Have you simplified your story, chosen what information to communicate, and planned your scenes accordingly? Congrats, it’s finally time to write narration that gives your readers the information they need. If you’ve completed all of the previous steps well, the action that unfolds during the scene will do much of the heavy lifting for you. You’ll only need exposition to fill in the few things that are missing.
Where Should Information Go?
When you plan a scene, your information can be conveyed by:
- Description, which is a great way to sketch out basic information on people and places.
- Dialogue, which works best when people are arguing over something important or when you have a fish-out-of-water character.
- Action that occurs during the scene.
- Exposition placed into the narration, not the dialogue. Depending on the narrative style, this may be the thoughts of the viewpoint character.
If you need to fill in information that doesn’t come up naturally during the scene, exposition is the best way to do it. Use the power of your narrator. Only stories without narrators, like movies, have to resort to dialogue exposition or flashbacks.
That doesn’t mean you can’t fine-tune what’s in the scene a little to better convey information. In particular, adding elements to the background can give you an excuse to describe them, which is useful for establishing the setting. If you’re featuring a conversation that could take place anywhere, you might choose a location that’s particularly informative.
Sometimes adding a few more lines of dialogue works as well. If you want to communicate that your protagonist is engaged, someone might comment on your protagonist’s engagement ring. That’s fine, as long as your protagonist was already talking to someone who would naturally do that. Don’t add a whole conversation or a named character to the scene just for a tiny bit of information you could express with one sentence of exposition.
Dialogue can start feeling unnatural very quickly. If you have an ignorant character who would ask useful questions, let them ask questions. But make sure that both the questions and answers are what those people would actually say. Keep it casual and fairly vague. Don’t pull out jargon, numbers, or odd specifics that make your dialogue feel like a textbook.
Juggling Your Opening Paragraphs
The opening of the story is the trickiest place to fill readers in, because there is so much to tell them. You can’t fill everything in at once, so good opening paragraphs always leave readers with questions.
The goal for the opening paragraphs is to:
- Offer information that makes people want to read more – without misleading them into thinking the situation is tenser or more novel than it really is. This is where that engagement information comes in.
- Give them enough context that the question they’re asking isn’t just “what the hell is going on?” It should be more specific, such as “how did this character end up in a pit full of crabs?” or “why is the main character battling their sister?” Because this is information the main character already knows, you’ll want to answer those questions as soon as it’s convenient.
- Provide the broad strokes of people and place, so they don’t feel jarred when important details end up being different than they initially assumed. Don’t leave them to think a “ship” is a water vessel if it actually moves through space.
- Don’t give them too much at once! Avoid making them learn more than two new names or terms per paragraph.
Unfortunately, it would be too much to cover how to do all of this in detail here, so I’d like to refer you to several other articles that dive further in on the topic:
- Planning Your Story’s Opening Passages
- Five Tips for Avoiding Disorientation in Your Opening Hook
- How to Teach World Terms Without Confusing Readers
Including Exposition for Engagement
Writers discuss exposition as though it’s always boring, but that’s not true. Exposition isn’t as immersive as action, but it gives us the freedom to include whatever we want. Sometimes, that will allow us to make a better hook. Many great openings are pure exposition, and a little exposition can often make action feel more compelling.
For instance, take the opening line of Elantris.
Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.
The “he had been damned for all eternity” part of this line is essentially exposition, because it is imparting information that isn’t happening here and now. In this case, the omniscient narrator is technically describing the main character’s ignorance here and now, but the difference is immaterial.
This is engagement information that tells readers the stakes of the problem. It’s necessary because the opening scene Sanderson planned starts with Raoden being unaware of the problem and then discovering it. That meant Sanderson needed foreshadowing to give his opening tension. Let’s say the book instead opened with Raoden waking up and looking at his hands in horror. In that case, exposition wouldn’t have been needed up front for tension, but a lot of it would have been needed shortly afterward to give the transformation some context.
Even if your unfolding action provides you with a good hook, exposition can often be used to make it tense or more impactful. For instance, you might start with your main character fleeing the guards. During the chase, you might exposit that your main character is carrying stolen medicine they need to cure a family member. If you don’t reveal this information until the main character administers the medicine to their family member, the chase won’t matter as much in the moment.
Look at your unfolding scene and check if it ticks off all the boxes it should for engagement information. By watching unfolding action, will readers know what the stakes of the situation are? Will they know why it’s urgent? If the answer is no, find a place to slip in a little exposition. Information supporting tension often only requires a line or two.
