25 Ways To Kick Exposition’s Ass

Fact: when executed poorly, exposition is a boat anchor tied to the story’s balls. It drags everything down. The plot cannot move. The plot grows fat and dies. Crows eat its eyes. Possums breed in dead bowels.

Fact: exposition remains necessary to convey information in storytelling.

Fact: exposition must be handled by a deft touch for it not to bog down your narrative ball-sack.

Fact: pterodactyls are really quite cool.

Okay, that last one maybe isn’t relevant, but it remains fact just the same. All I’m trying to say is, you want to write a story, you’re going to have to deal with exposition in some form, and this list is about that. I present to you, 25 ways to twist exposition to your will, turning it into a dancing gimp that will serve you…

…and serve the audience.

1. The Meaning Of Show, Don’t Tell

Like most easily-digestible protein-nuggets of writing advice, Show-Don’t-Tell is one that ends up confusing. After all, what we do is called storytelling, and then in the next breath we’re chided for telling and not showing. And yet, the advice remains true just the same. Exposition is often the biggest customer in terms of telling-above-showing, and it reeks of amateur hour karaoke. Here’s an example: consider the difference of you telling me “John is an assassin,” and you showing me the act of John stalking and killing a dude on the job. The former is dull: a narrative name-tag, a Facebook profile. The latter is engaging: action and example. This is the key to exposition always, always, always: stop telling, start showing.

2. Get In Late, Get Out Early

Leave yourself no room for exposition. Start the story as late into the plot as you can; extract yourself at first opportunity. You can’t eat ice cream that ain’t in the freezer. And by “ice cream” I mean “dead stripper.”

3. Imagine The Audience Is Sitting There, Staring At You

Everybody tells stories, and everybody’s had that moment where they start to lose the audience sitting in front of them. “C’mon,” they’ll say, making some kind of impatient gesture because, uhh, hello, the season finale of The Bachelor is on? You greedy asshole? God forbid you don’t get your reality TV fix, you mongrels. … uhh, sorry. Point is, when that happens you gotta ramp it up. You gotta get to the point. Imagine when writing your story — script, novel, short fiction, whatever — that the audience is sitting there, making that gesture. Even better: imagine them slapping billy clubs against their open palms. In other words: cut the shit and hurry it up. A guy’s got things to do. Like bury that “ice cream” in the Mojave desert.

4. Binge And Purge

Fuck it. Write a zero draft with as much exposition as you can fit in your fool mouth. Vomit forth great globs of word sauce ’til it hardens. On subsequent drafts, chop and whittle any exposition to a toothpick point.

5. Lock Up The Backstory In Its Own Plexiglass Enclosure

Open up a separate document from script or manuscript. Lock it away in its own cage. When parts need to come out and play, let them. Gas the rest with a nerve agent. Cover it with dirt.

6. Learn To Spot Expository Fol-de-rol

You can’t cure exposition unless you know how to spot it. Learn what it is. Learn to mark its footprints, its scat-tracks. Two characters talking about shit they should already know? One character descending into a bizarre, out-of-place soliloquy? Giant cinder block paragraphs that fall from the sky and crush the audience beneath them? Identify exposition where it lives, fucks, and eats. Then prepare the orbital laser.

7. Fold Exposition Into Action, Like Ingredients Into Delicate Batter

Dramatic action is — a-duh — action infused with drama, like vodka infused with elderberries and/or the screams of my enemies. As action unfolds, it reveals data you want the audience to have. Instead of putting forth a scene where characters plan a heist, get right to the heist — the heist reveals the plan. That’s not to say you can’t make a heist-planning scene evocative and with its own dramatic action and tension, but only serves to show that action needn’t be — and perhaps shouldn’t be — separate from exposition.

8. I Would Listen To That Guy Read The Phone Book

Listen, if you have to institute exposition to convey critical information, then you at least should do it with style, putting it in a voice that is not only readable, but compelling. I would read a fucking diner menu were it written by a writer with a great voice (say, Joe Lansdale) — so, if you’re going to take time out to foist information upon a reader’s head, then at least make it snappy.

