How to write a book · The writing business · Writer basics 101

Got to explain my story’s world… but how do I avoid exposition?

I have a client who has written an ambitious novel set in a dystopia. It’s a powerful idea, but he hadn’t made me understand the world. I was constantly confused about what the characters were doing and why the scenes he showed me were significant.

He explained he was trying to avoid exposition – for which he gets a stack of brownie points, if not actual brownies. But how should he fill the gaps?

Don’t even mention ‘prologue’

Neither of us even uttered the words ‘explanatory prologue’. I’m saying them here for the sake of completeness. A prologue describing the world is not, generally, a good way to captivate a reader. They want to plunge into the story and bond with characters, not sit down for a lecture.

What’s exposition?

Exposition is when the author tells the reader something they need to understand and is obvious about it. So a pair of characters natter about a subject they don’t need to talk about. ‘I have to go and clean the neutron drive, Susan. As you know, we’re on a big spaceship and have been for many months.’ Unless the line is to show an ironic character quirk, this is the author shoving his face between the characters.

Opposite of TMI

But if you give the reader too little context, they don’t know where they are or what anything means to the characters. Yours truly, Baffled.

Let me explain

The only sin of exposition is that it is unnatural. So you find ways to slip this material in without breaking the fourth wall.

If the world is new to the character, like Harry Potter’s entrance to Hogwarts, your task is simple. Get the reader curious, then show them all the mad stuff. But if the world isn’t new to the character, you have to be more subtle.

Here’s how George Orwell does it in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He begins with a tour of Winston Smith’s ordinary life. We have a day in April (relatable, familiar) and clocks striking thirteen (borderline normal, and strange enough to intrigue us). Winston is hurrying along in the wind to his grotty apartment block (normal). The lift is out of order (relatable) because of Hate Week (crikey, what’s that?). There’s a poster: ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ (intriguing and sinister). Inside his mostly familiar apartment is a telescreen, which he can’t turn off (weird). Outside his window there’s a sign in a distorted form of English (skewed and forbidding). He tries to find a place where the screen can’t see him (exactly as we might, because it isn’t nice being watched). Why is he hiding? To do something we take for granted – he is writing in a diary.

This sequence is explaining the world but it’s totally natural. (Historical novelists have to do it too.) It’s showing a piece of life that we would recognise, and intriguing us with what’s distorted. Even better, Orwell has added the character’s need: privacy to be himself. Because a world isn’t about things, it’s about people.

Information, information

At any time in a story, we might have to convey lumps of information that the characters know but the readers don’t – for instance, what spelunking is, how a horseshoe is made. Explaining a world is no different.

Exposition is simply when you do it badly.

Let’s have some more examples of authors who explain their characters’ worlds with style – share in the comments!

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40 thoughts on “Got to explain my story’s world… but how do I avoid exposition?

  1. I find that the most successful way of explaining the way worlds work is to show things being used and never to explain things the characters would need to explain in their own world – the way you break down the scene from 1984 is the perfect way of doing this. We are never drawn outside of the world to have things explained to us, but we see enough of that world to come to a growin recognition of how it works.

  2. When I’m writing high/secondary world fantasy, I translate the setting into the modern world and try to find contemporary analogies for everything. Then I ask myself, if this was a contemporary novel, what would the characters remark upon? What would catch their notice, and what would be just part of their world? It’s not a foolproof barometer, but it’s a good guide.

  3. I recently read a wonderful example of what you are talking about here. Hugh Howey did an amazing job of presenting his story world without exposition in his book “Wool.” He brilliantly reveals the external world and internal struggle of the main character while that character walks up a set of stairs. I was in awe of how he crafted that opening scene.

    When I wrote my first novel, I had been reading books on writing that warned over and over again not to do information dumps to explain your world. It is tempting to use exposition when one is writing fantasy and many things about the story world are unfamiliar to readers. However, the “using the characters viewpoint as a lens” approach Dan mentioned worked very well for me. The trick is to find the balance between too little information (confusion=bad) and too much information (boring=bad).

    My own maxim became, “Story world must be revealed, not related.”

    1. Hi Daniel! Explaining a world while walking up a flight of stairs? That has to be seen.

      As to your other point, some writing books can be a hindrance as much as a help (says she, who is boldly rattling off one of her own…). That’s why I don’t like to talk about writing rules because the proscriptions often fail to address the real principles. Your maxim seems good, and it’s very hard to judge if we’ve gone far enough or too far. When writers give their books to beta readers, one of the things I recommend is that they ask the reader to mark anywhere where they’re confused or felt they needed more information. They writer often has plenty more in their head but didn’t know whether to put it.

