1. ManOrAstroMan
    Offline

    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

    Joined:
    May 8, 2012
    Messages:
    817
    Likes Received:
    342
    Location:
    Missouri

    Exposition vs Infodump

    Discussion in 'Fantasy' started by ManOrAstroMan, Jul 9, 2016.

    Question for those of you writing fantasy--high fantasy, urban fantasy, supernatural, etc:
    Obviously, we're creating new worlds which need a bit of explanation. How do you give the necessary exposition, so the reader knows what the heck is going on, without burping out a big infodump? After all, there really is only so much you can "show" without "telling."
     
  2. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,634
    Likes Received:
    5,115
    It's often best if you break the information up into smaller chunks, and only present it as needed, rather than all at once.

    There are ways to disguise an info-dump (the dreaded "as you know, Bob," or the slightly less horrific training or tour-guide sequence, for example) but even when done well they tend to slow down the pacing of the story. If you can break it all up into segments and spread it around, I think it will be much more palatable.
     
    GingerCoffee and Oscar Leigh like this.
  3. Simpson17866
    Offline

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1,734
    Likes Received:
    1,282
    The first thing to know is that how long the exposition is doesn't matter. Mystery novels are nothing but exposition, but it's still interesting exposition to read when the characters are interesting and when we care about whether they find the exposition they're looking for or not:

     
    Anhaga, GingerCoffee and Oscar Leigh like this.
  4. doggiedude
    Offline

    doggiedude Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Feb 15, 2016
    Messages:
    1,452
    Likes Received:
    1,248
    Location:
    Florida, USA, Earth, The Sol System
    I was horribly guilty of infodumping when I first got started .... way back when ... six months ago.:bigtongue:

    Now I try to limit any exposition to no more than two short paragraphs at any one time. There needs to be something actually happening to keep the readers interest.
     
    GingerCoffee and Oscar Leigh like this.
  5. Steerpike
    Online

    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 5, 2010
    Messages:
    11,075
    Likes Received:
    5,271
    Location:
    California, US
    You don't HAVE to explain anything. See Steven Erikson's Malazan books.
     
    Oscar Leigh likes this.
  6. Oscar Leigh
    Online

    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2016
    Messages:
    4,419
    Likes Received:
    1,980
    Location:
    Australia
    There are three things in my amateur opinion. The first is don't do it all at once, put the information in certain separate places, and use action breaks so it's not a wall of dialogue. The second is try to imply some of it. Kind of like @Simpson17866's examples. And the third is know what information is most needed, focus on the stuff people will want to know, and you can control what they expect. If you don't talk about hydroponics, people won't expect you to explain your fantasy world's hydroponics system. Because they're here for the story. That's about the best advice I have. I hope it helps! :superhello:
     
    RahnyJae and GingerCoffee like this.
  7. GingerCoffee
    Offline

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2013
    Messages:
    17,604
    Likes Received:
    5,877
    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    Of course you have to explain things. The questions are how much, how soon and over what time frame.

    One thing I learned early on was readers did not need most of the backstory in order to read and follow the story.

    For example I start with my character out alone exploring. You find out there is danger she is coming close to, the people in her village are against her being there and she enjoys being alone.

    You don't need to know what exactly is the danger, how it came about that her people are in hiding from it, or much else about her life.

    The story unfolds, the readers get a bite at a time, they don't need a feast to stay full.
     
    Anhaga, jannert and Oscar Leigh like this.
  8. GingerCoffee
    Offline

    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2013
    Messages:
    17,604
    Likes Received:
    5,877
    Location:
    Ralph's side of the island.
    Love the examples. :)
     
    Oscar Leigh likes this.
  9. Oscar Leigh
    Online

    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 21, 2016
    Messages:
    4,419
    Likes Received:
    1,980
    Location:
    Australia
    Another thing is of course you can choose how much to tell people. Certain stories often want more information but there's also a large degree of choice. There's a broad range from James Bond to Lord of the Rings when it comes to exposition.
     
  10. doggiedude
    Offline

    doggiedude Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Feb 15, 2016
    Messages:
    1,452
    Likes Received:
    1,248
    Location:
    Florida, USA, Earth, The Sol System
    I'll give you one example how I fed a piece of information to the reader.
    Originally I had two pages explaining the history behind the cause of the world's disaster. It involved the development of a new power source where the scientists foolishly did an experiment on Earth creating a mess. The people now use the same power source in space where any mistake won't cause another disaster .. You bored reading this yet? I am.

    Currently, I have the same data broken up over several chapters with small pieces of information at a time.
    Here's One of them:


    Tereza glanced around the room at the other patients. She whispered, “Please calm down. I’m concerned about both of you.”

    “Sorry. I’m fine.” Luis went over to his daughter and sat in one of the undersized-chairs.

    “Daddy, what’s this?” The display depicted a colony ship with a massive Ritter-Ball attached to the back. Eneida pointed to the sphere.