9. Talk It Out, You Nattering Chatterkitties

Chatterkitty almost sounds like an Indian curry dish, doesn’t it? “I’ll take two samosas, and one vegetable chatterkitty. Medium spice, please.” Anyway, point is, characters can reveal backstory through dialogue — but it has to be done right. Like I said, two characters sharing data they should already know is a clear sign, as are long-winded monologues. An info-dump is still a steaming pile whether it comes from your ass or the mouth of a character. Characters shouldn’t ever give up great heaps of information — they should resist it. Revelation should be done with tension; a villain doesn’t want to give up his plan but must under torture.

10. The World Reveals Its Own Backstory

A war-torn city. A shattered hill-top. A modern megalopolis. A garden protected by angels. The details of setting show the wounds and scars of history. Environment reveals exposition.

11. Artifacts As Artifice

Further, the world offers up artifacts — newspapers, blogs, e-mails, epitaphs, relics, holo-discs, etc. — that convey expository detail. Characters can find these and learn them at the same time as the audience.

12. The Audience Is On A “Need-To-Know” Basis

Whenever you encounter the urge to info-dump, pause. Take a deep breath. Then ask: what does the audience need to know? Like, what information here is so bloody critical that without it the story loses its way, like an old person in a shopping mall? Separate “need” from “want” — I don’t care what details you want the audience to have. Determine only what is required to move forward. Everything else gets the knife.

13. Out With The Info-Dump, In With The Info-Bullet

Limit exposition to between one and three sentences per page. And lean sentences, too — don’t think you can get away with an overturned bucket of commas and dependent clauses poured over your word count. I can smell your chicanery the way a shark smells baby-farts. (Isn’t that what they smell? I might be getting that wrong. Wait, it’s blood? Blood? Are you sure? I think it’s baby-farts. I’ve heard it both ways.)

14. Tantric Storytelling (Or, “Nnnggh, Think About Baseball”)

Sting taught us all about Tantric sex, wherein you contain your orgasm in some kind of lust-caked mental hell-prison until you release it eight hours later, amplifying your delight. I am afraid of doing this as I fear it will send a hardened shiv of semen into my cerebral cortex. Regardless, it’s a good lesson for using exposition in storytelling: resist it as long as you can. You think, “Ohh, the audience really needs details right here,” but stave off that inclination. Do not pop your narrative cookies. Contain the exposition and reveal it late in the game until it can be restrained no longer.

15. Writus Interruptus, (Or, “Narrative Blue-Balls”)

Another way to sex up your man(uscript): use exposition to break tension. You’re amping up the suspense, you’re ratcheting action, it’s all escalation escalation escalation, and then — wham. You pull back from the action, and give a pause with a scene of exposition. Not so much where it overwhelms and frustrates, but enough where it creates that sense of narrative blue balls where you sharpen the audience’s need.

16. Exposition As The Answer To A Question

Exposition can serve as explanation. It’s all in the arrangement. If you present a question in the reader’s mind — “How exactly did Doctor Super-Claw lose his eye? And why does Satrap Fuck-Fang the Splendid want to kill him? Shit, there’s gotta be a good story there.” Indeed. Make them want the exposition so that, when you give it, it answers questions they already possess.

17. The Character As Exposition-Hungry Detail-Junkie

If the character needs the exposition for her arc and the plot to move forward, then the audience needs it — and thereby, it becomes more rewarding. Just assume the character is like the Space Sphere from Portal 2. The character needs the tricksy backstory, precious. We needs it. It’s also good if the character risks something to get at these details, thus revealing how critical it is and how it has earned a place in the narrative. “I had to fight my way through an infinity of ninjas to get you this information, sir.”

18. Exposition As Story Within A Story

Frame exposition not merely as details, not purely as data, but as a story. A micro-story within the larger narrative that abides by all those same rules: beginning, middle, end, tension, conflict, character.

19. The Flashback Flashbang

Exposition doesn’t need to be dry and dull as a saltine cracker in a dead lizard’s vagina — turn backstory into a scene by invoking the Ancient Pagan Law of Flashback. Fuck having the character recite details as if off a menu. Force her to relive it in flashback form. Don’t talk about the moment when she was thrown out of an air-lock by her mad Space King father. Time travel to that moment. Let us all see it as it happens.

