First things, well, first: there’s a reason we talk about “love at first sight.” Humans are hugely visual creatures, and creating a mental picture on the page is a crucial part of writing a believable romance novel. Lazy description can make this sense fall flat. Don’t cheat by saying “he was the hottest guy she’d ever seen” or “he looked like a black-haired Chris Pine.” Instead, show every individual piece of the person as your character takes them in. Use strong verbs to communicate how they move (e.g., swagger, breeze by, saunter) and choose evocative adjectives to describe their hair, skin, and body type. Avoid telegraphing too much about how their appearance makes your character feel, and let the description speak for itself—yes, show don’t tell. Consider, too, how the setting contributes to the visual picture of the love interest: is the air clear, the lighting golden, the haze of the bar obscuring their face, the moonlight sharp?

Sound
When we fall in love, the mere sound of our sweetheart’s voice is enough to make us perk up and turn around. This is true in fiction, too! But sound often ends up neglected compared to the other senses—which is a shame. Let your characters notice how the other one speaks, not just the words that they use, but the quality of their voice. Is it clear and high or low and raspy? Do they whisper, or shout, their sweet nothings? Don’t forget to get nonverbal, too; whether it’s a sigh or a moan, so much in romance is said in sounds that aren’t words, and so much about the character is revealed through what sounds they make and when.

Smell
It’s scientifically proven that the way a person smells affects what kind of partners they attract (and no, that doesn’t just mean that having B.O. makes it harder to date…although that’s certainly part of it). Tap into that powerful chemical reaction by letting your characters notice each others’ scents: sweet, clean, and floral, or musky and earthy? But don’t limit it to just body smells, either: perfume, cologne, even the scent of food can contribute to a complete sensory experience on the page.

Touch
Touch is essential when writing a romance novel, but that doesn’t mean it’s straightforward! One of the most common mistakes when writing a physical scene in a romance novel is to neglect the fact that touch is a two way street: you can’t touch another person without feeling something yourself. Let your characters notice the sensation of each other’s skin, the texture of their hair, the feeling of their lips, but don’t forget to let your point of view character feel sensations on their body as well—not just when being touched, but when initiating, as well. Even little touch details like the feeling of bedsheets or the touch of the night air are crucial to writing a good love scene.

Taste
Kissing is, of course, supremely important in romance, and it’s as much about tasting as it is about touching. Like with the sense of smell, tasting is a powerful way to connect to a partner on a chemical level, and it’s not something to gloss over! Consider both what your love interest tastes like “naturally,” as well as any lingering tastes that may be on their mouth: wine, cigarette smoke, lip gloss. The more grounded in concrete experiences, the better: don’t say a kiss “tastes like heaven” since no one has actually tasted heaven—the reader won’t be able to call anything to mind! Taste can also be combined with other senses to create yet more powerful sensory imagery: your heroine might have a “honey and whiskey voice,” for example.

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

How to Write A Fairy-Tale (or Other Story!) Retelling That Sells

There’s a reason readers flock to retellings of fairy tales, folk tales, and other classic stories: they already love them. In fact, most writers of retellings probably start those projects because they love the source material, too.

A retelling takes a story that everyone (or many people!) knows, and changes some key elements (setting, for example) so that it becomes a new, but still recognizable, story. Authors like Gregory Maguire, Marissa Meyer, and Danielle Page have seen huge success taking these beloved tales and making them their own, and readers are consistently excited for more. So how can you craft a retelling that’s intriguing, entertaining, and original?

Pick a story you love.
Don’t settle on a tale for retelling just because it seems like it’d sell. (That pretty much never works, even if you’re not writing a retelling!) You should have some personal connection with this story, whether it’s one you loved as a child, or one you’ve newly discovered.

Make sure you can use that story.
Not everything is fair game for retelling. Anything that isn’t in the public domain is unlikely to get a go-ahead, because you’re infringing on someone else’s intellectual property. So more recently published books—or pretty much any original movie—are out. Double check before you invest too much time into a project. However, all fairy tales, folk stories, Arthurian legends, Robin Hood stories, Shakespeare, and so on are totally fair game.

