When the word “exposition” comes up, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Whatever it is, it’s most likely negative. Many people see it as an info-dump, an unnecessary avalanche of boring information that the author was too lazy to finesse into and simply threw out there to fill up time. It has an incredibly bad rep, and a lot of it is deserved, admittedly . . . if we’re talking about it in terms of film, at least. Movies are largely an audio-visual experience, emphasis on visual, so they’re supposed to be the ultimate display of “show, don’t tell,” where it’s biggest advantage over books is that they can literally show you what’s going on. But a lot of filmmakers have an itching need to just simply explain, and they can often ruin the flow and pace of their movie by having two of their characters sit across from one another and literally tell you what the world is about and what’s going on. Bad, bad move. If there’s a zombie apocalypse going on, then show us the apocalypse, don’t tell us about it.
But books, in my opinion, have a lot more wiggle room with exposition, mainly because it’s everywhere in every book. Exposition is the description you use to describe a setting or person, or when you reveal a character’s history. Exposition is world-building. Exposition is necessary. And yes, exposition can also be an info-dump. The last part is often times the hardest part, because sometimes a book will just need it. So how do you go about utilizing an exposition info dump without making it seemed forced? Every writer has their own rules on how info-dumps. Some embrace it, others do their best to exclude it. The one principle I follow in determining whether or not an info dump is needed is this: if you and the character don’t know something and need to know, then it’s okay. Like for example, a lot of things have been happening to a character, events that he just doesn’t understand, and then he finally comes across someone who can finally explain to him what’s been happening. Logically, at this point, your character will want to know what the hell has been going on. There’s no reason for him to think, “hmmm, you know what? I don’t need to know right now. I’ll just ask later.” Any one of us in that person’s shoes will want to know what’s going on, right here and right now, and so will you, because you’ve been on this mysterious journey along with him, and you’re dying to know the why and how behind it too.
Really, the trick behind it is trying to make the info-dump as interesting as possible. With that, always keep one thing in mind: “brevity is the soul of wit.” Keep it simple and concise. Make it as less dumpy as you can. Leave out any unnecessary detail and just give us the pertinent stuff, because that’s what you–and your character–are here for.