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One effective technique I was told to use is to integrate the exposition within the narrative, rather than presenting it as a separate block of information. This can be accomplished through various means such as dialogue that describes the world for the sake of worldbuilding. However, wouldn't using a dialogue for instance be considered an info dump, or an exposition dump? How can you balance narrative and exposition then?

I have a world that's way too strange and different from our world and not doing info dumps constantly is very hard to do, because there are too many weird things happening all the time. How can you then balance the two? Is there a technique that allows you to do info dumps on a constant and frequent basis without affecting the pacing and the narrative?

9 Answers 9

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The key is in the word "dump". So you could have two characters going somewhere and slipping into some secret doorway or cave or whatever and then

"Whoa. What is this place?" A's eyes were wide.

"Folks say it was a church of the old religion, generations ago. Don't worry though - pretty much all the magic's been rinsed out by now."

Alternatively, you could have stopped as they slipped in and spent 3 pages telling me what it looked like, both the original features (statues, benches, pulpits, decorations, altars, ...) and what's happened since (moss, holes in windows, trees growing, signs of fights, ...) before anyone talks. That's a dump. See the difference?

What's more, before these two set off to this place maybe you had a third character tell a story that let us know what the old religion is. If you made that 5 pages long, and it was interesting in itself, it might avoid being a dump. But usually it's just a "here are 53 background facts I think everyone should have about the old religion" and that rarely works. I think it's more powerful when this dialog referring to their shared knowledge is the first we hear of it. If the characters think something's weird, it needs more explaining than if the characters are used to it. We can slowly put the picture together over time.

Just those two sentences from the example I gave tell the reader that this room or building looks like nothing they normally see. Also that there was an old religion they both know about, that it went away generations ago, that it involved magic, and that the current characters still feel magic is a real thing. That's quite a lot of information really.

Later, A can ask "do you think there is still any magic here?" or "you don't believe in that old stuff do you?" or "why did they stop coming here?" or anything else you feel like revealing. Of course B doesn't have to answer, they could say there isn't time or no-one knows or we need to get safe before we can chitchat about that sort of thing. But a little at a time, the information will come out. You might be reading it from your 10 page bulleted list of facts you need to reveal. But you're not dealing it out like that.

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My understanding of 'info' dumps is that they shouldn't be used and that the writer should insert information in the narrative to show the reader pieces of the backstory/environment/history that is relevant to the story.

If you need to do an 'info dump', consider the following:

  1. Why do you want the reader to know?
  2. Does knowing every single detail help move the story forward?
  3. Can the info dump be shortened?

Personal anecdote: I wrote a story sometime ago(never finished it, though I really want to) and I wrote in an info dump for a few of the characters. Opening that WIP a few months ago, I read those parts and just cringed at them.

In your case, you stated that the world is weird. Does the reader need to know all the weird happenings in the world? Can you show your weird world bit by bit? Like, say you've never been to <insert country you've never visited>. Would you want to see everything and know everything about it at one go, or do you want to take it one fact at a time?

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Ewokx has already given a good answer, to expand:

Conveying information in an interesting way is part of the author's job, and you want to get good at it. "Info dumps" tend to be big, lazy slabs of worldbuilding which are difficult for the reader to chew. You want to cuts them into lots of smaller parts and scatter them throughout the text where they're important.

In some ways, you can think of them like providing a description for a scene. You could provide a hefty three pages of detail at the start of the chapter, telling the reader all about every candle in the cathedral, not letting a single thing happen until you're done, or you could provide the reader with just enough information to start picturing the scene, and then add a little each time the action progresses, around the dialogue, etc.

Which one is mostly likely to engage you as a reader?

World building is not so different, it should be relevant, timely and woven into the overall piece.

There's nothing wrong with straight up telling the reader things (in smallish doses) and there's certainly nothing wrong with writing notes for yourself like this, but then consider how to actually use it in the prose. The lazy answer is just to "dump" it in, it's often not the right one.

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If you're going to dump a load of worldbuilding exposition/lore (and the existing answers give a bunch of good alternatives to doing so) then it needs to be a payoff for curiosity you've built up in the reader.

It's finally getting the detailed explanation of the Big Event from Long Ago that you've only heard vague and conflicting accounts of thus far that re-colors the central conflict in your narrative and preferably contributes to the development of the character(s).

For a not particularly great but probably pretty well known example, consider the scene from the original Top Gun movie where Maverick is finally told exactly what happened to his father. It's two men walking (symbolizing forward progress on the personal development) while one dumps info on the other who is silent throughout. The info resolves a point of curiosity for the watcher, but also critically informs the development of the central character, who we've been repeatedly told and shown has a chip on his shoulder about the matter.

If you're going to do an exposition dump, that's the way to make it not only palatable but enjoyable. You have to earn it by building up to it over the course of the narrative.