20. Time-Travel Back In Time, And Kill The Expository Hitler

Another form of time travel — go back into your own story and rip out the need for exposition. Originally it’s all like, “Way back in the year of Fourteen-Splangly-Doo, in the Year of Dog’s Butler, the Dolphin Council of Krang suffered a cataclysmic failure to rule when they couldn’t agree on blippity-bloppity-snood…” Hell with that. Gut that history. If you need it, bring it to the foreground. Have it be happening right now. That way, it’s active, it’s present, and characters are discovering it at roughly the same rate as the audience.

21. Prove Your Motherfucking Thesis

Exposition is easier to swallow when it has a declarative purpose: in effect, a thesis sentence. Opening a page of text or some dialogue with, “The city hasn’t been the same since the unicorns took over,” gives you the opportunity to describe what that means. The audience is prepared to receive that information and, thus, the exposition fulfills the promise of its premise. Bonus points: violent conquistador unicorns.

22. Crack Open The Character’s Head

Like I’ve said before, the character is the vehicle for the story. They’re our way through; we ride them as monkeys on their backs. (Or, if you’ve read ZOO CITY, like Sloth on the back of Zinzi December.) What the character knows, we can know, too — and so you as the narrator are free to crack open the character’s skull like a coconut, allowing the audience access to the fragrant water within. The character’s perspective on information is still expository, but it’s tinted and warped through the lens of their experience, which means the exposition does double-duty. It both grants us details we need and also offers us a longer look at the character.

23. Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This

A nice, trippy, totally fucked-up way of revealing backstory is through usage of dreams and visions. I did this in BLACKBIRDS and it was a fun way for me to convey creepy exposition without blurting it out like a kid high on the sugar from 14 bowls of Fruity Pebbles. Fun to write and, ideally, fun to read.

24. Exposition As Multi-Tool

Again, if you have to have to have to use exposition, make sure it sings for its supper and does more than just convey raw data. Let it communicate character, convey theme, move the plot forward (and backward), engage description, utilize compelling language, establish mood, and so on. The more work it does, the more it earns its place in your story.

25. Do Away With It Entirely

Go back through your work and find all the backstory, highlight all the info-dumps, and kill ’em. Just fucking murder it. Let stuff just hang out without any explanation — you’d be surprised how much of it will fly. Look to film in particular to see how many details are never explained and, further, how little that matters. That scene in DIE HARD where the two Aryan brothers are racing against each other to cut through… I dunno, “phone pipes?” I don’t know what they fuck they’re even doing there. Or why it’s a race. When you saw the first STAR WARS, did the film stop and explain what the hell the Clone Wars were? No! (And if only it had stayed that way.) Most of the things you think need to be explained don’t. They just don’t. So, fuck exposition right in its ear. If you go back through a subsequent draft and say, “Okay, I need a little something-something here,” fine, consult the rest of this list and see how you can make it your bitch.

Because if exposition is on the menu, then by god, you better know how to serve it right and make it tasty.

* * *

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81 responses to “25 Ways To Kick Exposition’s Ass”

  1. “I don’t care what details you want the audience to have. Determine only what is required to move forward. Everything else gets the knife.”

    This. THIS. So fucking much THIS!

    Also, this cost me a mouthful of coffee: “I am afraid of doing this as I fear it will send a hardened shiv of semen into my cerebral cortex.” You owe me.

    Brilliant list, as always. Possibly your best yet.

  2. Thanks to the pervasive “show, don’t tell” rule, I’ve made the mistake of going the complete opposite direction. Always showing action without offering exposition ever.

    As always, your list is immensely helpful and insightful. Looking forward to more, Chuck!

  3. Wow, the author that I am editing for so needs to see this. But so isn’t ready for it. Unfortunately, they are still learning that you can’t jump back and forth between past and present tense, and two different points of view, in one sentence. I’m assuming they have no idea what exposition is.

    Rather than “show don’t tell” I prefer to scream “weave it into the story!”

  4. One teensy tiny little addition. Even a great voice won’t excuse an author from taking a massive info dump on the readers. Yes, I’m looking at you Neal Stephenson. *waggles finger* He gets away with it in Zodiac and Cryptonomicon for sure, be he sort of forgot around Snow Crash.

