How to utilize exposition and context in a novel

From Nathan Bransford:

Striking the right balance with exposition in a novel is a really crucial and difficult-to-master skill.

On the one hand, the reader needs to have enough information to understand what’s happening in a story, and it’s very easy for an author to lose sight of what is and isn’t on the page. On the other hand, we’ve all read aimless and boring infodumps that feel like they were more fun for the author to write than they are for us to read.

So how do you provide just the right information at just the right time? Here are some tips for utilizing exposition and weaving context into the narrative.

Forget about “show don’t tell”

Many writers go astray with exposition because they are misapplying the old writing canard “show don’t tell” and think it’s somehow against the rules to provide exposition or context. (For what it’s worth, I think “show don’t tell” has more to do with the way characters react to things).

Let’s get this out of the way first: It’s okay to just provide the reader with the information they need to understand what’s happening.

Sometimes writers think they’re being pedantic when they explain unfamiliar concepts, but the reader isn’t going to light up a red buzzer on you for “breaking” a “rule.” They’re going to be too busy appreciating that they now know what the unfamiliar concept is so they can just get on with enjoying the story.

If you don’t provide this context, things the reader doesn’t understand can pile up and pile up and it starts to feel exhausting because we can’t get our bearings within the story.

The crucial principle for exposition

So how and when do you provide exposition and context in a novel?

Here’s the crucial principle: The information is tied to specific events happening in the plot at the time of the explanation.

In other words, the key is that the information helps the reader understand the present narrative that’s currently unfolding in the story.

If the exposition or context helps us make sense of what’s happening in the novel right now? Great.

If the information is just being dumped on us just because “it will become important later?” Chances are it’s going to feel aimless, smushed in, and confusing and the reader will be tempted to skim ahead until they get back to the actual story.

We don’t need static introductions to characters or settings just for the sake of introducing them

When I’m working with authors on edits, often the first fifty pages of a novel will feel very aimless because all we’re doing is meeting characters and places for the sake of meeting them, but the story doesn’t get going until later.

Again: if we’re only getting the information because “it will become important later,” it’s going to feel meandering and a bit pointless. This is what people mean by “infodumps.” It’s information that’s disconnected from a story.

Trust that you can introduce characters and settings when they become important to the present narrative. Otherwise, if you’re trying to show a character’s life prior to the inciting incident, consider a mini-quest to give the opening some momentum, which will feel much more active than an opening infodump.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

15 thoughts on “How to utilize exposition and context in a novel”

  1. Seeking or accepting writing advice from a person who’s written only three novels is a bit like allowing a first-year medical student to remove one’s appendix or a first-year law student to defend one against a capital murder charge. Just sayin’.

    • Advocating for the dude downstairs:

      “Wouldn’t that depend on how good the works are? 😉

      Not everybody is pulp speed or tremenously prolific.
      The Fitzgerald guy only wrote four novels, Tolkien four(?) with the longest broken into pieces by the publishers.

      Just sayin’…

      Me, I’ll listen to everybody and make up my own mind.

      • “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
        ― W. Somerset Maugham

        Here are the three rules to writing… 😉

        1. Do what works – corollary you have to learn what works.

        2. Don’t do what doesn’t work – again one has to learn this.

        3. To be a writer one needs to read – reading is learning, writing is practice.

        The above is slightly tongue in cheek. Just saying.

      • Good answer. But these young (in the craft) writer’s don’t listen to everybody and then make up their mind.

        They listen to the glut of “authorities,” many of whom don’t write novels at all, who parrot what the writers have always heard (outline/signpost/plot, revise, receive critiques, rewrite, polish). Very few ever realize writing doesn’t have to be the labor those folks make it out to be.

        But the familiarity of the advice comforts them, calms their unreasoning fears, and validates their process, which in most cases doesn’t work.

        Revising and rewriting are the result of the writer’s conscious mind protecting him or her. The longer they put off finishing and submitting or publishing, the longer they put off being rejected.

        And seeking critiques is just silly. As I wrote in a recent post (, having your work critiqued is not a way to learn anything about the craft. It’s how you learn to write something in a way that pleases the person who offers the critique. Nothing more.

        But all of that is fine, of course. How others write or don’t doesn’t affect my bottom line. I just like to take the opportunity when it arises to point out there’s an easier, more fun, less drudgery-evoking way to do it.

