Janine: Every book requires exposition (the conveying of background information) but sometimes it’s handled well and other times clumsily. Multiple techniques can be used and authors often employ more than one in the same book. I thought it might be fun to share our thoughts about them.
For the sake of clarity I’m going to start by defining them so bear with me if you already know what these terms mean.
Prologues — a scene (or more rarely a set of scenes) that takes place at only one place and time, presented at the beginning of the book and usually no more than a handful of pages long. Prologues take place significantly earlier than the story proper, requiring a time gash before the beginning of chapter one.
Sprinkling in — a little information is provided here and there as needed, enough to follow everything as it happens but distributed pretty evenly throughout the book.
Big chunks of exposition provided in narration — a big chunk of relevant information provided at one time in narration form (in any POV type).
Exposition in dialogue — a character mentions something relevant in the dialogue. This can be an explanation to another character but it can also be just something the character happens to say without the intention to explain, a clue to readers.
Brief flashbacks — a character remembers something that happened in the past and their experience is depicted in no more than a few paragraphs.
Scene or chapter flashbacks (not many)– here I’m speaking of longer but only one or at most a few of flashbacks in a book. Often these are framed as a character’s memory.
Dual timelines – This is where two connected storylines are told in alternating chapters or sections, one set in the book’s present and the other set in the past. Each of the two storylines is related in its own chronological order. The sections set in the past aren’t usually framed as a character remembering the past; they are just presented as a backstory storyline woven through the present-day narrative.
Nonlinear out-of-chronology structures (since I’m not sure what else to call these)— Some of the past is portrayed, not summarized, but those scenes or chapters are out of chronology with each other, so that a picture of what happened in the past emerges the way a puzzle does as its pieces are put together. This happens either when the story is complete or when it reaches the point where only the present-day timeline remains.
Anything I’ve forgotten — feel welcome to bring it up!
Though all of these have their place, many readers have favorites and least favorites, and some feel strongly about them. So here are my questions:
What are your general thoughts and/or feelings on some of the different exposition techniques? If you favor or disfavor them, why?
What are some examples of books where one or more exposition techniques worked well or badly for you?
Sirius: I LOVE prologues as long as they are not used for info dump purposes. What I think prologues are best suited for is to inform us of single important event (or two events, or three as long as you are not telling me the whole looooong history) that will drive the plot. A Song of Arbonne and Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay to me have examples of perfect prologues.
Janine: Prologues have an IMO undeserved bad reputation. A lengthy explanation of something complicated and important that I need to understand right away can slow me down at the beginning of a book instead of hooking me. Dramatizing what happened in a prologue has the advantage of greater emotional impact.
Layla: I generally love prologues–they usually impart a kind of fairytale or mythological feel to a book. I can think of a few historicals that use them–often to show us a psychological study or roots of a character’s trauma or childhood experience. I could be wrong, but I feel like Kinsale and Teresa Medeiros as well as Julie Anne Long use prologues to good effect. They set up a tidbit of the backstory so when you get into the actual book, you have some premonition or understanding of what it’s about or a feeling about one of the characters.
Kaetrin: The beginning of My Sweet Folly by Laura Kinsale was perfection.
Janine: Yes, that prologue was the best part of the book.
Jayne: I prefer “sprinkling in” or prologues for my exposition.
Janine: Sprinkling is one of my favorites too. I love how unobtrusive and seamless they can be when done well.
Janine: Big chunks of narrated exposition can make me impatient. I’ve heard that the term “infodump” (per the Cambridge Dictionary, “the practice of giving too much information at the same time”) was first used in the SF community. If so, no wonder. Science fiction is a genre where technical explanations aren’t uncommon and some of the longer ones have been known to make my eyes glaze over.
Kaetrin: I dislike the info-dump. It’s boring and takes me out of the story.
Sirius: Count me in as another one who dislikes the info dump.
Jayne: Humongous chunks read as clunky to me and I hate them.
Janine: It can be hard to get around sometimes, though. In Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series ( A Deadly Education, The Last Graduate, and presumably the upcoming The Golden Enclaves) we’re constantly learning the rules of the school, what a new monster looks like and does, or how a spell El uses is supposed to work (as opposed to how it actually does, which is then dramatized).
Jennie: I remember having trouble with the first Scholomance book because the explanation of the world is constant. It’s helpful, sure, but I kept expecting it to end and it never did. I got used to it near the end of the first book and decided it was a feature, not a bug, but at first I found it off-putting. (Also, as it’s told first person it’s never really clear who El is explaining these things to, though I guess that is true in many other books as well.)