    I still want to strangle Hiro and The Librarian so they’d just shut up about Sumerians already.

    • @Kate:

      I agree, to a point, but here’s the thing:

      Snow Crash comes before Cryptonomicon by a book or two. And I thought Snow Crash read at a pretty fast clip, but on the other hand, found Cryptonomicon to be a giant brick hitting my face. (I know many who love the book and accept that it’s really just down to individual tastes, but dang, I couldn’t get through that MASSIVE HOLY CRAP TOME.)

      — c.

  5. @Kate:

    I have to agree, though the example that came to mind was the Elder God series by David Eddings. Not only was the exposition atrocious but it played out in this Groundhog Day loop where I had to read it over again from different characters POV. It was saddening considering that this was the man who taught me to love fantasy in the first place.

  6. Really lovely. Thanks, C.

    There’s a test I like to perform on my prose to see whether I’ve got it right or not. If all my sentences fall into the same structure, I know I’m doing something wrong. For example, if they all have the same cadence, it won’t read well and sounds horrible. If I keep using the same kind of adjective, it gets boring. So on & so forth.

  7. I loved 14, especially “I fear it will send a hardened shiv of semen into my cerebral cortex”.

    ‘… I believe it was Professor Plum, in the library with the hardened shiv of semen.’

  8. Loved the list. Stalling on putting in the exposition revealed to me a bit about your point 25; it’s actually kind of amazing what audiences will let you get away with.

  9. This may be the BEST thing you’ve ever written – of course, it’s only the second post I read and I only skimmed it and it needed more backstory, but still, absolutely the best.

  10. Chuck,

    I know Snow Crash came before Cryptonomicon by a good … er … *pops over to wikipedia* … 7 years and 3 books. And believe me, I LOVED Snow Crash. If we were talking pace, I’d hold it up as the paragon of fast, dirty storytelling and take a shot or two at Cryptonomicon (what with redefining the word dense). It’s just those pages (upon pages upon pages) of conversations with The Librarian nearly killed it for me.

    • You’re right — those Librarian pages are a loose butthole in an otherwise tight story. I was just figuring that if any of his books deserved the BRICK OF TEXT criticism, it was CRYPTO. 🙂

      — c.

  11. Hugely badass advice couched in badass rhetorical style. This is writing advice that jumps off a Harley and stomps a mudhole in mediocre storytelling. Well played, penmonkey.

  12. Good tips, every one. I might have said them differently, but you get the idea across better (umm, that’s a compliment. I’m too smoothed by life. You’re more like “Things My Dad Says…” You know that Twitter-stream-gone viral?)

    Anyway, keep it up.

  13. That last one made me think of a lot of the historical fiction I’ve read, where the writer all too often describes the backstory of every event. There’s a fine line between “my readers love history and will enjoy these details” and “I’m showing off just how much research I’ve done”.

    For beginning writers, well-meaning beta-readers are also partially responsible for over-exposition, I think. I have a scene in my book where two characters are discussing the political situation, and one makes an offhand comment about Sark (a small island in the English Channel). I’m sure at least one member of my writing group said I should give the exchange more context, but I decided no – these two characters both know it’s the name of an island, so I’m not going to give them an “as you know, Bob” moment – and since the information isn’t vital to the plot, it doesn’t matter if readers don’t pick up on it.

    You have to draw the line somewhere, or your brighter, more knowledgeable readers will resent being spoon-fed.

  14. As someone who only ever has written about this world, I’m wondering how genre affects this. If you’re J.R.R. Tokesomeweed and you’re making up the fantastical new world of Middle Ear, then the reader has no grounding in nothin’ — every creature, race of folk, bit of georgraphy etc. is likely to require some expository assist. Of course, some of that can be handled neatly in the narrative:

    “Lotsaschlong grunted in extasy, and was driving his two-pronged member into both Lady Likesitrough’s openings, lifting her through the force of his thusts to heights of pleasure she previously had experienced only when serving multiple lovers, when her betrothed, Lord Tinyprick entered the chamber and screamed in rage, drawing his dagger and rushing at Lotsaschlong. But as the blued smurelf was just then emptying his seed into the good lady’s womb and bowels, he accepted the first thrust into his muscled back without complaint, focusing on both that pain and his pleasure as he did oft find them both of a piece. Being immortal had it’s advantages.”