  2. You forgot the Silmarillion 🙂

    On the flip side, I was looking at reviews an hour ago for a book by a prolific and famous author. The one – to – three star reviews highlighted characterization and storytelling flaws that reveal the author is annoyingly simple-minded. From the sound of it the author is terrible at writing characters, and character relationships. I wouldn’t take advice from that author, no matter how many books that author publishes.

    But anyway, I land on quality over quantity as well. If a writer does atmosphere very well in a given book, then study how they did it. Someone else writes great dialogue, study the book where they did it. And editors and critics can make themselves useful if they’re able to break down why some technique or element works in a particular story, and explain how other writers can use those techniques and elements.

    The key is always to look at the advice and ask, “Does it work?”

    • I credit Christopher with SILMARILION.
      He put in the sweat making a book out of the notes and scribbles.
      That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 😛

      • Oh, fair enough. The indefatigable and faithful Christopher should have his due for his part as well.

  3. Here’s the crucial principle: The information is tied to specific events happening in the plot at the time of the explanation. …

    I agree. And here’s a bonus tip: do it at the first instance. I sometimes catch myself giving an explanation—that is, “showing” it—at a later point in the narrative when I should have done it up front at the 1st.

    (and I’m only working on fifth novel, so take it for what it’s worth 😉

  4. In one of my series, a fantasy with multiple national locations, I wanted to highlight the cultural differences by treating concepts unique-to-a-place with the local word. This is a tricky thing to do in world-building without annoying a reader.

    In English, most people without a linguistics background forget the origins of our immense borrowed wordhoard. We remember some borrowed words as still-foreign, naming a foreign thing, even if they conform to English formation rules (e.g., yurt), but other foreign terms are fully digested and have lost their sense of foreignness (e.g., suture). The degree to which we are conscious of foreign origins varies according to our education and background (does “khaki” conjure up the dust of India for you, or is it just a color?).

    I am interested in languages and have studied accordingly, so I am often thrown out of a created-world fantasy by some author’s use of a term which still bears (for me) an indelible mark of “no, no — that comes from…” , a problem that clearly is no longer active for the author, though it is for me.

    All of this is a preamble for one way of treating exposition — the foreign-to-your-reader term. What I found was that introducing the term as foreign to the POV character by italics (as we might do for any phrase in a foreign language today) with a casual in-passing synonym present in the surrounding dialogue or narrative gets the job done. As always, however, less is more: flavor is good, but too much salt is still too much. It’s easy to overdo.

  5. @Karen (the reply didn’t nest for some reason):

    As an example, do you mean something akin to not having medieval Japanese characters “cement” an alliance, but rather to “seal” one? Whereas, the Roman characters do cement alliances? Or, even though the centurions may be wearing “puttees” (as British historians call them), you just say “leg wrappings” because they’re not in India? I noticed one historical writer made sure Cleopatra Selene served “hot mint water” and not “mint tea” because tea requires tea leaves, and Selene wouldn’t have known about tea in Augustinian-era Mauretania.

    • Yes, that’s pretty much the problem.

      Anachronisms in words (time period issues) or memorials of the mundane world’s history (words borrowed from conquered people or trading partners who have no existence in the “created-world” or period of the work) are just as disturbing to those of us who notice them as Regency Romance novels that don’t understand the world of servants, chaperones, inheritance, old plumbing/heating/lighting technologies, class structures, agricultural tech progress, etc.

      It makes those created-worlds unconvincing by calling attention to the inadequacy of the stage scenery. And it’s almost always avoidable, if the author has any idea what they’re doing (and does a bit of research where necessary). I’d ascribe most of the occurrences to laziness, but really it’s an inadequate education or failure in research at its foundation.

      There’s always a certain blindness involved. I just finished reading a fantasy book by an otherwise reasonable author where she uses, several times, the phrase “she could have cared less” in the modern slang sense of ironically implying the negative of the phrase. No author currently writing can possibly be young enough not to have lived through the development of that slang phrase as a humorous extension of the original “she couldn’t have cared less.” But she’s forgotten that this is a nonce usage that’s only a few years old, and highly specific to a current culture that has nothing to do with her created world, and where a “straight” read of the phrase would make nonsense of what she means. It screams “I am an author writing in this modern year in this place”, not someone trying to present an otherworld. This is a form of tone-deafness that seems to need editors/beta readers to fix, if it can be fixed.

      • This is a form of tone-deafness that seems to need editors/beta readers to fix, if it can be fixed.

        The ones who spot such errors are worth their weight in gold, I say.

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