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  1. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    Exposition Without Info Dumping

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by MilesTro, Sep 28, 2014.

    How do you write exposition in a narrative without making it look like info dumping in both third and first person? When I first wrote the beginning of my sci fi novel, I added a bunch of information during the action to fresh out the setting. It helped me keep writing my story as I wrote some interesting back story information about the characters and their world. But the reviewers said it is all info dumping, which separates the readers from my characters. So I erased all the exposition and kept the plot focus on what my characters are doing. However, I read many sci fi novels written like that for the nerdy readers. But I do understand how info dumping ruins a story. It just helps me keep writing without getting bored. I'm good at writing down many ideas.
     
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2014
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  2. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    I read that exposition should be kept during the recovery parts of a novel, not during the action, because it defuses the action. You could also break the exposition into small chunks. Reading a paragraph of exposition is more tolerable than a page. Plus, if done right, you keep the reader wondering what the whole story is.
     
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  3. Moonbeast32
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    Moonbeast32 Member

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    This may not be appropriate for your project, but try this:

    Imagine you are a dark age peasant. The only thing you have ever known your entire life, is growing crops, and paying taxes. You know nothing of politics, the plague, or even the name of the kingdom you live in. Now, suddenly, an unknown force takes your mind to the future. From that point on, you see everything through the eyes of a average 1st world country citizen in the year 2014. Naturally, you'd be very confused, just as the man freed from the cave was in Plato's famous story. Eventually, you'd come to understand this new world as you see other people interact with it, just as an infant learns a new language by listening to their parents speak.

    Soon, you would understand how phones, lights, and cars are possible, and how they work. All without someone coming to you, and explaining stuff. You've learned naturally.

    And that is how I believe the best exposition should feel. Natural.

    Does this make sense?
     
  4. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    Yes it does. I am kind of doing that to my novel now. However, a reviewer also stated that it lacked some descriptions.
     
  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I think the main issue is getting the information to the reader when the reader needs it and can absorb it. So, no, you don't want to be describing the matte black finish of the weapons console or the technician's smooth fingers gently rolling over the surface at the peak of the battle because all around people are getting blasted to bits. At such a time, the reader is (we hope) being pulled from word to word, phrase to phrase, sentence to sentence and can't tolerate being interrupted to go visit the necessary, for God's sake so please don't bother them with details.

    But if the details are things the reader really needs to know (as opposed to being a really cool detail so that they form the exact same mental picture of the scene that you do), then you may need to let the reader know before that riveting scene, one that can have its own tension, but different. I often reveal details to the reader through the eyes of a character. This might help set the stage for some additional battle scene tension later on. For example, the weapons technician might, when taking her post for the first time, notice that the controls for targeting the laser cannons is on the opposite side of the console from the button for firing them. She might even think, in a snarky sort of way, who would have designed it like that? But then, come the battle scene, and ship is being wracked by enemy fire (or something) while she's targeting the weapons...she's thrown over the far side of the console...away from the "fire" button..."Ensign, fire now or we're all dead!!"...she reaches, but G-forces hold her back...one last attempt...

    Well, you know.
     
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  6. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    It would also be easier to write like that if it does keep your readers focus on the story. However I am still trying to figure out a unique voice for my third person style. With first person, I just role play as the main character, observing what is happening while telling his or her own story.
     
  7. ToDandy
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    ToDandy Contributing Member

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    Breaking it up into smaller chunks rather than into large paragraphs is the best way to do it. Make it flow naturally into what characters are conversing about, seeing, or thinking also keeps it from being intrusive.

    Adding exposition into some of the dialogue (but for the love of Mt. Krumpet, not all of it!) can also help to dilute the information and camouflage it to the reader.

    In fantasy and Science Fiction, lots of writers LOVE the "training sequence" solution. Were they add most of their exposition into scenes where characters are being educated or trained, as it is more organic, at least to that scene. Though, some readers might not be too keen on that.
     