Janine: There’s a lot of exposition in the Scholomance books and I wish it was less, but for me it helps that the books are narrated in first person. I assume (this is my default assumption with all first-person narrators unless otherwise indicated) that El is explaining these things to the reader, who doesn’t know any of them. It wouldn’t work as well in third person.
Layla: I recently read Sunshine by Robin McKinley–and while she does provide a lot of exposition in the narrative, it works somehow because she creates such a unique and interesting world. I did however find myself nodding off or skipping long exposition scenes. She does an interesting job of weaving the exposition with the heroine’s internal dialogue. This added some humour because at least the heroine is self-aware and ironic about her long windedness.
Exposition in dialogue
Jayne: What drives me nuts is having two characters tell each other things that it’s silly that they don’t know.
Janine: Agreed, but if a character who doesn’t have the information asks about something important (i.e. “Is George home?”) and then the other character’s answer plus a little sprinkled in explanation in narration reveal something readers need to know, that’s fine with me.
Jennie: The worst examples are of the “as you know, Jim…” as in “as you know, Jim, our mother the Marchioness, a widow, is arriving from London today.” The type of dialogue that sounds unnatural because there is no reason for one character to relate it to another.
Jayne: I was trying to remember a book I’d tried fairly recently with truly bad exposition and it’s History of Us by Stacey Agdern in which a mother and son explain their own family history to each other. It turned out to be just one reason I abandoned that book.
Kaetrin: One of the reasons fish out of water stories can work well – the “fish” is the stand in for the audience and we gain knowledge as they do and it makes sense that they’re getting the information because it’s all new to them too.
Janine: Sharon Shinn did that in her romance/SFF blend book Archangel. There’s lots of explanation upfront but since Rachel is new to the Eyrie (the mountain cliff city of the angels) when she’s chosen by Jovah to be the partner of the archangel Gabriel, it mostly (though not completely) made sense for Hannah, the widow of the previous leader, to explain how things work there.
Layla: I quite like flashbacks–if well done they provide an added dimension to the narrative. I can think of a few Meredith Duran books where there were flashbacks and they worked really well to help us understand the hero or heroine. I also just recently saw the film Spencer, ‘a fable inspired by true events’ about Princess Diana and it utilized flashbacks really well. It begins with us right in the middle of an event without explanation, so the flashbacks help tell the story of her unraveling marriage and self.
Kaetrin: In Susanna Kearsley’s The Vanished Days the exposition *is* the story really and it’s told in a type of dual timeline format edging ever closer to the big reveal at the end where it all ties together and the audience can put everything together in a new way. That worked fantastically well. I can’t imagine the story working otherwise.
Layla: I am not a fan of dual timelines. Often I find them jarring and sometimes cheesy. I can’t really get into Kearsley for that reason and I tried reading a Nora Roberts with that structure–the girl was actually a powerful magician from another ‘world’ and the story interspersed her present day with her time in that other world. Utterly cheesy.
Sirius: I have read couple of books by Susanna Kearsley and they were lovely. But reading about a couple who lived in the past brings me unnecessary sadness. It really has nothing to do with any specific book for me. No matter what they are dead already at the time the present story unfolds and that to me diminishes their happy ending. If the couple is still alive in the present, dual timeline is totally fine.
Jayne: I’m not that much a fan of dual timeline books as one part always seems to be weaker than the other. Plus just as one part is getting good, the narrative will switch to the other timeline and this will jerk me out of the story.
Janine: I like dual timelines because they often rivet me more. Even if one of the storylines slows down, there’s the other one, so I’m more likely to keep turning the pages for the whole book. Also, it can add texture. It’s nice sometimes just when things are getting intense to get the relief of a relaxation from the tension in the other storyline, and sometimes the two timelines have different locations or different emotional tones. I like that feeling of variety.
Jennie: I agree. Dual timelines work for me often (in both romance and suspense) and I often see them as a way of having my cake and eating it too. In a reunited lovers storyline, the earlier timeline allows me as a reader to see when the h/h were relatively happy, possibly enjoy a love scene or two, and then have the drama of whatever ripped them apart come up. This is all interspersed with the “present day” storyline, which goes from estrangement to reconciliation and the HEA.
In suspense books, I actually seek out dual timeline books so I’ve read a lot. Girl A by Abigail Dean, which I read last year, did it well. There are a lot of clues to what really happened in the earlier timeline sprinkled in both timelines (especially the latter) and reading it felt like unraveling a mystery to me (unlike straight mystery books, where I often just patiently wait for the author to explain everything to me at the end).
