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 an Ensemble Cast in Your Novel

How to Write an Ensemble Cast

Some of the most beloved stories start with a ragtag band, a scrappy group of buddies, or a rogue’s gallery setting off on adventures. But that doesn’t mean that writing an ensemble cast is easy. When your book has more than three “main” roles in the cast, it’s tough to know how to distinguish your characters on the page. You don’t want a reader to be lost wondering how to tell your characters apart, and you definitely want to make each character in your novel interesting and unique.

So if you’re writing a book with an ensemble cast, how do you make sure it’s working—and not overloading the reader? Here are some best practices for plotting out a story with lots of characters.

Introduce them slowly.
Knowing how to engage your reader is key for any kind of book, but when writing an ensemble cast, it’s especially clutch. Starting your novel with a busy scene full of seven characters talking quickly is an easy way to scare your reader off. Instead, break your characters into “clumps,” and introduce them in groups of no more than three to keep confusion to a minimum. For added depth, introduce your characters in individual, unique settings—it’s easier to remember three girls who were chatting at a frozen yogurt shop and two who were at track practice than five girls who were all talking in the hallway at school.

Play to types.
Many guides to writing an ensemble cast will warn you against creating a “one of each type” cast, where each character has a different archetype. But writers do this for a reason: it helps. Creating unique characters often, counterintuitively, requires playing to familiar tropes that give the reader a foothold in your world, and using character archetypes is a solid way to do so. Consider The Breakfast Club or Ocean’s Eleven; these stories need their characters to have “types” so that the story feels well-rounded. But even characters that are more demographically similar can each take up a “role”: for example, in Mean Girls, you have the three Plastics: Regina the Queen Bee, Gretchen the second-hand man, and Karen the airhead, but also Cady, the straight-man main character, and Janis, the rebel. They’re all teenage girls, but even just picturing them, you can tell them apart—that’s the power of archetypes! The archetypes don’t stop the film from being hilarious and non-generic; they merely give the viewer a point of access.

Vary the speech patterns.
Just like when writing a book in dual point of view, you want to make sure that each character sounds different from all the other characters. Ideally, the reader will know who’s speaking just by the words on the page, without any need for dialogue tags. This can work especially well in SF/F novels, when you’re creating your own fantasy language, because you have that much more flexibility to experiment and play around with registers of formality, slang, and so on.

Watch them move.
No two characters should move the same—especially when in an ensemble cast. Use strong, individualized verbs to make their movements come alive, not just when they’re walking from place to place, but when they’re sitting (or slumping, sleeping in, slipping out of) their chair. Likewise, give them physical tics: maybe one character plays with her hair, or maybe one has a nervous habit of polishing his glasses. Don’t overdo it—too much repetition will drive your readers crazy—but use it as a way to ground the reader and bring back their focus to each character.

Don’t be afraid to signpost.
The classic writing advice “show, don’t tell” can get lead very quickly to very muddy writing when writing a novel with an ensemble cast. There may be times where you simply have to specify explicitly who each person is. Don’t shy away from stating things like family relationships, age, jobs, or other “un-showable” character attributes—a few of these plainly-stated facts now and again are like signposts for the reader. They help the reader know which way to go and keep her from getting lost in the weeds.

Make their names stand out.
If you have a John, James, and Jake, your reader is not going to know how to tell your characters apart. Similarly, a Lexie, Katie, Angie, and Molly can throw off the reader’s mental register because all the names end in the same “ee” sound. Vary length of syllables, first letter, and vowel sounds to keep things identifiable, and make sure your beta readers aren’t getting tripped up.

Consider your POV.
If you’re writing from multiple characters’ first-person POV, you’re not really writing an ensemble cast; you’re writing a novel in alternating POV. Which is okay! That’s a different practice but still an acceptable stylistic choice. Generally speaking, in novels, an ensemble cast is written in third person limited (i.e., restricted to one character’s emotions and insights), or third person omniscient (i.e., able to hop between character’s heads within a single scene). If you’re having trouble figuring out which POV to use for an ensemble cast, start simply and work up: third person limited will give you a static point to shape your story around as you get to know the cast, rather than forcing you to juggle the challenges of omniscience while also building up three-plus unique characters.