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    For a particularly great but probably not well known example, check out William Horwood's Hyddenworld. A big chunk of the story involves hydden characters from Brum, but we don't exactly know where or what that is. The story reaches a point when all the major characters are on their way to Brum (and, for me at least, a point where I was desperate to know more about Brum) and then takes a time-out for the equivalent of a full chapter of exposition on Brum and its history. Perfectly placed to pay off the built-up curiosity. Damn, Horwood is a good writer. Mar 29, 2023 at 16:38
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It’s tempting to just turn your expository data dump into a dialog-based data dump, but that can actually make it worse. Ask yourself what information is really necessary at that point in the story and what can be implied, ignored, or saved for later. Compare these:

DATA DUMP

Raman’s Planet, the third and outermost planet in the Alpha-Omicron system, had two moons, called Phineas and Ferb. Phineas was larger than Ferb, but also 117,000 miles farther away, giving them approximately the same diameter as seen from the planet. Due to their differing periods, real darkness only happened every 62 local days. Most of the time, people just stayed inside when it was dark.

BAD DIALOG VERSION

“It sure is dark tonight,” Jim said. “I wonder if it’s different on the two closer planets.”

“Of course,” Susan replied. “It’s dark because we can’t see either moon right now from here on Rajan’s Planet, and the other planets in the Alpha-Omicron system have their own moons.”

“Oh, right,” responded Jim, “I forgot that most nights aren’t very dark here because at least one of our two moons, either Phineas or Ferb, is visible almost every night”

“Except when the line up with our sun on the other side of our planet, like tonight,” Susan added, “which only happens only once every 62 days.”

“Right,” Jim agreed, “and we usually don’t come outside on nights like this.”

Susan groped for the railing, which she couldn’t see in the darkness.

BETTER: ONLY SHARING WHAT THEY NEED TO KNOW

“Man, I forget sometimes how dark it is when neither moon is visible at night,” Jim said, peering into the inky darkness.

“Yeah, it’s easy to forget when it only happens every couple of months,” replied Susan as she reached out to where she thought the railing was.

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    This data dump example actually sounds perfectly fine. The best out of all three. It's brief, to the point, clear. Either of the dialog pieces basically just adds water.
    – Therac
    Mar 28, 2023 at 22:18
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    The key is being concise. Ideally you can accomplish multiple things at once; sometimes the data dump example is the best option, but even then it can be made entertaining. I'd rather read "Raman's planet was the largest in the system, and a miserable chunk of ice that no sane person would ever want to be. It was also a crossroads of several hyperspace passages, so naturally it was a bustling, thriving hub of commerce and greed." than characters hamfistedly trying to imply all that.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Mar 30, 2023 at 16:49
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Focus on what is going on - not on the mechanics.

Isaac Asimov and Stanislaw Lem have both avoided getting into technobabble about how their technology works or why the world is the way it is. Seeing the acclaim they got, it appears that most readers went along with it.

If you need to do some exposition, just do it. Straight, brief, non-flowery. Don't conceal it as something else. Again, Asimov is a great example.

A dump happens when you're telling the reader something they don't need or want to know. One way to tell is to cut out the exposition, read it with a friend, and see what they have questions about.

If you have done so much worldbuilding you can fill a book with it... one way is to write a "book about the book", for the fans, where you can spill everything. Today, it can just be a blog.

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Show, don't tell, how the world works. Demonstrate the rules (or lack of rules) of the world by showing how characters interact with the world and how the rules of the world affects their daily lives.

The earlier you do that, the better. Take, for example, Alice in Wonderland. The story taking place in a world that on a weirdness scale of 1 to 10 rates at about ℵ. It defies all logic and laws of physics. This is established as early as the 3rd paragraph where a talking rabbit wearing a coat and carrying a watch shows up. Then Alice is able to casually violate physics by effortlessly climbing down a rabbit hole. This wasn't even the first page, and it only gets weirder from there.

At that point it is established that the world of the book does not follow the laws of physics and that the reader is to suspend their disbelieve to the maximum in order to enjoy the story.

One trick Carroll uses in this book is to make the protagonist an outsider to the world where the story takes place. That makes it possible for him to easily weave infodumps into her interactions with other characters. She is understandably curious about the world, so her trying to gain information about how it works from other characters seems perfectly natural in the flow of the text. Concealing infodumps as conversations between characters is great, because a well-written conversation can achieve 3 goals at the same time:

  • Develop the characters
  • Demonstrate how the world works
  • Drive the plot forward

Making the protagonist an outsider also has another advantage: There is no knowledge discrepancy between protagonist and audience. They are both equally flabbergasted. The audience doesn't need to know everything because the protagonist doesn't know everything either. So a lot of world details can easily remain completely unexplained without preventing the audience from understanding the actions of the protagonist.

