No doubt many writers will be familiar with the rule “show, don’t tell”. New writers in particular often fall into the trap of “telling” too much – otherwise known as exposition – but it can crop up in the works of even seasoned writers. When you’re frantically getting your words down on the page as you draft, it’s all too easy to slip into telling too much. Some writers don’t realise they’re doing it, and find it even harder to identify it and sort it out when they’re revising a project. I wanted to provide a little guide on how to avoid exposition, as this is something I come across in books I edit all the time. Hopefully that’s heartening rather than discouraging – it’s something that every writer struggles with at some point, and the good thing is, there are plenty of solutions!
First off, as with any writing advice, “show, don’t tell” isn’t a solid rule. There’s a place for both showing and telling. It’s all about balance and knowing when to use one or the other:
- Showing for example is often more emotive. It lets the reader experience and really feel what’s happening; it makes things come to life. This is important in storytelling because most readers will come to your book wanting to have an experience, and showing allows you to give them that. But on the flipside, if you have an entire book of showing and no telling, the pace of a book can feel breakneck – pausing for telling can slow things down and give the reader some much-needed space to breathe.
- Telling is for informing – explaining something to your reader. It has its place, if you know when to do it. If you go overboard, though, it can sound clinical and has a tendency to make a novel read like an essay or a piece of non-fiction. Telling can take various forms: info-dumps, micro-level telling, and second-hand reporting.
How to avoid exposition
One of the common pitfalls of bigger-picture telling is info-dumps. This means dumping walls of text into your book that explain or summarise something. It usually comes in the form of backstory, world-building, or general history and events. Often it feels jarring and disrupts the flow of a story – readers can tell the author is forcing it in, because it may not sound like the character or fit the voice. It’s quite common when introducing a new character or setting, world-building, starting new chapters or scenes, and in first chapters.
My main piece of advice for fixing macro-level telling and info-dumping problems is to think in terms of scenes not summary as much as you can. As I mentioned before, though, there is a balance: not all instances of exposition and summary have to be turned into scenes, so it’s up to you to decide where you feel it’s needed and where you’re using excessive exposition.
Here are some common macro-level telling issues:
People in real life don’t tend to stand around summarising their pasts in their heads, or thinking about their entire life history. So if the first thing you do when introducing a new character is summarise their life – or even a portion of their life – your reader will likely fall asleep.
Aside from this, telling us everything about a character as soon as they’re introduced leaves us with nothing to discover. Readers want to learn things for themselves when they read a story, particularly about your characters – and they want to learn this by experiencing the story. Backstory info-dumps can lead to a novel feeling more like a biography than a story. A few workarounds would be: try to convey how past experiences have affected your characters instead of telling us about them. How have their experiences shaped their behaviour? For example, if you have a character with a history of panic attacks, a scene on a cramped bus or train could show us the full extent of that. It might lead to a scene with a therapist, where we learn a little more about how they’ve struggled with it in the past.
To decide whether a piece of backstory is important or crucial, think about whether it’s necessary in the current scene, whether your character would be thinking about it in that moment, and whether it’s crucial to drive the story forward. Quite often backstory is useful for planning out a novel, but much of it doesn’t need to make it into the final draft.
Events and second-hand reporting
Another common problem with telling on a macro-level is explaining scenes after they’ve happened (or reporting things second-hand), rather than having them unfold in real-time for the reader to experience. Crucial scenes to the story in particular should be unfolding in real-time, otherwise your reader will feel cheated out of an experience, or may even feel bored, particularly if the scene you’re reporting on after the fact was an exciting one they were looking forward to. Of course, some scenes that aren’t essential can be summarised; it’s all about using your judgement.
World-building and history
Fantasy is one of the main culprits when it comes to info-dumps and too much telling. Because there’s so much to convey, it can be easy to just throw in explanation after explanation: about the world and its history, the magic system, how the society works, etc. But you risk your fantasy novel sounding like a history book if you do too much of this, so it’s important to be sparing. My advice for this is much the same as it is for backstory: decide what’s relevant in the moment. Give the reader the absolute minimum. And if you can show it through a scene instead of summary, do so. If you need to explain the magic system, give us some battle scenes where we can see said magic in action and its effects.
Telling can exist on a micro-level too:
A common micro-level issue with exposition is telling us what your characters look like to an excess (“he had red hair, green eyes, and a trimmed beard, with a thick neck and wide shoulders”; “she had blonde hair and blue eyes and dimples in her cheeks, and she was tall and thin”). Descriptions can become more emotive and character-based if you show instead of tell – you could have your character fuss over their red hair, run their fingers through it, scratch their beard when they feel nervous. You could have your character smile at someone, showing off her dimples.
Emotions and traits
You might also describe or explain your characters emotions and traits: “she felt sad”, “he was falling into a depression and couldn’t climb out”, “she was a lovely person who loved to help people”. This method unfortunately doesn’t allow the reader to feel anything – and feeling something is what allows them to sympathise and connect with your characters. It may be easier to tell us how someone is feeling, or what they’re like, but it can feel hollow and detached.
It’s more emotive, and builds more of a connection between reader and character, to show. Everyone reacts to certain emotions differently – show us how your character behaves when they’re sad, on the verge of giving up, or when they’re depressed and struggling. Show us your character being helpful. Remember what I said about scenes not summary? You could give us a scene in which your character goes out for dinner with a friend to eat their favourite food – but can’t eat anything, or has to leave because they get tearful at a song that’s playing in the background. You could give us a scene where your character helps out a friend, or maybe they volunteer at a homeless shelter. When dealing with this type of telling, think about how your character would react to an emotion, or what behaviours display their personality traits, and show us those things.
Telling or over-explaining can be an issue in dialogue too – for example telling us that someone “said sarcastically”, “yelled angrily”, or “laughed heartily”. If you’ve already shown us something, try to resist telling us again – for example, if the dialogue you’ve written comes across as sarcastic already (“Oh, well, I never would have guessed that!”), you don’t need to tell us that the character said it sarcastically.
I hope this guide helped you to avoid exposition and too much telling in your book. It’s a tricky issue, particularly for new writers, and although it can be a daunting task, there are plenty of solutions and options available to you.
If you’re still concerned about exposition or info-dumping in your manuscript and want to hire an editor to help you fix it, check out my editorial services.