The Need to Know

In the series following on from the tongue-in-cheek article Twelve Rules of Writing, we are up to rule 9 and the subject is exposition.

Here’s Rule 9 for those who need a reminder or who missed it first time around:

9. How should I deal with exposition?

Here the old ways are best, I’m afraid.  First tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Then tell them.  Then tell them what you’ve told them.  If they haven’t got it by then they should be reading something simpler.

But isn’t the rule: Show, Don’t Tell, I hear you ask? A simple question: do you tell a story or show it? Showing is for dogs and horses.

Exposition is a key part of writing, especially in Fantasy where the world you are portraying may not function like the real world. Often the plot and character action is driven by the difference between the real and imaginary world, and the temptation to explain what the differences are and why they’re there is enormous.

If you give in to temptation, though, what emerges is flat and uninteresting explication, and in the worst cases all sense of the story is overwhelmed by the author explaining some aspect of the world directly to the reader through the voice of one of the characters. It’s as if they’re saying, “I had to work all this stuff out, so you’ll have to listen to me explaining it”.

Of course, no-one sets out to write a story in this way. They set out to tell the wonderful story in their head, but in order to tell it they get bogged down in detail and the tale is overwhelmed by exposition.

Look for these tell-tale signs:

One character explaining to another character something they should both already know.

“Bob, do you remember when we were young and we used to go up to the old Slater place and look for those special mushrooms that we used to take home and cook in butter and herbs? Do you remember how strange they used to taste, Bob?”

There is no purpose to this conversation. Bob already knows about the mushrooms and the only reason to mention them is so that the reader knows too. However, it may be essential for the reader to know about the mushrooms for the purpose of the plot, so getting the information across becomes important. This can be achieved by bringing in new information, and adding conflict.

“Now you listen to me, Bob. You got to stop eating the mushrooms from the old Slater place. They’ve changed somehow. They ain’t the same as they were when we were kids, and if you think I’m donating one of my kidneys when yours stop working, you got another thing coming.”

Long passages of factual information (will there be a test later?).

The castle stood on a basalt outcrop riven by time and etched with the passing of years, formed when the world was young from the extruded molten rock from the volcano beneath it, which cooled and solidified to form the foundations seen now as the dark rocks of the….etc. etc.

If you find yourself writing long descriptive passages with dense factual information, ask yourself: If I take it out, does the story suffer? If not, it’s fine to keep it in to give you a strong mental picture while you are writing it, but lose it at the edit stage. If the reader really does need to know this, make it immediate and personal and keep it to the relevant information.

As Jamie trudged up the long path to the castle at the top of the high outcrop, he could feel the heat from the black rock through the soles of his thin sandals. Sweat ran in to his eyes as he peered up at the high walls, the heat of the day reflecting dully from the igneous basalt.

Sections which detail quantity or measurement.

The river crossing was particularly difficult as the banks were now seventy two yards apart and the river over ten feet deep in the centre, and though there was a ferry, it cost four crowns and three shillings, which was more than the three crowns, twelve shillings and fourteen pennies that Karum had in her purse.

As a writer, you need to trust your reader’s imagination and let them do some of the heavy lifting for you. Ask yourself, do they really need to know how wide the river is, or how deep? Would the character be able to measure it, and if so, to what purpose? Aren’t they more likely to make a snap assessment?

Karum emerged from the trees onto a wide pasture, a water meadow where cattle grazed when the river was not in flood. Even though at this season the river flowed within its banks she could see that it was too deep to ford. She emptied her purse into her open hand. It would not be enough for the ferryman. She would have to find some other way.

Passages which rely on ‘because’ or ‘for the reason that’ or even ‘in spite of’:

In spite of the ancient custom that men would never wear hats in the temple, Jim’s father refused to doff his cap within it’s precinct because the shiny pate of his head would catch the light from the golden statues in the courtyard, making his bald head look yellow.

This lacks the immediacy and conflict to bring it to life. If the tradition of removing hats in the temple is somehow important to the plot, then it has to come out through conflict, perhaps in dialogue:

“Take your cap off,” whispered Jim.
Jim’s father looked into the courtyard where the golden statues reflected the afternoon sun. He looked at the back of his hands. The yellow light already tinted his skin a sallow and sickly colour. He could feel the sweat on his bald pate under the cap.
“I’ll leave it on. It’ll be fine,” he said.
“No hats in the temple, Dad. What’s the matter?”
“It’s nothing. You go on ahead. I’ll wait here.”
“We’re only here because of you. Take it off.”


The use of a prologue to set the scene is particularly prevalent in fantasy. Usually it involves the settling of some ancient conflict which then has consequences for the characters of the story many years later. Setting aside the cliché, we should look at the reason a prologue is used. Most often it is to explain what the story is about so that the actions of the characters can be seen by the reader in the context of that ancient conflict.

This is exposition, placed boldly, right from the first page, and is likely to result in rejection from publishers and agents, who see this a lot and will be unlikely to read on to discover how original and brilliant the rest of the story is. But if your story relies on an ancient and forgotten conflict to explain the actions of your characters, how do you deliver that explanation without resorting to exposition?

For this we turn to the secret intelligence services for inspiration.

The Need to Know

Adopt the MI5 approach and deliver information on a need-to-know basis. Only explain back-story (using the techniques outlined above) when the character has earned the right to know and has an urgent and pressing need for that knowledge to guide their actions.

This has a number of advantages:

It makes the revelation timely and relevant, slotting into the story in a way that feels natural for the character, and adding depth as a new context is revealed for the events to that point.

It avoids the reader having to memorise the detail in the book in order to enjoy it – after all, this isn’t supposed to be a memory test. Your reader may have to put the book down for a week or a month, and it would help if when they picked it up again they didn’t have to start leafing back through it to understand what’s happening.

It allows the characters to discover the information through the events of the story rather than having it explained, leading to mystery culminating in revelation. This is a powerful tool for story-telling, which builds empathy between the characters and the reader as the reader asks themselves; if I discovered that, what would I do?

All this comes back to showing the reader what’s happening through the actions and discoveries of the characters, rather than telling them through exposition or by narrating through a character voice. Letting the story emerge at its own pace allows you to increase the suspense and develop depth and complexity, so that the characters shine through.

So it seems that showing is not just for horses and dogs after all, but for authors too.

  1. #1 by Scooter Carlyle on February 19, 2011 - 3:24 am

    Excellent! I had noticed my fantasy novel had exposition up the wazoo. I’ve just begun to cut and rephrase it, and while I was able to fix some of it on my own, this helps me quantify the problem clearly and fix the infodumps in different ways.


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