    “That’s a Ritter-Ball, dear. That’s what power’s the ship.”

    “Like an engine?”

    “No.” Luis wasn’t sure how much Eneida would be able to understand, but he relished the idea of teaching her engineering. “The Ritter-Ball supplies the power to the engines. It’s a tiny star inside a Dyson Sphere.”

    Eneida giggled. “That’s silly. It’s not tiny.”

    “It is if you compare it to a star.” He held out his fist. “Imagine my hand is the size of the Sun.” Then he took up her hand and stretched out her pinky. “Now imagine the very tip of your finger is a Ritter-Ball. That’s what I mean by tiny.” The comparison wasn’t accurate, but Luis assumed it was a good enough example for her. The Ritter-Balls were about thirty kilometers in diameter which was a speck of dust when compared to the Sun.

    Eneida had scrunched up her face in thought. “So, what’s a Dyson Sphere?”

    “Cardozo?”

    The voice came from one of the nurses. Luis stood and took Eneida’s hand. “We can look it up later, and I’ll explain it to you.”
     
    Oscar Leigh likes this.
  11. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,967
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    I think that one strategy is to figure out the core concept behind what you're explaining.

    Yes, that object may use MagicBlah steel blessed by the tears of the Whifflebirds from the nineteenth dimension...but at its core, it's a weapon.

    That organization may have an elaborate hierarchy and fancy rules...but at its core, it's a school.

    That relationship between a walking tree-biped creature and the sentient fuschia-pink spider-like creature that normally hangs out on its shoulder may have more background details than you could put in a book...but at its core, it's a marriage.

    You can use something in a scene without knowing any more than the core. The other details can be alluded to, slowly, as they become relevant--and if they're not relevant, maybe you don't need them.

    Now, you still have to communicate the core, ideally without stating it flat out. Maybe the "at its core, it's a marriage" can be communicated with a little affectionate bickering, and some fact that makes it clear that there's a permanent commitment involved. The bickering can be tied to the plot, instead of being a blatant backstory indicator.
     
    Anhaga, Simpson17866 and Oscar Leigh like this.
  12. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,967
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    Beech bent its trunk to an alarming extent, peering at the footprint. It pronounced, "Moose."

    "Deer," corrected the bright pink...thing, on Beech's shoulder.

    I'd mistaken the ball of pink fluff for an epaulet or some sort of badge of office. I blinked, adjusting, and tried to make out where it kept its head. If it had one.

    "Yes, dear?" said Beech.

    "Oh, don't be silly, darling," said the pink-thing. "I mean deer. Those Earth creatures with the branches on their heads."
     
  13. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,634
    Likes Received:
    5,115
    I don't agree with this... What kind of mystery novel is nothing but exposition? Like, nothing happens in the "present" of a mystery novel? I can see what you maybe mean, that mystery novels are often trying to discover the truth about something that has already happened, so it's kind of like the characters are searching for exposition...but unless you're expanding the meaning of the word much more than I'm used to, I don't think it makes sense to think that mysteries are all exposition, or even have more exposition than other novels...?

    Can you clarify?
     
    ChickenFreak and Oscar Leigh like this.
  14. Simpson17866
    Offline

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1,734
    Likes Received:
    1,282
    PRE-EDIT: Just realized I forgot to post this the first time :p

    That's pretty much it. Crime scene investigation and forensic analysis is exposition based on physical evidence, interviews and interrogation are exposition based on witness/suspect testimony, theories are exposition based on "aha" moments. Anything happening in the present that exposits about the world is still exposition, it's just exposition-by-show instead of exposition-by-tell.
     
  15. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,634
    Likes Received:
    5,115

    I'm not sure on your definitions, here - can you give me an example of writing that isn't exposition according to this framework?
     
  16. Simpson17866
    Offline

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1,734
    Likes Received:
    1,282
    Something completely self-contained that doesn't add to our knowledge about anything outside of itself.
     
  17. ManOrAstroMan
    Offline

    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

    Joined:
    May 8, 2012
    Messages:
    817
    Likes Received:
    342
    Location:
    Missouri
    In the case of my story--an urban fantasy--I was wondering how to present the information regarding the workings of magic, the nature of the fae, etc. How much is too much at once, when the information isn't extraneous?
     
  18. Simpson17866
    Offline

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1,734
    Likes Received:
    1,282
    Just make sure that they characters are doing something while you (or they) are explaining the mechanical details. How much have you written so far?
     
  19. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,634
    Likes Received:
    5,115
    I'm not getting it. Like - I would think that if something is self-contained and doesn't add to our knowledge it doesn't really belong in the story?
     
  20. ManOrAstroMan
    Offline

    ManOrAstroMan Magical Space Detective Contributor

    Joined:
    May 8, 2012
    Messages:
    817
    Likes Received:
    342
    Location:
    Missouri
    Well, for instance, the first chapter opens with the POV character weaving an illusion over himself. Transformation, technomancy and Jedi mind tricks soon follow.
     