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

The Right and Wrong Ways to Write Dual Point of View

Writing a book in alternating point of view is becoming more and more common. While books in the third person have often switched between several narrators (lookin’ at you, Harry Potter), “alternating POV” or “dual POV” refers to two (or occasionally more) first person narrators who trade off chapters or scenes to tell a story. For authors writing a YA love story, this can be a popular choice, because it allows the reader to get into the mind of two characters at once on an intimate, personal, sensory level.

But just because writing in alternating POV has advantages doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Like all stylistic choices, an author has to make it for a reason, and then follow through with the best execution possible. In short, there are good dual point of view books, and then there are…less good ones. Here’s how to know the different.

Right: There’s a reason to use two viewpoints.
Simple fact: writing craft matters. Stylistic decisions can’t be arbitrary. If one character is a relatively flat character, who won’t grow much over the course of the story and doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the action, is it really necessary for them to get a lion’s share of the narration? The best dual POV stories use the two narrators to tell two sides of a story (especially a crime or mystery—think Gone Girl), get inside the head of each character in a couple as they fall in love (like in Perfect Chemistry, Pushing the Limits, or He Said, She Said) or two characters who start in different geographical places and eventually come together (like Will Grayson, Will Grayson).

Wrong: Both viewpoints convey the same character growth, plot information, or thematic material.
Again, if the dual POV is just hitting the same notes again and again, it’s just dragging the pacing and taking twice as long to tell one story. Unless you’re going full-on Rashomon with your storytelling (which is a valid option!) you need to make sure your alternating POV doesn’t merely retell the same scene twice in a different voice.

Right: The voices sound—and look—distinct from one another.
Developing character voice is crucial in any book. Developing character voice in dual POV books is, well, twice as crucial. Good dual POV books have two narrators that sound entirely like themselves—and not like each other. They should use opposite (or contrasting) registers of speech, formality, slang, and so on. But consider, too, the amount of psychic distance in each: does one narrator wear her heart on her sleeve, while the other one keeps a tight lock on his emotions? Is one character up close and personal with sensory details, while the other is very much locked in intellectualizing and philosophy? Finally, consider the white space on the page. A very powerful way to distinguish between narrators is to utilize the psychological phenomena of white space on the page—a page with lots of line breaks and short paragraphs will subconsciously register as a very different voice than one with dense, wordy paragraphs.

Wrong: The voices are indistinguishable.
Once again, dual POV has to count! And if the experience of reading the two characters is the same for each, then there’s no reward for the reader. Give your book to an editor without the chapters named with narrators: can she tell which is which? If so, you’re doing great. If not…time to revise.

Right: The right character narrates the right scene.
Balancing which scenes get told by which characters is one of the trickiest parts of writing dual POV novels. Usually, one character shouldn’t dominate in terms of word count; you want an even split between the two. But well-executed dual POV not only balances the amount of “camera time” each narrator gets, but also makes sure that each scene is giving to the character whose POV will be most affecting in rendering the action. When it doubt, hand the narrative reins to the character who has the most to lose in that scene. That’s a surefire way to make sure that the emotional stakes for the narrator—and therefore the reader—will stay high.

Wrong: Some POV switches are just a “reset.”
If several scenes (or chapters) in a row are in the same character’s POV, it can be tempting to revise by inserting scenes in the other character’s POV in between to “break up” the stretches of the first character’s narration. But switching POVs just for its own sake doesn’t work; it just slows things down and waste the reader’s time. If you find yourself with lots of limp scenes in one character’s POV, you either have to find a way to insert some structure and dynamism to those scenes, or revisit whether dual POV is right for this story.

Right: Each character has their own world.
Setting might seem like the one thing that doesn’t change from character to character, but in fact it’s one of the most important things that does change. First person allows the reader to experience the setting through the eyes and experiences of a particular character…which means that each character who narrates will see the setting differently. A less-well-off character will notice the shabbiness of his bedroom and feel ashamed, while his wealthy co-narrator may only notice that he’s got a lot of basketball posters in there. Dual POV is always subjective, and setting is no exception.

Wrong: The writer gets no outside input.
Writing two first-person narrators in a single novel is essentially writing two entire stories—all the character growth, plot, pacing, and prose has to be there times two. While drafting may come easily, it can be easy to lose steam and hard to stay motivated while revising, since you’re so close to the material that it can be hard to tell whether or not you’ve broken any of these rules. You’ll really need someone who isn’t you—who doesn’t know these characters as intimately as you do—to gauge whether or not you’re pulling it off. An outside editor can really help bring a professional and impartial eye to your work, and make your dual POV shine.

 

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