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  8. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    Thank you. I also like the training idea.
     
  9. AlVic
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    You could try a flashback to where they learned all that stuff in the first place
     
  10. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    Or it can be a brief memory flash back instead. I just think flash backs can confuse readers if they don't know it is a flash back.
     
  11. Michaelson345
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    Michaelson345 Member

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    Doesn't matter you write which type of story, every story needs exposition. Only you need to explain to the audience what is going on and this exposition is about what. But also remember one thing if they don't need, don't tell them about exposition.
     
  12. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    There doesn't seem to be any one particular method that works for everybody.

    However, I'd be cautious about following TOO much advice about how to begin a story. There is the notion, very popular at the moment, that you should always start your story with a bang, with action or at the point of change. This works fairly well if the setting is one the reader is familiar with, or is easily comprehended. However, if you've created an entire world and this story takes place in a setting we need to know a lot about beforehand, this can be a mistake.

    Play around with it a little bit. I'd say back up. Start your story with what is ordinary in your main character's world.

    If you are writing a story that takes place in a setting your readers will already know about ...say, American suburbia and/or high school ...you can start the story with a bang and the reader will not have a problem figuring out what's happening. You can fill in details (teachers' names, classmate's names, father's occupation, etc) as you go along.

    If, however, your story takes place on the planet Nazgor, and such things as teachers, classmates, even fathers are alien concepts, it might be a better plan to show us what your main character's life is like BEFORE the events of the story begin. If this world is interesting enough, this will engage the reader's attention, and will not be either backstory or infodumping at all.

    You can throw in a bit of forshadowing, of course. And whenever a story begins this way—in the day-to-day present before anything changes—the readers assume things WILL change. This is a given, and you can work with it. Make the reader aware of the present, and either want it to remain unchanged (fat chance) if it's a contented present, or be eager to see the change, if the core situation is unpleasant. Either way, you'll have your reader.

    If you're writing a story involving huge political upheaval, clashing dynasties, etc, it's probably also a good idea to funnel the situation through a single character, rather than outlining all the histories of all the people and countries involved.

    How does the current political situation impact on your POV character? Because Beorn is a member of the elite, he gets everything done for him, by slaves who perhaps show glimmers of resentment, or perhaps don't? We don't need to know how all of them became slaves, and who enslaved them, and where they came from before, and and and ....we just need to know what Beorn thinks of his slaves, and what they do for him. And maybe how lost he'd be without them, because he can't do stuff for himself?

    That's the way into a story, in my opinion.
     
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2014
  13. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would still argue, though, that the story should start with some sort of action. It's fine if it's small action, though it's best for that small action to tie in some way to the larger story. For example, instead of the equivalent of Joe getting up, brushing his teeth, blah, blah, it could start with the kids complaining at having to eat Soylent Red again, and Joe being frustrated because he's worried that his pay cut will make it impossible for him to make the rent, much less pay for Soylent Green. So we have an immediate issue for the characters, plus Soylent Green leads into the bigger plot.
     
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  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, yes, I agree that something needs to be happening. Well most of the time—because sometimes the setting itself is interesting enough. But it's a good idea to start with some activity and introduce the characters. It just doesn't have to be a pivotal moment in their lives. It can take place just BEFORE the pivotal moment comes. I think, as you suggested, the action is more effective if it starts small ...and shows the 'present' of your story's world. Your example with the tooth-brushing is exactly what I had in mind.

    Another example which everybody will know—and it's cheating a bit because it's not the actual start of the movie, although it could have been—is the scene where we first meet Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. We spend a fair amount of time with him in his usual setting. We see where he lives, what he does on a daily basis, we meet his aunt and uncle and see how they treat him, we feel some of the tension within that family group, we see how he is expected to repair 'droids' that are malfunctioning ...and we get a really good glimpse of how bored and discontented he is with his life. That final image, of him standing in the desert looking longingly up at the two moons of Tatooine, is one of the film's iconic moments. Is this scene a boring infodump? Hell no! It's a fantastic start to Luke's story, isn't it?

