Exposition is difficult to deal with in fiction, especially when you’re world-building in a fantasy or sci-fi setting. The urge to explain everything is pretty powerful, and there is a practical point where you must explain things, or your story won’t make sense. But exposition is usually a drag, because it’s essentially like a scene in a movie where the actions stops dead and everyone stands around while someone lectures the audience.

This is where people will always, always trot out “show don’t tell,” which is fine as far as it goes. Show don’t tell is a pithy piece of airless advice you can carry around and spit out easily, but it’s not always the most helpful nugget. If you’ve got 16 pages of single-spaced information about your universe’s religions, you have to tell some of it, right?

No, you don’t, of course. In fact, in your first draft you should even try to avoid exposition altogether.


There’s two things to remember about exposition. One, no one in real life engages in it in any sort of natural way, which is why it feels so weird and is so noticeable when it pops up in fiction. Your inner monologue is not, I hope, an endless recitation of historical facts, cultural observations, and detailed descriptions of everything you see. We only engage in exposition in real life in very formal moments: Classrooms, presentations, lectures, heated discussions at bars that skirt up to the edge of a stabbing, that sort of thing.

So, treat your characters like real people and avoid it. You know the backstory and history of your characters and your universe—it will come out in little details, asides spoken in dialog, that sort of thing. Write your first draft with the assumption that everyone has read the little bible you’ve created for your characters and universe, and no exposition is necessary.

Then, after you’ve let the draft sit for a bit and you return to revise it, you’ll find it’s very easy to pick the moments when exposition might be needed, and you can judiciously dole it out. Your Beta Readers will tell you when they were confused, and you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at how much information was present just in the more natural dialog and actions of your characters and the details of your descriptions.

That’s showing without telling. And once you’ve done that, you can go in and fill in some gaps with exposition. The end result will seem much more electric and natural.

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