    2. “Wool” is amazing and short. I read it over a long lunch last week. I won’t read further in the series because of the kind of story it is (can’t say more without spoiling), but that didn’t prevent me from appreciating the skill of the storyteller.

      I definitely ask my beta readers to point out anything that confuses them or leaves them feeling unsatisfied. And thankfully, they do! I tend to write in “wire frame” and add detail in subsequent revisions, which is one reason my beta readers *never* see a first draft. However, I know my biggest writing sin is one of omission: I have to force myself to add more sensory detail to every scene. I suspect my non-fiction writing background is the source of that problem.

  4. Like Orwell’s Winston, Le Guin’s Genli is writing a diary (one way to reveal information) in Left Hand of Darkness, yet there is no information dump. It begins:

    “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

    Already we have interesting hints. Homeworld–now we have two unfamiliar worlds. Truth capitalized is intriguing. Truth as a matter of imagination impels us to find out more about this strange homeworld. Of course, the strange homeworld is Earth…curiouser and curiouser.

    1. Hi Deb! Nice example, and nice analysis. Especially with the contradiction in the line ‘Truth is a matter of imagination’. Diaries are useful devices, particularly when the writer is just starting one. They might be excused some self-conscious exposition – and then it becomes part of their character.

  5. I love that picture at the top! Is that globe yours, or are you in a museum somewhere?

    The problem I always have with exposition is that I seem to want less of it than other readers. I enjoy being baffled and dropped in at the deep end. Sometimes I even pick up the second in a series of books before the first because it’s more interesting to approach the world that way… But I imagine writers can’t allow themselves to write this way even if they share my tastes since too much of their target audience wouldn’t enjoy the result.

    1. Hi Dom! The picture was taken at Glenhurst House, a Georgian house that’s rented as a holiday let by the Vivat Trust. I thought the globe would be handy some day.
      You don’t mind being baffled? As you say, there aren’t many readers like you. I suppose I like to choose carefully what I want my readers to puzzle about. I don’t want them wasting mental power on questions about the world unless I feel it’s worth them asking those questions. Sometimes, of course, it might be.

      Hmm, thought-provoking comment. Which authors satisfy your desire to be playing catch-up?

      1. I don’t think any author does this consistently, because it doesn’t suit all books, but Frank Herbert springs immediately to mind (eg. “Dune” & “The Dosadi Experiment”), Storm Constantine sometimes (eg. “Calenture”), Steven Brust (“Jhereg” etc.), M.A.R.Barker (I’ll be amazed if you don’t have those in the house already!) and Paolo Bacigalupi (“The Windup Girl”)…

        …of course only now I start writing my list do I realise that all of these are SF or fantasy, so maybe that’s something to do with it?

        (As an aside – I definitely agree with your comment there that it matter which things the reader is left puzzled by. Not all kinds of mystery are equally fun.)

  6. Ooo, 1984 is a great example for this. Thank you so much for pointing it out!

    I’ve written an urban fantasy, where the world is new to the character (and theoretically easy for the reader to catch up), and several paranormal romances and one post-apocalyptic fairy tale, where the reader is just shoved into the characters’ lives. So I’ve had to write about worldbuilding both ways. Would you believe I found the “shoving” method easier? 🙂

    In my UF, I found myself in unending info dumps because the character would see and notice all these weird things at once. Whereas in my other stories, this world was normal to the characters so the character didn’t “notice” things (and I didn’t have to explain things) until they were relevant. Much easier to avoid info dumps that way. 🙂

    1. Hi Jami! Ah, the problem from the other side. And thanks for pointing it out – we don’t want too much of the character stopping to list everything they’re looking at. Probably best to shepherd them carefully so that they’re not confronted with too much noticeable stuff at once.

  7. A little exposition can go a long way. There can be such a thing as too little. I recently read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and you feel thrown right into a complex world with very little explanation. Without any exposition, the author assumes familiarity for the reader and the reader can be confused or feel alienated.

    Excellent article 🙂

  8. Hi Roz,

    There was an interesting show about screen writing a year or do ago in which Russell T. Davies quoted someone else who said “I’d rather be confused for 10 minutes than bored for 1”. He went on to chastise writers who start scenes with things like “Happy Wedding Day Sis!” In prose fiction I would add the sin of only describing people when the character stops and has a good think about what they look like. Do we really need to be limited to what’s in the forefront of the MC’s consciousness? What happened to the invisible narrator just slipping us details?