Exposition can also help with attachment. You might describe the protagonist’s sympathetic problems or their backstory with someone special. Of course, it’s nice to show these things in the scene, but we won’t always be able to do that. Besides time constraints, you might want to develop interest in a new character before they make a surprise appearance. Generally, exposition for attachment requires a paragraph, possibly more than one. More on that below.
Selecting Only the Details You Need
Once you’ve decided it’s time for exposition, remember that every word matters. When you offer extra details, you need to know what those details are intended to accomplish. If they aren’t accomplishing anything, they should be cut to reduce the reader’s cognitive burden and speed up the narration’s pace.
In many cases, writers like to include extra details because they invested lots of time creating a world full of nuance. Your world can be nuanced, but timing is important. When you first introduce story elements is not the time to unload a bunch of details about them.
For instance, let’s say your main character has just found signs that hostile elven scouts have camped in the woods nearby. The readers are just learning that elves exist, and it’s time to inform them that the elves will invade soon.
- Should readers know the name of the elf leader right now? Nope. Just say “elves,” and tell them about the elf leader later. Same goes for the name of the elf kingdom.
- Should readers know the elves have conquered all of the neighboring areas over the last hundred years? To some extent, yes. Referring to this vaguely could help make the elves feel threatening. Your goal here is to create tension, so that will help you achieve your goal. However, you shouldn’t name the neighboring areas. Giving a precise number of years for this history is also unnecessary. To sum it up, you might say: “One by one, all of their neighboring kingdoms had fallen to elven conquest. They were next.”
- Do readers need to know the exact boundary between the village’s territory and elven lands? Not unless the main character is right on that boundary. You can just say the elven scouts shouldn’t be so close to the village without explaining exactly what makes them too close.
If the primary purpose of exposition is to strengthen attachment or emotional impact, details can be essential. Again, when we discuss the showing vs telling spectrum, the important part is that showing takes more words but makes a bigger impression. In these cases, you’ll need some impact, so your exposition can’t be all the way on the telling end of the spectrum. Let’s look at the difference.
Anne had always helped Jamal when he needed it.
When Jamal was harassed by their coworkers, Anne had stood up for him, risking the wrath of their boss and HR to get him a safe environment. When Jamal got sick, Anne took time off of work and school to cook and clean for him. And when Jamal couldn’t afford rent, Anne’s home was his home.
If you need to quickly build attachment to Anne or her relationship with Jamal, that latter example is the type of exposition you’re looking for. It has brief details on specific incidents, making it more powerful than simply saying Anne previously helped out.
However, I still didn’t name the boss, state exactly how many years ago this happened, or give other unnecessarily specific labels or details. If I added more details, it would be to make it more evocative yet. Maybe instead of simply saying Anne cooked for Jamal, I might say she made him her signature pumpkin and sage soup.
Regardless of the information you need to communicate, it’s important to look at it closely.
Transitioning to Exposition
Finally, how do you stick exposition in your narration without it feeling super awkward? This is especially tricky if you’re using the unfolding events narrative premise, because the narration – including exposition – is supposed to reflect what your viewpoint character is experiencing in the moment.
The basic tactic is the same regardless. You’ll look for something in the narration that is vaguely related to the topic of your exposition. This doesn’t require having something physically present in the scene for the viewpoint character to look at. You only need to remind your narrator about the topic.
For instance, while seeing an empty elven campsite would obviously be a good segue into exposition about elves, you don’t have to go that far. Instead, the viewpoint character might be heading into the woods. This makes them think about what scary things they could encounter there, leading them to contemplate elves. Alternately, they could imagine the future of their town, leading them to worry the elves will attack.
If you want your viewpoint character to think about a loved one who isn’t present, they might have an object nearby that was a gift from that person. Alternately, they might be engaged in an activity that person had previously done with them. Perhaps some relevant words their loved one has said come to mind when those words are needed.
If you’re using unfolding-events narration, you’ll continue carefully building that chain of associations until you get to what you need to exposit about. The exposition represents the viewpoint character’s mind wandering, so you want it to feel natural. You don’t need to exclude everything the viewpoint character already knows. We think about things we already know plenty; we just have no reason to state them out loud.
Exposition in unfolding events also makes time pass in the story. So if you have a whole paragraph of exposition, make sure your viewpoint character is in a situation where they can actually pause to think about things. In the middle of dialogue, a fight scene, or between reaching for a jug and picking up that jug is not a natural place for an expository paragraph.
On the other hand, if your narrator knows they have an audience, then their exposition happens outside of the story’s timeline. This means you could give a three-paragraph rant in the midst of a sword swing if you wanted to, though that wouldn’t make your fight scene very exciting. Your transition to exposition can also be more purposeful and blatant. For instance: “My pendant was a gift from Rain. Oh right, I’d better introduce Rain. They’re my step-sibling, my mother’s child, though I hadn’t seen them very much since they went to university.”
