Like any new writer (and maybe any old writer?), I regularly fall prey to the exposition trap, or info dump. I feel I need to set the stage, so I end up writing paragraph after paragraph, if not page after page, of backstory. My first flash fiction piece was 1000 words of exposition.
Not surprisingly, editors haven’t accepted my stories containing lots of exposition. Benjamin Kinney, an editor at Escape Pod, always provides me with one or two sentences of critique when rejected a story. For two such stories, the critique focused on too much exposition bogging the story down.
When I reviewed those stories again, he wasn’t wrong. One began with four pages of exposition, the other a modest two. I revised this latter story to spread out the exposition. A little at the beginning, a little in the next scene, and then the remainder in a third scene. And the story is better for it.
The story with four pages of exposition is more of a hard sci-fi story, and I’m struggle with how to avoid the info dump. Then I saw this article published by Writers Digest.
First, I’m pleased that others recognize how difficult it is to avoid the info dump in sci-fi. When a writer cannot assume a reader knows certain things about a setting or even a people, more exposition is needed for a reader to understand the where, when, how, and who of a story. That’s the problem faced when writing sci-fi. The story often doesn’t take place in the here and now with the usual suspects. It takes place in the future, on a planet in a distant solar system, inhabited by four-armed aliens.
Second, page after page of exposition used to be the norm. I recall many classic sci-fi stories written this way. I remember entire chapters of exposition, and that didn’t bother me. Apparently, that’s not what readers (or is it just the editors?) want to see now. Readers are writers’ customers. If we don’t satisfy our customers, we don’t get published. So now we writers must be more sophisticated with our exposition.
Remember the flash fiction piece I mentioned above that was all exposition? One beta reader pointed out that issue and suggested I expand the story by telling it from the viewpoint of the antagonist, who was mentioned only in passing. That’s what I did, and I’m pleased with where the story went. I even added to that story, which is part of the novella I planned to submit to Tor earlier this month. Alas, as noted in Post #34, I didn’t quite nail down the ending to that expanded story; so it remains a work in progress. Once I do, I believe I’ll have a better novella ready for submission somewhere.
I also began revising the story with four pages of exposition. I took the paragraphs in those pages and spread them, one or two at a time, throughout other scenes. I haven’t yet cleaned up the flow of those paragraphs. Right now they read like someone picked them up from elsewhere and dropped them wherever they landed, which is mostly true. It’s on my to do list, and once again I believe the story will be better for it.
I have a plan for the next time I write a piece with an intricate backstory or complex setting or characters. I’ll write out the exposition but keep it to the side. Then, as I draft the story, I’ll drop in pieces of that exposition as I go. I did something similar when drafting the sequel to the story with four pages of exposition. Since I already knew the backstory, I could easily insert that in nuggets as I went along drafting the new story. This technique made writing the sequel much easier. I hope the same holds true when drafting a completely new piece.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve struggled with how to handle exposition and how you mastered it (or still are working to master it).
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