    For a writer who avoids exposition and keeps you interested, I refer you once again (I think I mention him everytime this crops up) to Colin Greenland. Daybreak on a Different Mountain assumes you know as much as the characters. I recently read Other Voices by the same author and it immerses you in a similar way.

  9. Two of my beta readers said they were overwhelmed with the alienness of my alien world/culture however once they got past the first couple of chapters they loved it. Now my editor is going nuts trying to find a way to ease into the alien whilst retaining the ‘no exposition’ rule. I’m just plain nervous.

  10. Hey Roz, I think this is very similar to ‘show don’t tell’. My friend and fellow author Nicky Peacock are members of a writers’ group and we have to explain the meaning of this a lot. It’s all very well to say that your character is frightened but much better to say that her heart was thumping, beads of sweat peppered her brow and her breathing became shallow as she strained to hear any unfamiliar sounds.
    i had no idea what exposition was though. Glad I read your blog now, they say you learn something every day 🙂
    Julie 🙂

    1. Hi Julie – as I was writing this post, I was thinking the very same. So much of writing comes from showing – or sharing the experience. And sometimes not, of course.
      Exposition is one of those terms where you realise you know what it means – you just didn’t know the word for it!

  11. Good rule of thumb is to remember Basil Exposition from Austin Powers. If you’ve got a character who’s purely there to announce facts for the benefit of your MC you’re in trouble. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making minor characters a vehicle for information, just as long as that’s not the only thing they’re doing. If you ever read Lord of the Rings (perhaps in your dotage when all other options are exhausted) you’ll find he’s peppered his story with info dump characters, but they’re interesting in their own right.

    Ta for now!

    1. Hah, one of my ideas for illustrating this post was a picture of Basil! I have to admit I’ve never been tempted by LOTR, and your comment suggests I’ve already said this at some point. But I know the trope well – wise but cranky figure who acts as a bit of a tour guide at some stage on the character’s journey. Does the crankiness make up for the obvious exposition…..?

  12. Hi Roz, I really enjoyed this article, as I’m writing an historical romance and bringing in all the information I’ve gleaned is a trap I’m constantly watching for. It’s so easy to fall into a big waffle about some farming practice or other, and have it all sound contrived and unnatural.
    Thanks 🙂

    1. Thanks, Paula. I just read Andrew Miller’s Pure, and he sketched his world with a masterfully light touch. We open with the character going for an interview in the Palace of Versailles (just before the French revolution). The whole palace is a strange environment as the character is a miner from a faraway village. Footmen come and go. A woman is brought past, lying horizontally on a litter, with purple hair piled up on her head. At this point, the character is lost and Miller remarks: ‘she did not look like the kind of person to ask for directions’. Every detail is strange and wonderful.

  13. I think Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE is one of the most masterful examples of this. Her dystopian universe is explained and evidenced via small, domestic details — the narrator’s simple shopping trip at the beginning of the book sets up so much horror for the reader at Offred’s complete and utter disenfranchisement, but does so very subtly and appropriately, given that the main character is defined so completely by her imposed domesticity/role as a forced reproductive surrogate. Atwood also does a tremendous job of comparing/contrasting the narrator’s life pre- and post-government takeover, without resorting to long, cumbersome flashbacks — the poignant, heartbreaking reminiscences occur naturally and organically, which make them even more devastating.

    1. That’s a fantastic example, Jenn. Margaret Atwood is another writer with a very deft touch. Details are one of her hallmarks, but part of the pleasure is also the use she puts them to. I’d forgotten about this but you’ve made me want to look at it again.

    2. Oryx and Crake is excellent as well. She knows how to build a world without worldbuilding, or what M. John Harrison calls “The clomping foot of nerdism.” He’s another sci-fi writer doing ti right.

  14. William Gibson does it the best I’ve seen. From Neuromancer to All Tomorrow’s Parties, there are deep worlds there, but most of it is created by the reader based on tangible examples he provides. Concrete and significant detail as they say,

  15. I think sci-fi tends to allow for worldbuidling as a genre. I’m not personally interested in knowing the deep backstory of everything, but some sci-fi readers are. To me that’s a lack of craft, but it really works for some fans. It’s one of those tropes I guess, which all genres have. Gibson, M. John Harrison, Atwood, they don’t do it. Not coincidentally their novels are usually among the best in any genre.

  16. Hi Roz, this is a great post and I love Orwell’s 1984. It’s a great reminder to stay inside the lens of the character and not wander into the murky waters of explaining. The reader automatically switches off if that happens and it does, all too often! I love the globe, by the way.

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