Where possible, it’s better to break exposition into teensy bits that can be inserted as a single sentence or part of a sentence. This prevents the exposition from slowing the scene down too much, so you can dribble it in during dialogue or action. However, a half sentence doesn’t allow us to paint a more complex picture. It also requires more reminders of a topic, so it won’t always be practical.
If you’ve inserted multiple paragraphs of exposition in one spot, re-examine whether you really need to give readers all of that information immediately or if you can delay some of it until later. This doesn’t mean that we’ll never want to use multiple paragraphs, but if we can cut it down, we’ll be less likely to test reader patience.
When It’s Better to Skip Information
This is your reminder that sometimes it’s better to leave details vague and unspecified. If something is too complicated to explain or stretches believability, an explanation may create more questions than answers.
Let’s say your beta readers keep asking questions about something logistical in the story, like how the tech works, how a minor character traveled from point A to point B, or why food is rationed. You keep adding more clarifications to your explanation in the story, but it doesn’t seem to help. They’re just as confused as before.
In these situations, try scaling back. Take out your explanations and gloss over the subject matter. Don’t call attention to the workings of the tech or the travel of the minor character. That way, readers are less likely to ask questions in the first place.
Remember you can’t answer the questions of every single person. Don’t insert exposition to please a single beta reader. At least two people should be asking the same question, completely unprompted, before you consider that.
Case Study: The Blade Itself
The opening of The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie features a lot of fighting and little information. Informative description is missing and the exposition is limited and unclear. Readers know very little about the viewpoint character, Logen, or the world Logen inhabits.
Oddly, while the narrative is third-person limited, some of it is written as though Logen knows he has an audience. I’m tempted to convert it to a first-person retelling instead, but that would make exposition too easy for this exercise. As is, adding information requires care, or it will mess up the timing of the action.
Before we dig in, let’s look at the information that needs to be worked into the opening scene.
- Logen is an experienced adult, approximately in his thirties. He comes off very humble in this scene, which is great, but that could make readers think he’s young. I’ll aim to describe his skin so they know he’s white.* If possible, it would be good to communicate that he’s big and he has black hair.
- This is an other-world fantasy work, with a tech level similar to the European Renaissance. Because this is so common, the presence of non-Earth things plus a dagger or sword is usually enough to set the right expectations for that.
- The Shanka, or Flatheads, are basically orcs – evil ones, unfortunately. Abercrombie should have just called them orcs, but I won’t change that. However, referring to them by two different names in the opening scene, as he currently does, is unnecessary and confusing. They’ll just be the Shanka.
- Logen is out in the wilderness because he’s the leader of a small crew in exile. He is separated from his crew in the Shanka attack that happens just before the story opens. Specifying that they’re in exile will be useful for creating interest.
- To build more attachment to Logen, readers could use more emotional information. Years ago, Logen’s entire village was killed by the Shanka, including his wife and kids. He’s led a very violent life, which shows on his scarred body, and he’s coming to regret not making more of it or doing any good in the world.
Let’s look at the current opening paragraphs.
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly cut his chest open with his own axe, lay there panting, peering through the shadowy forest.
The Dogman had been with him until a moment before, he was sure, but there wasn’t any sign of him now. As for the others, there was no telling. Some leader, getting split up from his boys like that. He should’ve been trying to get back, but the Shanka were all around. He could feel them moving between the trees, his nose was full of the smell of them. Sounded as if there was some shouting somewhere on his left, fighting maybe. Logen crept slowly to his feet, trying to stay quiet. A twig snapped and he whipped round.
There was a spear coming at him. A cruel-looking spear, coming at him fast with a Shanka on the other end of it.
Abercrombie starts with a paragraph that establishes the environment and the urgency of the moment. Then he pauses for exposition in the second paragraph. The timing is fine, but the exposition is poorly done.
- Readers don’t need to know who the “Dogman” is. (It’s a member of his crew.)
- It’s also unclear who “some leader” is. I thought the Dogman was the leader rather than Logen.
- We don’t know what Shanka are, but at least it’s clear they’re enemies.
Then he returns to action as a Shanka attacks. He has no description of it, which keeps the pace tight, but readers will also want to know what they look like right away. That’s missing.
Let’s fix it. The first piece of information to work in is that Logen has pale, scarred skin. This will communicate he’s white, inform readers of his violent history, and suggest he’s old enough to be seasoned.