    So yeah, I guess some of that you can work into the action, but it would wear my ass out to constantly have to do so. I guess that’s why I stick to the real world – I don’t have to explain everything to everybody.


  15. I have written stories where I delayed exposition for a few mentions (the item in question was referenced a few times without being explained) before the revelation came. I did this expecting the reader to become interested, even needy for the information, but I found they simply became irritated. Nowadays, I try to make my story as simple as an alternative-world fantasy can be to avoid the need for reams of back story. (Or rather, I localize it and only introduce parts pertinent to this story.) I would also say it’s important to start deep in the action, with certain details delayed until the reader is fully engrossed with the characters.

    Anyway, great list. Thank you.

  16. I’m a flashback whore, at least with this current novel. Three stories at once. Kid moves to new town, deals with vicious bully; Kid grows to man in prison (oops guess you know how story one ends) and present day, bad-ass out of prison out for revenge those who stuck him with the rap. The backstory is the story. The hard part is teasing the reader and saving the reveals for later on, to keep the tension.

  17. “Whenever you encounter the urge to info-dump, pause. Take a deep breath. Then ask: what does the audience need to know? Like, what information here is so bloody critical that without it the story loses its way, like an old person in a shopping mall?”

    Try to always park in the same spot.

    Excellent advice as always.

  18. I haven’t finished reading this yet, so I might comment again. But before I forget.

    Love this ––> “Get in late, Get out Early”

    I read stories on fictionpress often. When I tell them that there first 3 to 5 chapters are crap, they, naturally, get defensive. I feel like a broken record saying ‘you need a hook’ or ‘you need to start the story in the first chapter’.

    More than once I’ve had responses saying that they are introducing their characters and that is how the story starts. And that I’m impossible to please, because I want the story written MY way. I didn’t think it was a personal preference of MINE that the story start in chapter one. I thought that was given.

    • @Jelzmar —

      Yeah, I think the big thing that people don’t realize is that the character’s story doesn’t begin when, say, they’re born. It begins when the Interesting Stuff begins. It begins when the inciting incident begins.

      — c.

  19. #25. Do Away With Exposition Entirely –

    This reminds me of the scene in The Hangover:

    Mike Tyson: “Maybe one of the tigers ate his [Doug’s] ass like Omar.”
    Phil: “What happened to Omar?”
    Mike Tyson: “Oh, don’t worry about Omar, he’s not with us no more.”

    This tells me all I need to know about Omar. Reading between the lines makes it even funnier!

  20. Good list as always. Into where you are at most of the time, but have to strongly disagree with you on two points: Flashbacks and dreams. HATE them. They are overused and cheap cheap outs that writers use as such. I HATE them almost as much as “and then I died.” Sure, infodump like mad when you are just writing for yourself, but you should manage elegant integration by the time you are showing it off. If you want to showcase an incident from the past, showcase a conversation in which one character dialogues about the other about what happened. Said person can have emotional etc. reactions in mini flashes, but doesn’t just go all dream state. Unless dream states are crucial to your story. Unless they are, avoid dreams as well. If you have to have the dream, have the person fucking wake up from it and start talking about it.

    I confess to one full dream still existing in my writing, and I stubbornly won’t remove it. Other than that, it is wake ups and reflects or discusses. Massive amounts of what I once had as flashbacks in a novel are now reduced to a few stray emotions, tidbits of conversation and eventual discussion, but which time you should get it.

    Still, love the list. Wouldn’t be me if I didn’t get contrary about something.

  21. Ah yes. Another free list of information I can use to create fiction that will sell for millions! MWAAHAHAH! *delusional self gets shot*

    Love the list! I especially liked #10.The World Reveals It’s Own Backstory. Though it seems obvious, I never really thought about it like that or paid enough attention to it. I like it. Another tool to use.

    @Jelzmar. I started out writing at fictionpress. I remember I wrote a story that received rave reviews by a few. But now I read it and it’s crap. I think most people there don’t know the difference.