    Lucas chose to begin the movie with Darth Vader chasing Leia's ship, but he could easily have started the movie with Luke, and it would still have drawn us in. He could have followed the double-moon scene with the chase scene, and things would still have held together. So there are many ways to do this. Personally, if it had been me, I WOULD have started with the Luke scene. (Sorry, George.) But the scene of Luke complaining that nothing ever happens to him would have been wonderfully contrasted with everything happening to Leia at that same moment, and then the two stories connect...
     
    Last edited: Sep 30, 2014
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  15. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    He also started the film with a prologue, which explains what is going on.
     
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  16. Simpson17866
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    My favorite tactics are to 1) show what prompted the expositing-character to start talking about something

    Is he angry about how something has impacted him? Is he naturally excitable about a particular subject? If something isn't common knowledge even in-story, how does this character know?

    2) show how the listening-character responds to the expositing-character

    Why is the listener paying attention? Is he trying to gather intelligence against some enemy? Does he agree with the speaker's interpretations of everything? Is he trying to ignore the "distraction" to focus on something else? How does he feel that the speaker is treating him?

    and 3) make "negative" exposition as important as "positive" information

    Are there things that nobody as definite answers to, except that nobody else has answers either? And if it is made clear that nobody in the story knows how something important works, then how do different people act in response to their not knowing?
     
  17. jonahmann
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    jonahmann Active Member

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    Show don't tell: Turn abstraction into imagery and action.

    Think of the prologue of The Lord of the Rings.
     
  18. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    The Lord of the Rings have lots of telling. Mostly descriptions.
     
  19. jonahmann
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    jonahmann Active Member

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    Description is imagery, and consequently is showing.

    My point was Tolkien goes back shows what happened as a story, rather than dumping exposition after we meet Bilbo or Frodo.
     
  20. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm up against this particular problem in my current revision. It's a fantasy world and everyone in the story naturally knows certain things about the world, so it would be unnatural for them to explain them. I've solved some of the problem by designating one of my characters an 'audience surrogate', but I feel that technique must be used very sparingly. I hate breaking the narrative flow for even a single sentence of exposition, and I'm finding it hard to make progress without it.

    If anyone ever solves this problem, please share the solution! It's the one thing I can never seem to get right.
     
  21. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    Sounds interesting, but how about the characters are just reminded of what is going on and sought. However, this is only a one reminder so it wouldn't sound unnatural.
     
  22. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think that you have to solve it instance by instance. I once wrote a long example of a theoretical instance, and I can't find the dang thing. Do you have any examples of infodumps?

    Meanwhile, I find myself writing another example:

    Fact: Joe is miserly.
    Fact: Fee is an expensive sweet food.
    Fact: Fie is a cheap, unpopular, grain food.
    Fact: The Fo is a highly ranked personage, who holds office for life. The last Fo was generous and popular; this one not so much.
    Fact: The local water, from the Fum river, is unsanitary.

    Jane tilted her spoon and watched its contents drip back into the bowl. "Fie? Seriously? Joe diluted stewed fie? I'd think that the milk would be more expensive than the fie he's saving."
    Frank looked up. "What makes you think it's milk? Milk costs money."
    "Well, it's not cider; that costs even...no. You're not serious. He used water? From the Fum?"
    Frank nodded. "Why do you think I'm eating the bread? At least it's been cooked."
    "Well, this has to be cooked... doesn't it?"
    A shrug. "He could burn fuel. He could just dump the fie into the water and let it soak. Which one are you guessing?"
    Jane put her spoon back in the bowl and pushed it away. "Give me some of that bread."
    Frank shook his head. "Oh, no, darlin'. Around here, this may as well be fee."
    Jane closed her eyes. "Oh, God, I haven't had a bite of fee since...since...since the Fo's birthday. Back when it was a proper holiday."
    "This Fo?"
    "Good Lord, no. The last one."
    "I'd've thought you were born after he died."
    "I'm older than I look. I was four. I still remember that fee."
     