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There's a lot of good advice here, and I particularly like the answer that said, basically, if you do a dump, make it something the reader is dying with curiosity about and will be happy to read.

In your case, with an radically unfamiliar world, I think you need to consider that there are two extremes you want to avoid. One, if the world is so weird that the reader doesn't understand it, they are jarred out of the narrative by simply not being able to understand what is going on. Two, if you dump a bunch of information, they are jarred out of the narrative because you just made them read a book report. I doubt there is any pat formula that lets you find the balance between these two things--you're just going to have to keep them both in mind and do your best.

Do you remember that place in the Lord of the Rings where Tolkien finally explains how Gandalf's magic works, why sometimes he seems to be extremely powerful and sometimes he can only manage a lumos and encourage everyone to run away?

Or when they finally tell you all the details of Elven magic, so you know all their capabilities (like running across the top of snow)?

That's right, you don't! Tolkien never explained them.

Remember how Rowling explained early on that Dumbledore was gay and it made more sense that he was following after, and possibly infatuated with, Grindelwald? Nope, because she never divulged that (until it was forced on her by someone trying to give him a past (female) love interest in one of the movies). I have no doubt that her internal understanding of Dumbledore made what she wrote more fleshed out and "real" to the reader, though.

Some of the things about how stuff works in your world belong in author's notes and the author's brain but do not necessarily need to be in the reader's brain. Keep that in mind when you're trying to figure out how to fit exposition in--the particular bit of information you're trying to figure out how to divulge might not even be necessary on the reader side. Some facts about the world/characters can affect how you write the story but don't have to be explicitly disclosed for the reader to enjoy the story.

Try not to jar the reader out of the narrative with too much explanation. And try not to prevent the reader from getting immersed in the narrative by giving too little. It's probably impossible to do this perfectly, because different readers have different tolerance for/desire for background, hence my previous statement about doing your best to strike a balance.

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Infodumps cannot be done well.

To understand why, we need to understand the difference between an Infodump and presenting exactly the same information as "story".

An infodump is where we load the reader up with all sorts of information about the world, or the origin or childhood of a character, or the politics or religion or culture that is important to the motivations and decisions of the characters.

Basically, as a shortcut, we are just asking the reader to memorize all these facts, and readers are terrible at memorizing facts, and bored with memorizing facts.

The purpose of a fiction (book, movie, comic, even poetry, music or song lyrics) is to evoke imagery in the reader. To guide the audience in seeing, feeling, and experiencing the life of the characters. That is story. That is immersion. A vicarious "being there".

Even music without lyrics, like Ein Klein Nachtmusik by Mozart, can transport listeners. That is just fun and joyful, playful music, and it evokes that sentiment in the audience, time and again, bypassing language and culture barriers. Mozart found a joyful commonality in people and devised a musical way to bring it forth.

Just like really good comedy writers can find a ludicrous commonality that most people cannot help but laugh it.

The job of the author is to assist the audience in imagining and feeling what the author is imagining and feeling, or close enough. The sights, the attitudes, the fear or joy or despair or grief. It is bring forth these commonalities in sentiment.

Infodumps are trying to shortcut this process. It is basically saying "Here is a bunch of stuff you must memorize for my story to make any sense", without any attempt to actually make this interesting.

If there is any information actually crucial to the story, it needs to be presented in imaginary scenes with a central figure the audience is watching.

When Luke Skywalker first learns of the force, all the information he gets is presented in scenes, in conversations, and he is resistant to this. There is tension, some old man and crew he doesn't know, just after his caregivers have been murdered, he's been whisked away from his home and everything he knows.

There is emotional context now in delivering the information. How much worse would the movie be if all of that drama was just replaced by another expository scroll in space, explaining the Force, so that after these horrific losses, we can just cut to Luke practicing with the light saber like none of it happened?

Information must be presented in scenes, and it has to matter both to the plot (WTF happened? Why would my Aunt and Uncle be murdered? Why do I have to leave?) and to the central figure in this chapter (Luke).

Infodumps don't really work with readers. They are definitely shorter, but it is better to spend 250 words presenting a piece of information in a scene, than to spend 25 words presenting it as exposition to be memorized.

And I will remind you, that people that read for entertainment do not mind reading. You don't have to worry about adding a well-written 250 words, instead of 25 words. They aren't trying to get through your story fast.

Because readers remember the scenes they immersed themselves in, and they remember very little of the exposition they were supposed to just memorize and recall when needed.

Find a way to present plot critical information in scenes with emotional content. You have to invent those scenes. Perhaps they are scenes from your protagonist's childhood. Don't try to shortcut it, no matter how many words it takes, you have to present information embedded in scenes people can imagine.

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