    While I agree that it’s best to start as late as possible, sometimes it’s hard. For my novel, I want to get to the inciting event as soon as possible, but I realized it would be too confusing if I did. I’d end up backtracking afterwards. So exposition is needed at times, though I totally agree with action.

    It’s one of those, easier said than done.

    *Proceeds to print out list for easier implementation of knowledge into current novel*

  22. @Bets

    I think flashbacks are okay if they’re not too long and put further into the book and hint at things that will come later. I believe flashbacks or dreams too early in a story is…well, too early.

    Midway my novel, I have a flashback/dream where I am able to introduce a key character that will show up a few chapters later. With the flashback, I and the reader can focus more on what is happening at the moment instead of wondering who that person is and why the protagonist is acting the way he’s acting without using boring exposition.

    Well, I think it works anyways.

  23. I struggle a lot with exposition, so this is probably the most helpful 25 Things for me so far. Love it.

    And I’ll echo what others have said: it really is amazing how well #25 works. Dan Simmons’ “Hyperion” has to be one of the very best examples. By the end of the book, I still didn’t understand half the jargon he’d invented, but none of it mattered because the story was incredible.

  24. I needed to read this, tonight. You are right. No one likes dull exposition. The dream/vision thing…yes. That can be very helpful.

    Great post. Retweeted. 🙂

  25. In my experience as a reader, bad exposition is bad. Good exposition is good. I’ve read and enjoyed a whole bunch of books which have a character or characters recount stories to other characters. Stephen King comes to mind (The Colorado Kid), as does Lansdale (take your pick). The purpose of the inclusion of these oral histories is to give me, the reader, information. But done well, what I read is a self-contained work of short fiction that is both entertaining and adds to my understanding of the characters.

    I get annoyed when I hear (usually from novice writers) that “exposition is bad” or that any time a character tells a story for which the POV character was not present demonstrates “text-book bad writing” as some idiot informed me last NaNoWriMo…

    Good writers don’t avoid entire literary devices/tools just because those tools have been misused by amateurs and idiots. Good writers fucking own them. IMHO.

    • @Dan:

      Well, yeah, I agree — which is why I put this list together. If you need to use exposition, then good writers have ways of making it work without it being straight exposition. Because, in my mind, straight exposition rarely comes off as anything but a brick wall.

      — c.

  26. I’m seeing a lot of love for the cum-spike to the noggin–and I get that–but I can’t stop repeating “I dunno, phone pipes?” and lolling.

  27. I have purchased your book for 99 cents sir. I love you.

    I teach writing to 6th graders. At our school we have a program called “Focus on Writing.” The Focus on Writing program has produced nothing but students terrified to write a single sentence and hating every single assignment. They can recognize a good story when they read one, and they read a lot of books (I have a cumulative word count if you’re interested). Despite all the “focus” good writing remains elusive and beyond their understanding. My theory: not enough explicit instruction. I intend to use your writing tips (sans potty mouth) to provide the explicit instruction necessary for them to write something, anything, passable as a story.
    p.s. don’t tell my principal.

  28. Excellent advice. I fucking hate exposition. It’s so damn insidious, the only way I found to make mine suck less is to make such memorable and awful mistakes (I once wrote a 45 minute PowerPoint meeting that read like a 45 minute PowerPoint meeting) that I approach all info feeds with trepidation and fear.

  29. Okay, this confirms it–you do have a terrible mind.

    “Exposition doesn’t need to be dry and dull as a saltine cracker in a dead lizard’s vagina…”

    Who’s running that shop in your cranium, Chuck? If they’re for hire, I intend to outbid you.

    Great post–as usual.

  30. I keep coming back to Karl and his brother. The scene with the phone pipes is a great example of things that don’t really need to be explained – but I also find it’s a *really good* example of “show, don’t tell” – You know those two are brothers without anyone mentioning it (until after Proclaimers-looking Karl Jr. gets his neck broken), without the camera panning past a picture of them as children, without them awkwardly mentioning it in conversation, essentially, without being told.

    BTW, they were racing because PLK Jr. had to finish rewiring the phones before Karl cut them to avoid… um… stuff).

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