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  23. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Here's an example from very early in my current novel. The reader has been told next to nothing about the world's geography or history at this point, only the name of the town (Westbridge)

    *****
    It took a moment for Rat's eyes to adjust to the darkness. He shivered and pulled the blanket tighter. In the light of the lantern, he found what he was looking for; bare footprints in the snow.

    “Here.” Rat pointed. “That's him.”

    The merchant nodded. Together they followed the tracks from the tavern, to the road and then west, to the bridge. Rat stopped on the road and followed the tracks with his eyes.

    “What in the world?” the merchant whispered.

    Rat didn't know what to think. The tracks didn't come from the fields on either side of the road, or from the farms beyond. They came from the bridge, and the other side of the frozen river.

    Rat stared into the darkness on the other side of the bridge. There were no lights, because there was nothing there. “How did he get across the Wasteland on foot?” He turned to the merchant. “Have you heard of any new settlements or expeditions out there?”

    The merchant looked at Rat as if he were drunk, or worse. “Are you serious?” Rat didn't respond. The merchant continued. “Settlements? Not since the Great Disappearance. No one in their right mind would settle out there.”

    Rat's breath flowed away from him in a stream of white fog.

    The merchant shook his head. “No one goes into the Wasteland. Why would they?” He shuddered. “No one's ever come back.”

    Rat turned away from the darkness. “I think someone just did.”
    *****

    The original text had a lot more infodumping, this is as pared down as I could get it. Here's the original.

    *****
    In the light of the lantern, Rat spotted bare footprints in the snow.

    “Here,” he pointed at the tracks. “That's him.”

    The merchant nodded. Together they followed the tracks from the tavern, to the clearing between the stables and the unused barn. From there the tracks led to the road, then west to the bridge. The tracks didn't come from the fields on either side of the road or the farms beyond. They came from the other side of the bridge, the west side of the river.

    The two men stopped.

    “What the hell is going on?” asked the merchant.

    Rat stared into the darkness on the far side of the bridge. There were no lights to the west, because there was nothing out there. Westbridge was the absolute westernmost settlement in all of Astoria. There was the fort, long abandoned, and beyond that the long road to the border of the Vanthric Empire. Nothing but three hundred miles of barren rock and empty wilderness.

    “In your travels,” Rat asked quietly, “have you heard of any new settlements or expeditions in the wasteland?”

    “Are you kidding?”

    Rat waited.

    “Who in their right mind would go in there? Ever since the Great Disappearance, no one who's entered the wasteland has ever come back. No one!”

    Rat looked over the vast emptiness for a long time. The merchant watched him, waiting.

    Finally, Rat spoke.

    “I think someone just did.”
    *****

    I know, it's awful. Yeesh.
     
  24. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    In my voice, I'd pare the part after "The merchant nodded" to:

    The merchant nodded. Together they followed the tracks from the tavern, to the road and then west. At the river, Rat stopped, suddenly still and silent.

    The tracks came from across the bridge. From the west.

    “What in the world?” the merchant whispered. "They come from the Wastelands."

    Rat nodded. "Yep."

    "That's impossible."

    "Apparently not."

    Then I'd tuck the fact of the Great Disappearance in somewhere else. The fact that nothing can come from the west seems sufficient for this scene.
     
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  25. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good point. There are two references to the Great Disappearance later in the first act, so it could be left out of this scene without any loss to the overall coherence of the narrative. You're right that what matters is the fact that no one can survive a trip across the Wasteland (this scene is literally the first time in the story that the Wasteland is mentioned) and yet the man they are tracking DID survive... which is the actual point of the scene. The history can wait. Thanks @ChickenFreak :)
     
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