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  • Writer's pictureNicole Arch

3 Tips to Avoid the Dreaded Exposition Dump

Updated: May 5, 2023

As a writer, you know your characters. You know the complex web of relationships and history that informs every decision your protagonist makes. But your readers don’t… and imparting this background information naturally can be a struggle for new and experienced authors alike. This article will cover everything you need to know about the dreaded “exposition dump,” including how to avoid them in your own writing!

a bulldozer dumping 3 phrases together: "irrelevant or inorganic exposition," "lengthy exposition," and "summary-style exposition." Above the bulldozer reads "3 Tips to Avoid the Dreaded Exposition Dump."

So What Is Exposition Dumping?

Exposition dumping, also known as information dumping, occurs when the writer gives the reader a huge chunk of information all at once, usually in the form of backstory, world-building, or explanation. These “dumps” can break up the forward momentum of the story, pulling the reader from the present moment action and conflict and leaving them feeling overwhelmed instead of immersed.

For some writers, exposition dumping is especially prevalent in early drafts. After all, that’s when you’re trying to do the work of fleshing out your characters and understanding what makes them tick! First drafts are all about you, the author, and getting your words on the page. If making a point-by-point summary of your world’s magic system, explaining the last hundred years of military conflict, or writing out your character’s whole life story will help you get to the end of your initial draft, then exposition dump away! Just remember that if your first draft is all about you, the author, then revision is all about your readers. Once you start revising and self-editing, you need to shift your focus to keep your audience in mind. And while exposition dumping may have been helpful for getting your initial words on the page, huge chunks of summary or information tend to make for a less than riveting read.

But How Do You Avoid Exposition Dumping?

There are a lot of great tips and tricks for avoiding exposition dumps out there, and you'll find that which ones work best for you often vary depending on the context. You'll also notice, however, that the basic principles of these tricks remains fairly consistent. You just want to aim to keep your exposition 1) in scene, 2) relevant and organic, and 3) concise.

"In Scene" Exposition

Readers are coming to your novel to immerse themselves in your story—in the life and perspective of your character. That’s where writing “in scene” comes in. By describing what your character experiences in real time, as the action unfolds, you allow your reader to experience what’s happening to your protagonist as if it’s happening to them instead! In contrast, writing “in summary” involves, well, summarizing your story for the reader: explaining or telling things that already happened to your characters instead of showing your audience that experience through a scene. If you constantly summarize action, backstories, worldbuilding elements, or other parts of your story, your reader won’t feel like they’re immersed in the novel. They’ll feel like they’re reading a diary entry or textbook.

That’s not to say that summary isn’t important—it is! But most times, when considering the balance of writing in scene versus summary, you want to favor the former. For example, let’s say you always explain your different magical classes directly, summarizing how their powers are different. Instead, consider writing a scene where your protagonist observes or interacts with someone of a different magical class. You can have the new character share their guild information, fail a potions class assignment, or even demonstrate their unique abilities! Whatever the case, such a scene lets you move the plot forward while still getting the differences in magical specialties across—now in a much more exciting and dynamic way! Aiming to stay in scene, even though you’ll still use some summary, will help you better engage your reader and avoid exposition dumping.

Relevant and Organic Exposition

Generally, as people, we don’t go around thinking about our entire life stories, deeply analyzing familiar surroundings or contexts, or otherwise mentally explaining information we take for granted. That’s part of why exposition dumping can feel so unnatural and jarring. When characters explain something solely for the reader’s sake, without any real reason to be reflecting the topic themselves, the audience feels like they’re being force fed information by the author instead of being immersed in the character’s perspective and internal struggle.

If you find yourself dumping whole backstories or world building explanations on the reader at once, instead consider how relevant and organic a given piece of exposition is in the scene at hand. Sure, knowing that your protagonist’s mom died recently may be relevant to the story as a whole. But would she really explain the details of how it happened to herself, unprompted, when she already knows how it all went down? Probably not… and almost certainly not during the middle of her job interview. So don’t drop this information on the reader at random. Instead, try to weave in exposition that’s relevant to the scene at hand. For example, maybe this job was her mother’s dream position, or maybe the interviewer says or does something that reminds your protagonist of her mom. But even then, she’s likely not going to spend long reflecting on her loss in this situation (on the contrary, she may be trying to cope with her pain by avoiding the subject altogether). You want to keep your exposition organic to your character, so that your character's perspective and story, in turn, feel real to your audience. Prioritize what feels natural for your character in the moment, and trust the reader to fill in the blanks until you can give more context later. Who knows? Letting some things remain unexplained, at least initially, can even build intrigue. Most importantly, focusing on relevant and organic exposition will help you keep characters and perspective realistic while avoiding exposition dumping.

Concise Exposition

As an author, you generally want to keep your reader’s focus on your present moment action and conflict—because that suspense is what’s engaging your audience, motivating them to keep turning pages. If you confront your reader with paragraph after paragraph (or even page after page) of background information, you risk them losing the sense of tension and, with it, their desire to continue reading.

If you tend to write dense chunks of background information, challenge yourself to break these up into smaller, more easily-digestible fragments. For example, let’s say your protagonist bumps into their ex, and you immediately summarize their entire romantic relationship for the reader. Sure, some of this information may be relevant to the scene… but again, the reader probably doesn’t care to read five pages of it all at once. Instead, try just mentioning that they’re exes and leaving it at that. Or, for some added drama, use the tiniest snippet of exposition to characterize the exe, nod at whatever caused their breakup, or hint that your protagonist still isn’t over the relationship. But cut pretty much everything else. You may find that much of this background information isn’t actually that necessary—though you can always move any important bits somewhere else, so long as they’re still relevant and organic in their new scene. In short, prioritize keeping your exposition concise, when possible, to keep your reader rooted in the current moment and conflict.

Final Thoughts

Exposition is important to making your world and characters feel realistic... but exposition dumping has the opposite effect, pulling your audience from their immersion and sense of reality. By striving to write exposition that is "in scene," concise, and relevant and organic, you'll dodge this dreaded pitfall, instead providing necessary information without bumping the reader from your character's perspective and conflict. And if you still find yourself struggling with exposition as you revise, consider pursuing a content edit! You'll receive expert feedback that's custom-tailored not just to your project, but to each individual scene and piece of exposition.

Still Have Questions?

Let me know! I'm always happy to answer comments, or you can reach out to me at my contact page.

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