Exposition is a doorway that teleports readers to new worlds. Good exposition can effortlessly pull the imagination into page-turning flurries of pleasure. Lackluster exposition, however, can be a nasty distraction, snagging readers right when they’re diving in. With that in mind, here are nine tips to reduce exposition in your dialogue.
Tip # 1—Only Include Exposition Necessary to Current Action.
If you read no further, take this tip to heart. Your characters should only talk about what matters in their present situation. Exposition may be a required part of storytelling, but aim to do the minimum necessary. Over explaining is common in early stages of writing because your dialogue is often a testing ground for new ideas. However, in the real world people rarely share their life stories with a stranger. They seldom give history lessons when meeting someone for the first time. When exposition is unnaturally out of place in dialogue, it becomes a distraction and weakens the story.
So when should characters share backstories about themselves and their world? There should always be a reprieve from action. Furthermore, the sharing should answer obvious questions raised from prior circumstances within the story — questions like, “Who was shooting at you?”, “If he hurts you like that, why are you still with him?”, “You mentioned a deadly disease, what is it?” If obvious questions aren’t addressed, it can indicate to the reader that your novel has little regard for consequences—a thought we never want crossing the reader’s mind.
Tip # 2—Use a Nickname if Appropriate to the Speaker.
Nicknames invisibly shorten dialogue. People in the real world do this regularly to shorten their own statements. Family members rarely use first names to address one another. ‘Nana’ is two syllables while ‘Grandma Borowitz’ is five. Additionally, just because a speaker uses a nickname does not mean they enjoy or even like the person they are renaming. It merely shows they are familiar enough with the person to warrant a nickname. In addition to shortening exposition, nicknames make your characters more relatable and believable.
Consider using nicknames for locations and objects as well. Weapons, cars, ships, and pets are all ripe for nicknames. Where does your protagonist spend most of their time? It’s worth considering a nickname for that location from the character. Memorable nicknames can add a layer of humor, mystery, and importance to your dialogue while simultaneously shortening exposition.
Tip # 3—Move the Exposition to Narration.
The more distant your story world is from our own, the more explanations will be required. Many writers revel in this distance and exploring all the ‘what ifs?’ that fiction allows. However, when exposition grows to such a size that it inhibits development of the story, it weakens the experience. To help prevent this, we can move some of a character’s exposition into the narration.
Here’s an example:
“Let me tell you all about him,” Charlotte began, “my first ex-husband…”
We can truncate the dialogue that follows into something like this:
“Let me tell you all about him,” Charlotte began. She spent the next hour telling Emily all about her ex-husband—the cheating, the lies, the divorce…
The narrator summarizes what was shared without replaying a decade of Charlotte’s life out of her mouth for the reader to read. Since the narration includes a mention of how long the conversation was, the reader can infer the amount of information that’s been reduced to a single sentence. If the details concerning the end of Charlotte’s marriage are not key to the plot, this is a great method for reducing exposition.
Isn’t this essentially gagging a character? Notice that nothing has changed about the events of Charlotte’s life. Only the manner in which the information is relayed to the reader.
Also keep in mind that any novel written with a third person narrator affords the narrator the same access to information as any character. This allows you to move exposition from dialogue into narration or from narration back into dialogue. They’re essentially transferable.
Tip # 4—Avoid the ‘Pronoun Game.’
The ‘pronoun game’ increases superfluous exposition. What’s the ‘pronoun game’? Have you ever read a character say, ‘Oh no! He’s coming!’ but the identity of the ‘he’ is withheld as a deliberate mystery? Movie dialogue in thrillers and horror does this often, and it’s annoying. This technique creates cheap tension. It hides the magnitude of a threat but artificially. Few people in the real world will hide the extent of a threat from others deliberately. It makes a character look incompetent or cruel for not elaborating on the obvious ‘who?’ Readers know this. Readers are smart. When a distressed character knows exactly who ‘he’ is but hides this information simply for tension, good readers notice and your story suffers.
Additionally, when the character later reveals who ‘he’ or ‘she’ is, the character is essentially repeating themselves. This creates unnecessary exposition. The character could have related the information earlier, but played the ‘pronoun game’ instead. Discover other ways to create tension in a scene. Don’t play cheap tricks. Avoid the ‘pronoun game.’
Tip # 5—Consolidate the Exposition.
This is the easiest and most necessary part of the revision process. In a first draft your world is built by you from the ground up, word by word. Some writers rely on character dialogue in their first draft to test and settle the bulk of their story. Your first ideas are iffy, and experimentation is the norm. Censoring yourself at early stages of novel writing is counter-productive. You need to get the ideas out first then simplify them later.
However, during your revisions you will find that characters talk with greater clarity and brevity. You’ve spent more time with them. It shows. This also means that exposition in dialogue can be reduced. Consolidating exposition during revision strengthens all parts of your writing. Your characters express themselves and their world in fewer words. Revision is where much of the work of writing lies. It can be messy, but it’s worth it.
Tip # 6—Move the Exposition to a Footnote, Appendix, or Supplemental Area.
This choice is more commonly found in sci-fi and fantasy writing, but can be used in any form of writing where significant amounts of exposition occur. Does your universe include an awesome form of space travel you’ve spent hours thinking about? Did you create a full botanical chart of plant species in your fantasy world? All these areas may excite you about your novel, but do they impact the story? Do they affect how your characters think, feel, and act?
Only you know the answer, but many readers may not share the same passion for these imaginative sidebars. Consider relocating some of these intricate but benign matters. Moving this information to the rear of the book can still impress and delight a reader without stopping the story’s momentum.
Tip # 7—Consider Splitting the Exposition between Multiple Characters.
If one character becomes the focal point for your exposition, they can drag the story down. When the character reappears, the reader begins to expect the story to stop. Eventually, the reader may even dread the character’s reemergence. We never want a reader to enjoy the absence of a character! Even the best villains leave readers wanting more. If one character carries the brunt of your exposition, consider adding a new character to share in the duties. Or rewrite an existing character to share in the role.
Spreading exposition between characters is a way to create more dynamic exposition. Instead of monotone lectures, the characters can argue with each other about the information—correcting and ribbing one another along the way. This makes the exposition flow faster. It’s more entertaining.
Tip # 8—Use Acronyms.
Similar to nicknames, acronyms explain without explaining. Acronyms can squeeze a lot of meaning into a small space. Acronyms may not fit into every style of writing, but thrillers, sci-fi novels, and mysteries are fantastic places for acronyms. Readers in our day and age are exposed to acronyms daily without being confused by them. So long as the quantity is not excessive. Even if an acronym is left unexplained, it may not bother a reader. As long as you, the writer, knows the meaning, the character may not need to expound on it.
Acronyms are also a great place for humor and personality in your work. For example, what do you think the following acronyms mean? D.E.A.D.? D.I.N.N.E.R.? S.Q.U.I.R.R.E.L.? Well used acronyms condense and entertain at the same time—the perfect combination.
Tip # 9—Cut the Exposition Altogether.
Always return to this question—does the story need it? If it’s your first time to write in a particular genre, this question may be impossible to answer at first. Yet it should be one question you return to regularly. One of the most boring things a reader can experience is tedious exposition. If the story ultimately doesn’t need something, you should add it to the folder of great ideas that got cut. They’re still awesome ideas. They just got cut. Not all of your hard work will end up in your novel. That’s okay.