I always try to keep exposition to a minimum; whenever there is any backstory or worldbuilding, I let it come out via dialogue. The narration is impersonal; I don't want it to feel like someone's telling the story, as I feel like that'd be breaking immersion. The narration is just describing objective things. Emotions are shown. Thoughts are displayed with italicized writing. Intentions and opinions are shown as thoughts or dialogue. Sometimes I tell it, but that's usually when those things are obvious/pre-established, but their relation to the actions happening aren't obvious, so by mentioning them I allow the reader to connect the dots.

However, sometimes it would be practical to describe things that happened kind of outside of the plot. Things that are important, but don't really fit into the story. By having my impersonal, usually non-expository narration suddenly break from the present story, to just fill the reader in on a detail, feels like it'll likely be jarring; because it makes the narration feel like its being delivered by a narrator who exists outside of the story (and thus has access to details not shown in the story), because it deviates from the non-expository paradigm of the story and because it may break the tense.

Usually I write in past tense, but this is still an issue then, given that the story is still now, regardless of the tense. Backstory is still backstory, even if the story is past tense.

For the book I'm writing on now, I decided to try the present tense. I find it fun and challenging, but this issue is even more noticeable now. Especially because this story involves tons of planning and scheming, and to show every itty-bitty detail gets boring, so I like to include tons of time skips. But sometimes, the gist of those details is important to the plot, and it'd be nice if I could simply mention x happened when it becomes relevant. However, is this too jarring?

Do answer as generally as you want, so long as the narration format of present tense 3rd person limited is included.

2 Answers 2


It's not that it's exposition that's jarring. It's when it's not smoothly flowing, when it jolts and jars.

This kind of jolt can be produced either by style or context.

For style. The voice has to flow smoothly on whether telling things or showing them. It helps if the style is itself smooth and elegant so that it does not draw attention to itself. Make sure that the voice does not change between the rest of the narration and the exposition.

For context. The exposition has to seem a logical thing to happen at that point in time, and returning to the narrative also has to seem to happen at a logical point. I have seen nice things done by having characters thinking about something and then the narrator explaining them more clearly than their thoughts were. Or have a character take a form of transportation and then put in the explanation of how it worked.


Personally, I write in in third person limited, basically the narrator follows one character (or one at a time) and knows the thoughts and feelings of that one character, we see, hear and feel what that character feels.

If I switch the narrator to some other character, I change chapters. Always. A chapter is always just ONE character and how they see, think, and feel the world.

I do that because it is just like real life. In real life, things that will affect me happen off screen, and the only way I will know about them is if somebody tells me. Until then, people may behave what appears to me to be inexplicably. My reliable employee Alice fails to show up for an important meeting, she doesn't answer her phone. I am irritated, and perhaps worried. In the story, Alice's absence doesn't have to be explained, our chapter protagonist must deal with it.

If you feel it necessary to show his anger is folly, change chapters to show Alice was in a car crash and is dying in an ambulance. Then switch back to Bob planning to punish her for losing a customer. Voila, the reader knows something Bob doesn't, without any exposition.

In fact, with some planning, you can do this naturally; the Alice POV chapter comes up in turn, ends with her near dead in an ambulance screaming toward an E.R. Then the Bob POV chapter comes up, and Bob is royally pissed at Alice for missing their biggest presentation of the year, without any notice at all.

Yes, "occasional" exposition is jarring. It may take some creativity, but it is entirely "unrealistic" from a reader's POV. It breaks immersion, as does anything that could not happen to your characters in real life. Embrace the confusion and unpredictability of real life. If your POV character doesn't know, the reader doesn't know. If what the POV character does know is a surprise to the reader, let the POV character explain after the fact.

"Since when do you know Polish?"

"I know what a two year old knows. My father's sister was Polish; she babysat me, before I could go to school."

Or change chapters and POV, readers have learned to accept they hop to the most important things happening in the story while less interesting things are happening in the POV just left.

It is the writer's job to invent and arrange ways to get information to readers "naturally", as experiencing scenes. Exposition in the middle of a scene breaks immersion. It is bad practice. If you feel forced to exposit in order for the scene to make sense, recognize that as a correctable failure, a missing scene or element you need to go back and add. It is something you need to invent, earlier in the story, or perhaps you can address it with a better arrangement of scenes or a change of POV.

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