How to Hide Exposition Through Action

I was reading a draft of a friend's novel, and in one of the chapters, it was critical for a character in the chapter to explain something. Ah, the dreaded telling. The thing every teacher you've had from middle school on has told you to avoid. But the fact is, telling is a necessary device for progressing a story. If telling was not allowed, we'd all be writing plays and screenplays. The trick is using it infrequently and hiding it. 

So, back to my friend's chapter. It was a political backstory that needed to be conveyed. As written, the character stood before a crowd of thousands of people and delivered a speech that was essentially exposition and backstory. Fine, dialogue as a means to convey backstory and to get some exposition out there is cool. But the problem here was that the speech was essentially three pages long. Not as fine, right? 

Before we get into my proposed solution for this specific case, let's talk about, in general, how you can avoid running into these situations in your writing. There are some key guidelines that will help you along the way, and if you ever find yourself in telling hell (I imagine this is where kindergartners endlessly explain a toy they got over the weekend during show and tell), you can refer back to these and restructure. Show and hide your way out of that sticky point of telling too much. 

Don't let any MFA program or writing instructor tell you that you should ONLY be showing.

Just Do Something

This is perhaps the simplest solution to an exposition-heavy section of a story. Make the character do something. They can't just be sitting around thinking or talking about the backstory so that the reader is conveniently brought up to speed on things. A) That's boring. B) You're allowed maybe one or two coincidences in your story before a reader bails on you. A character info-dumping at just the right time to educate the reader is, in fact, coincidence. 

So, give the character purpose. Give her a reason to be explaining something, but more than that, give her a goal. Let's use the example from my friend above. A character must deliver a political speech that has the goal of catching the reader up on backstory. What if that character isn't standing and delivering a speech? What if the character is rummaging around in a dark office, practicing the speech while also digging through drawers and files that are clearly not hers? 

That's action. That's hiding the exposition. But, of course, the things the characters do have to matter. 

Do The Right Thing(s)

In the above example, does it make sense for the character to be practicing the speech while breaking into someone's office to steal paperwork? No? Then don't do that. Make your character's action match the needs of the story. Think about what the character wants. In the above example, the character wants power and will take that power through backchannels as well as traditional political channels. The exposition delivered (in this case) through dialogue can happen while the character does something far more powerful than deliver a speech. 

Don't think about catching the reader up when writing passages like this. Think about your characters. What should they be doing? Once you know this, make them do it and work the backstory in naturally. 

Break It Up

Speaking of natural introductions to backstory, the delivery mechanism that tends to work best is not the dreaded info-dump. Instead, the method that feels more natural is a backstory that comes across multiple chapters (or at least across multiple paragraphs). The way to do this is to give the reader a glimpse at the importance of the backstory. Exposit for a bit, then dive right into the action with your character. When your character finds herself at a natural pausing point, boom, drop some more backstory there.

I like to think of this as the Cormac McCarthy method, but there are plenty of great authors that do this. It's a simple solution, but it's one that runs counter to what a writer wants to do. I know this because I fall into the trap of wanting to give the reader as much information as possible as soon as possible. This stems from an insecurity, usually, around how well you think you can convey your ideas without explaining them. You can do it pretty damn well, so ignore that insecurity and focus on the story, not the backstory. Give the reader a taste, then don't give them anything else until there's a natural point in your story to do so. 

Exposition is necessary. Don't let any MFA program or writing instructor tell you that you should ONLY be showing. Tell some stuff, but do it right. 

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