Ideally, this would fit into the first paragraph. Currently, the long sentences of that paragraph have a breathless feel, which is great for conveying the chaos and urgency of the situation. However, it makes it extra hard to insert description, and by the end of the paragraph he’s resting on his back. The breathlessness isn’t as appropriate there.
Below, I’ve reworked it.
Logen plunged through the trees, bare feet slipping and sliding on the wet earth, the slush, the wet pine needles, breath rasping in his chest, blood thumping in his head. He stumbled and sprawled onto his side, nearly splitting his chest open with his own axe, and laid there panting. The new cut in his side flared. Another scar in the works, all of them marking his pale skin as though he counted the days in blood. And being honest, he did.
I took out Logen peering at the trees at the end. Readers already know he’s in the forest, and he’ll look around during the next paragraph.
Since he’s a viewpoint character in unfolding-events narration, it’s easier to get Logen thinking about his appearance than to get him looking at himself. So I gave him a cut that would cause him to think about his scars. Since one of the goals here is to develop his character, I took the opportunity to emphasize the scars and put in a little self-reflection about it.
Next, let’s sort out paragraph two.
Logen crept slowly to his feet, wincing at the new cut. He peered through the trees, searching for movement. Where was his crew? Some leader he was, getting split up from his boys like that. Their exile hadn’t been easy, but his father had taught him better than this.
His nose filled with the smell of Shanka. Logen spotted them moving between the trees down the hill, half a dozen obsidian spears. The gray, flattened snouts crinkled as they bared their yellow tusks.
A twig snapped behind Logen, and he whipped round.
Logen now gets up at the beginning rather than the end of this sequence. This keeps the story moving forward, but more than that, looking around is a great prompt for more information. It’s more natural for him to wonder where the others are.
I removed “Dogman” and instead used the word “crew.” Without the extra name, it’s now clear that Logen is the leader. I felt I could spare another sentence to expand on Logen’s self-blame, so I worked in a mention of exile. Hopefully this will get readers intrigued about Logen’s history. Since Logen is known for thinking about his father, I included that.
Then it’s time to move on to the Shanka. Previously, Logen’s nose was already full of their smell. I switched it to a new development, moving things forward. I decided to let Logen get a glimpse of a few Shanka as an excuse for description. That way, I don’t have to work the description into a fast-paced moment. I specified that they held spears to clarify they’re humanoid, and using “obsidian” hints at a relatively low tech level.
Then, I added a paragraph break before the twig snapping to emphasize it. It’s a tense change, and I don’t want readers to overlook it.
While I’m itching to improve the wording of the third paragraph, I don’t actually need to work more information in there. So I’ve left it as is. Let’s look at the next excerpt.
“Shit,” said Logen. He threw himself to one side, slipped and fell on his face, rolled away thrashing through the brush, expecting the spear through his back at any moment. He scrambled up, breathing hard. He saw the bright point poking at him again, dodged out of the way, slithered behind a big tree trunk. He peered out and the Flathead hissed and stabbed at him. He showed himself on the other side, just for a moment, then ducked away, jumped round the tree and swung the axe down, roaring loud as he could. There was a crack as the blade buried itself deep in the Shanka’s skull. Lucky that, but then Logen reckoned he was due a little luck.
The Flathead stood there, blinking at him. Then it started to sway from side to side, blood dribbling down its face. Then it dropped like a stone, dragging the axe from Logen’s fingers, thrashing around on the ground, at his feet. He tried to grab hold of his axe-handle but the Shanka still somehow had a grip on its spear and the point was flailing around in the air.
First, there’s a paragraph with a lot of fast action. It could definitely use more paragraph breaks to help readers follow it. While the fast pace makes it a poor spot for exposition, it might be possible to add a touch more description of the Shanka, Logen, or of objects that help clarify the setting.
Next, we have a brief breather while the Shanka (Flathead) dies. This would be a good place to add a little more emotional reaction from Logen and insert some exposition that hints at his long history with the Shanka.
Below is my rework. For your convenience, I’ve bolded the places I changed.
“Shit,” said Logen. He threw himself to one side, slipped and fell on his face, rolled away thrashing through the brush, expecting the spear through his back at any moment.
He scrambled up, breathing hard. He pushed black, tangled hair from his eyes and saw the jagged point poking at him again. He dodged out of the way and slithered behind a big tree trunk.
He peered out and the Flathead hissed and stabbed at him.
He showed himself on the other side, just for a moment, then ducked away, jumped round the tree and swung the axe down, roaring loud as he could. There was a crack as the iron blade buried itself deep in the Shanka’s skull. Lucky that, but then Logen reckoned he was due a little luck.