Make sure it’s not too obscure.
Readers connect to retellings because they already have expectations going in. If your readers don’t recognize the obscure Grimm’s fairy tale you’ve chosen to adapt (The Girl Who Trod On The Loaf, say), it’s not going to resonate with them. Think broadly when you pick source material so that you don’t lock your potential readers out.

Figure out what to change.
A retelling has to have some element that’s different from the original—that’s what makes it retold. You have an arsenal of craft techniques at your disposal: you could update the setting to modern times (or set it in a different historical era), you could change the POV from the hero/heroine to the villain (or another side character), you could change the format (a diary, a novel in verse), or switch genres entirely (sci-fi, anyone?)

Tinker with the plot.
Some (okay, most) fairy tales hinge on paper-thin motivation and nonexistent stakes. Think hard about what could get your characters into the starting situation, and what kinds of emotional depth will motivate them to take the actions that set the story in motion. Don’t count on the source material doing all the work for you—in a fairy tale, that’s fine, but in a novel? No way.

Think of what’s done before.
The downside of the popularity of retellings is that there are a lot already out there. Is yours really bringing something new to the table? If you have, for example, a Cinderella retelling where Cinderella is part cyborg, it’s going to be tough to make the case to an agent, editor, or even reader that your story is appreciably different from Cinder. 

Know your audience.
If you’re changing genre or age category, be sure to keep in mind what your readers will expect. If you’re writing YA, for example, eon’t get too bogged down in the source material to forget to include all the appropriate tropes that draw readers to those books: romance, teenage awkwardness, banter, etc.

Decide how to adapt (or update) details.
Some stories are, for lack of a better word, hella dated. Old tales run rampant with misogyny, sexism, racism, and other damaging tropes. If you’re going to contend with those in your story, work carefully, do research, and consider hiring sensitivity readers to help you navigate your changes.
Also, your chosen story may have magical or otherwise logistically impossible elements that don’t fit in with your chosen retelling setting. Are you going to leave them in, craft an alternate explanation, or bend the plot to skirt them entirely?

Make sure it’s truly a retelling.
Finally, not all stories that use recognizable tropes really are retellings. If your high concept pitch is “Romeo and Juliet, but in present-day, and the families aren’t actually fighting, and they end up happily ever after,” you don’t have a retelling on your hands—you have an original story. And that’s fine! Things adapt and change and grow as you write them, and that doesn’t mean your idea is any less feasible. You’ll probably just want to remove the source material from your pitch, or risk confusing potential readers when your novel doesn’t deliver exactly that.

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

Should You Write A Sequel to an Unpublished Book?

When you create characters, conflicts, and a world within your novel, it can be hard to let them go after you type the end. Sequels are a great way to give yourself more time with the story world you’ve created, and maybe even deliver a satisfying next volume to readers. But does every book need a sequel? Here are some things to consider before opening up a new document.

You should write a sequel to your unpublished book if:

  • The story is inherently a series—for example, a cozy mystery series featuring the same sleuth in the same setting over a few books
  • The first book will be published for free, and you’re intending to use it to build an audience with further books in the series
  • You feel confident about what the story will be—there’s something in it you must write about
  • There is a theme or structure inherent to the series: for example, a series with a cast of narrators established in the first book, or a series where each volume is inspired by a different type of magic in a magical system, etc.
  • You’ve published book one and readers are begging for it—give them what they want!
  • You’re really trying to build the series into a brand and market it heavily

You should consider whether you really need a sequel if:

  • You don’t know exactly what will happen in the second (or third!) books
  • You’re planning to query the first book for traditional publication—agents and editors will more often than not work one book at a time (at least until they know how the first book sells) so your efforts are probably better spent on a fresh new project rather than continuing a series that may or may not sell multiple volumes
  • You’re writing in a genre that doesn’t typically have sequels featuring the same characters (e.g., romance, YA contemporary)
  • You don’t feel invested in marketing the series any longer
  • You’re just scared of trying new characters, settings, or ideas (it’s okay, it happens!)
  • A new idea is tugging at you, and writing a sequel feels like a chore

If you’re unsure, you can always set your sequel idea aside and try something new for a while. The sequel will always be there—and no one else can write your sequel for you!