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.

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11 Words Every Fantasy Language Needs

Inventing languages is a crucial—and fun—part of fantasy novel worldbuilding. Words unique to a country, region, people, or race give the world texture and depth that can’t come from ordinary words alone. But inventing a solid, believable, and rich fantasy language is about more than just throwing together weird-sounding combinations of words; when done properly, the language is creates conflict, reveals character, and even provides crucial solutions to the plote (can you say “Speak friend and enter”?)

Here are eleven words your fantasy language has to have.

Swear words
Swear words, curses, and oaths represent the immediate, impulsive instincts of your character, and so they often reveal lots about the psychology of the people who speak your language. Are the swear words religious in nature? Scatalogical? Do they reference societal taboos?

Insults
Similarly, insults are a necessary part of every language, and an excellent opportunity to weave in information about the societal mores of your speakers. What is the gravest insult a person could be called in your language?

Terms of Endearment
Ah, love. The flip side of insults are pet names and sweet nothings that people in your language’s society call each other. What do they value and prize? Consider how in English, we have not only a lot of sugar-related words (“honey,” “sweetie,” “sugar”) but value-related words (“dear” can also mean “expensive”—compare “mon cher” in French). In French, however, a parent or lover might refer to “mon petit chou”—my little cabbage! You can also creative diminutives—versions of words that imply smallness or youth (like “kitten” for “cat,” for example). Be creative and think about your society’s nearest and dearest things when crafting.

Honorifics
People who outrank your characters will need some term of address that conveys deference and honor—think “your Majesty” or the Japanese suffix “-san.” How will characters of lower rank speak to those of higher rank? Do the words have any literal meaning?

Greetings
How many levels of “hello” and “goodbye” does your language have? What do the words literally mean? Many languages use “peace” as a greeting (or valediction). Some are imperatives (like the Latin “ave”). Some are more extended, idiomatic phrases.

“Untranslatable” words
Language is a reflection of mindset, and your characters are from an unfamiliar society that you’re building. What concepts does their culture have that don’t translate neatly into English (or the primary language of your text)? Consider words like “tsundoku” (the act of letting reading materials pile up) in Japanese, or “saudade” (a feeling of longing or nostalgia) in Portuguese.

Kennings
A kenning is a term from Old English poetry that refers to a word construction out of two smaller words, whose meanings, when combined, take on a new, non-literal significance. For example, in modern English, a “passport” lets you pass through a port, i.e. a metaphorical door to another place. Combining two words of your language to create a new, deeper, or more abstract word adds depth.

Demonyms
Demonyms refer to the name for a person from a particular place—e.g. a Floridian, a Canadian, a Parisian, a Brit, a Scot. How do the names of cities, countries, and regions translate into demonyms? Don’t merely employ the form that we use in English; consider adding a prefix to modify your place names.

Foods
Of course, specific dishes need names, but also consider the differences between food in the field and food on a plate: in English, we have “pigs” in the barnyard, but “pork” on the dinner table. The reason for this difference is the Norman invasion in 1066 CE, when French-speaking invaders took over the nobility and referred to their cooked dishes by Norman French terms. The Anglo-Saxons in the farms, however, retained their native words. Consider how such a divide could reflect social stratification—or something else significant—in your fantasy world.

Poetry/Literature
All literate societies have common texts that speakers know of, if not know by heart. (For example, almost every English speaker will recognize “To be, or not to be.”) What phrases do your speakers know from their society’s written corpus, and what significance do they hold?

Sacred words
Similarly, any religious society (or a society with a strong moral code) will have prayers, blessings, and benedictions. What formulaic language do your characters use to ask for divine assistance?

 


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