The Shanka stood there, blinking at him with round yellow eyes, blood dribbling down its face. Logen stared back without relish. He could build a wall from their corpses, and had, in fact, but the people they’d taken were just as gone.
Then the Shanka dropped like a stone, dragging the axe from Logen’s fingers, thrashing around on the ground, at his feet. He tried to grab hold of his axe-handle but the Shanka still somehow had a grip on its spear and the point was flailing around in the air.
I figured having him push his hair out of his eyes just in time to see an attack would allow me to keep the tension and drama of the moment. Specifying that his hair is “tangled” fits the chaos of the moment while also telling readers that his hair is long enough to tangle. I specified the axe is iron to clarify steel isn’t yet in widespread use.
Then I added more description of the Shanka and removed the swaying to make room for Logen to stare back. That makes a great transition to some thoughts and exposition. I wanted to hint at Logen’s tragic backstory without making the grief feel fresh. Because this scene is surprisingly playful, I added “and had, in fact” to keep that up. It also further establishes his long history of violence.
You might have noticed that I’m not being very specific. Most of the time, I don’t have to be specific as long as I set the right expectations or evoke the right impression. However, I’m also limited by the pace of the fight, and a typical fight doesn’t require elaborate explanations to be understood. The big task is to make Logen interesting enough that readers want to keep reading about him after the fight is over.
As the fight continues, it offers a few more opportunities.
“Gah!” squawked Logen as the spear cut a nick in his arm. He felt a shadow fall across his face. Another Flathead. A damn big one. Already in the air, arms outstretched. No time to get the axe. No time to get out of the way. Logen’s mouth opened, but there was no time to say anything. What do you say at a time like that?
This is one of those moments when it feels like Logen is talking to an audience. The pacing is messed up, as there’s no way he could think all that in the second it takes for the Shanka to descend on him. Thankfully, a lot of this can be cut out, and “a damn big one” can be replaced with something that actually gives an idea of size.
“Gah!” squawked Logen as the spear cut a nick in his arm.
He felt a shadow fall across his face. A damn big Shanka, even bigger than Logen, soared through the air at him, arms outstretched.
I used “even bigger than Logen” to both clarify the Shanka are about the size of humans and suggest that Logen is big.
Next, Logen and the Shanka roll as they wrestle, sending them toward a nearby gorge. The only thing I might modify in this passage is swapping out a “knife” for a “dagger” to better cement this is a high-fantasy setting, but it probably isn’t necessary.
Let’s look at one last spot. Logen ends up dangling over the gorge with the Shanka hanging on his leg. Since this is a very tense moment, Abercrombie chooses to hit the pause button and extend it – a great choice. This gives him an opportunity to let Logen reflect on his life.
“Shit,” muttered Logen. It was quite a scrape he was in. He’d been in some bad ones alright, and lived to sing the songs, but it was hard to see how this could get much worse. That got him thinking about his life. It seemed a bitter, pointless sort of a life now. No one was any better off because of it. Full of violence and pain, with not much but disappointment and hardship in between. His hands were starting to tire now, his forearms were burning. The big Flathead didn’t look like it was going to fall off anytime soon. In fact, it had dragged itself up his leg a way. It paused, glaring up at him.
Even though Abercrombie has given himself space for some emotional content, it’s too vague. It could use more evocative specifics. And stating things like “It was quite a scrape he was in” is unnecessary, wasting time that could be used to share something that isn’t obvious.
“Shit,” muttered Logen.
He’d scraped through some bad ones, but this couldn’t get much worse. It looked like the end, and now that he thought on it, it was the end of a bitter, pointless life. A life where he slaughtered people he didn’t mean to kill. Returned too late to save the burnt husks of his wife, his kids, his father. Made men fear him, just so he could feel powerful. No one was any better off because of him.
Logen’s hands were starting to tire now, his forearms were burning. The big Flathead didn’t look like it was going to fall off anytime soon. In fact, it had dragged itself up his leg a way. It paused, glaring up at him.
I tightened the exposition and made it more specific about the things in his life that were pointless and bitter. In particular, I wanted to emphasize “No one was any better off because of him,” since that expresses his regret that he didn’t do anything constructive with his life. So I removed the exposition after it and added a paragraph break to put it at the end of a paragraph.
With that, I’ve added all the information I wanted to. With good planning, you can give yourself plenty of space for exposition even in a fight scene like this one.
If your story is quite simple, you might get away without careful information management. After all, storytellers already have a lot to think about. But many of us have complex ideas that we’re trying to fit in a low word count. If that’s you, great information management could be the difference between a story that sinks and one that swims.
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