  21. ShannonH
    Offline

    ShannonH Senior Member Supporter

    Joined:
    Nov 28, 2015
    Messages:
    179
    Likes Received:
    117
    Location:
    Northern Ireland
    I'm building it up slowly; a character who sees politicians arguing during a news report, another character who mentions a bit about his past during an introduction and talks about the state of the locations they are heading.

    When I first started I felt like I was dumping the whole backstory of a character while he was being introduced. Now I'm more comfortable with building the world/galaxy slowly as the story progresses
     
    Oscar Leigh and RahnyJae like this.
  22. Gadock
    Offline

    Gadock Member

    Joined:
    May 13, 2016
    Messages:
    29
    Likes Received:
    12
    I also think taste comes in to play majorly. I love background information, for example @doggiedude I'd love to hear what a Dyson sphere is and what it does. Also why specially the power source is 30km wide and how they contain such amounts of energy :p Where others maybe not so interested in physics just want to skip that.
     
    Oscar Leigh likes this.
  23. Simpson17866
    Offline

    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 23, 2013
    Messages:
    1,734
    Likes Received:
    1,282
    Even if a self-contained scene doesn't add information about the story's world and history, it can still add information about the characters' personalities and relations with each other by showing what they do with the information the reader already has about the story's world history.

    It's just that murder mysteries are unique because even when a specific sentence is not direct exposition itself (forensic evidence, eyewitness testimony, detective's final conclusion, the murderer's confirmation), the characters' motivation still revolves around finding more exposition to fill in the blanks.

    ... Oh **** no: I just realized that murder mysteries are the Jazz of literature: the exposition you don't have yet is as important as the exposition you do have.

    Sounds good to me ;)
     
  24. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,967
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    You seem to be saying that if a scene offers any background information whatsoever, you can define the whole scene as exposition. The opposite would be that if a scene offers any action or plot progression whatsoever, you can define the whole scene as not-exposition.

    I'm closer to the opposite, but not all the way there. I think that exposition, at least the kind that we're worried about here, is when the reader is aware that information is being presented to him. If the reader's awareness is of the action or the characters' conversation or the character's efforts toward a goal, but the scene sneaks in a ton of information along with that, then I would class the scene as not-exposition.

    That doesn't mean that you can have one character hand another a cup of coffee, while explaining the whole history of the coffee trade. The reader isn't going to fall for that. So it's not about the presence of action, it's about the presence of engaging action that captures the reader's primary attention.
     
    tonguetied and Oscar Leigh like this.
  25. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,784
    Likes Received:
    7,299
    Location:
    Scotland
    There are a couple of tricks to help get exposition across without pain.

    The one I use consciously is to filter the details of setting, backstory and general history through the eyes, thoughts and feelings of the POV character. What do these details mean to this person? How does he feel when he looks out on a scene. Pick out the details HE would notice, and let us know why he's noticing them. And how do these details make him feel? Is he amused by them? Do they make him depressed? Does he want to go out and play, or is he forced to stay indoors looking out? These kinds of things bring a scene to life much more than a list of what is 'out there.' Same technique for a political situation. How does your POV character fit into the scheme of things? If he's just a lowly player, he will be wondering what's happening at the top. If he is at the top he may well be wondering what the underlings are up to. If it's personal historical detail, let us know how this impacts on the POV character. Is something in his past the reason he's 'here' now? Does he have something he's trying to learn? Something to avenge? Something to atone for? If it's general historical detail, again, filter as much of it as you can through the POV character. Is he standing beside a monument to some past event? If so, why has he come? Did he just happen to wander by, or was there a purpose to his visit? Is something that's happening in the present reminding him of some past historical event? If so, why?

    You can get a LOT of detail in via this method, and the reader will hardly notice you're doing it. And what's more, the relevance of these details will also be evident right from the start. They won't be just names of people or events; they will have life through your POV character.

    Another way to get exposition into a story is wait until the readers are ready to understand more of the backstory or history of the place you're writing about. Get their interest going by focusing on the characters, what they're doing in the story's 'present,' make the reader curious to learn more. Then feed it in. Try not to dump too much stuff at one time, and again, try to make the connections to the present as often as possible. If past history is causing war in the present, make sure these connections are obvious.

    I do believe relevance is the key to keeping a reader's interest, so make sure you emphasise the relevance as often and as obviously as you can. And if you can make details sparkle, do so. Instead of just a list of historical names, make sure the reader has an idea of what to think about the people whose names you're reciting. What did they do that made them relevant? Be as specific as you can, because specific details are more likely to stick than just general ones. "He was a cruel king," won't particularly stick. "He beheaded the children of any rebel who dared to defy him," will stick.
     

Share This Page