Janine: A problem I can run into with dual timelines is when the present-day timeline builds up a mysterious event from the past (often what caused the breakup, but sometimes a heroic act of love) and then you reach it and it doesn’t fulfill the expectations the author created. A huge betrayal turns out to be nothing, for example. That happened to me with Susan Sizemore’s On a Long Ago Night (later reissued as No Promises). I was loving the book and then I reached the Big Event and it was disappointingly piddly.
Nonlinear and Out of Chronology
Jayne: Comeuppance Served Cold by Marion Deeds used the “nonlinear out-of-chronology” method and though I can’t recall off hand any other books I’ve read doing this, it worked surprisingly well for me. But I’m glad I knew before I started the book.
Janine: I can only think of a couple of romances where the past sections are presented out of chronological order. One is by my friend and critique partner Sherry Thomas’s book Not Quite a Husband. Most of her nonlinear books have two alternating timelines but in Not Quite a Husband the past sections jump around. The other book is Pam Rosenthal’s The Slightest Provocation. In both books the painful history of how things went wrong between spouses comes together like a puzzle. Outside of romance, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, which Jennie and I finished recently, is another example.
Layla: I have an aversion to nonlinear out-of-chronology structures–too postmodern and chaotic for me! I couldn’t finish Cloud Atlas for example, for that reason.
Jennie: I’ve often thought of myself as a herding dog reading this type of story, feeling like I have to round up and keep an eye on all the facts I know lest one of the lambs slip away and be lost. Okay, I have stretched the analogy to its limits, but I think you all get the picture.
Janine: I look at them almost as mysteries that aren’t about murder but about what happened to the characters. Very similar to dual timelines (which are also nonlinear, obviously), just structured differently. As long as which order they take place in is clear (for example if there are date stamps or if the characters’ ages are mentioned) I’m fine. I like that they are creative and different.
Janine: I just thought of another method of exposition — the epistolary one, where a character gets a letter or finds a journal that reveals part of the backstory. I can think of a number of these. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow is a recent example—the heroine finds a book that reveals a lot about the world but also some crucial character backstory. Chapters from the book she found are interspersed with the heroine’s story.
Possession by A.S. Byatt, a book I’ve loved for years (it’s got some problematic queer representation, though), is a pastiche novel, meaning it uses a number of literary forms — letters, journal entries, poems, fairy tales written by one of the characters. In this case they are used not only to advance the plot but also to reveal what happened in a storyline set in the 1860s as characters in 1981 try to uncover those long-ago events.
Layla: In terms of exposition — I think epistolary narratives allow for a lot of information to be conveyed in a really non-didactic and vivid way. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the epistolary opening frames the whole story and gives us vital information and builds mystery all at once. I love Kinsale’s My Sweet Folly for that element as well.
Jayne: I agree with Layla. Authors can pack whatever info they want into epistolary elements and I’m usually fine with it.
Janine: There’s also something to be said for books where the author just drops you in the middle of an unfamiliar world and you have to figure out a lot of things from context as you go. Those books demand more of the reader, but I really enjoy that kind of immersion when it’s executed well.
Sirius: Janine, yes, absolutely I love being dropped in the middle of the world I don’t know and learning about it along the way from the context or from the sprinkles of the information or both. I think Max Gladstone excels in doing so in his series (dropping the reader in the middle of unknown world and letting us figure things out and giving little help :)
Kaetrin: Yes, me too. I like when I get the information I need to know and I have the sense that the author knows all the information and will give it to me when I need it. When I get the sense that the reason I don’t know stuff is because the author hasn’t worked it out yet on the other hand…!!
Layla: I’m a fan of the school of show don’t tell. For example, I’m reading this fantasy romance series by Melissa McShane set in a Regency England with magic and people who have Extraordinary Abilities–and she does a fantastic job of just putting you right into the world. She doesn’t do a lot of exposition. Instead, the characters themselves show us and teach us about the world. The world building is really really good and very clean and uncluttered. The series name is The Extraordinaries and the first book is Burning Bright. This is a world where for example, there are Extraordinary Scorchers (people who can manipulate fire), Extraordinary Bounders (people who can jump from place to place instantly), Extraordinary Discerners (people who can feel what other people are feeling just by touch.)
Jayne: I just started reading Carry On by Celia Lake, the first book a fantasy series set in an alternate England. It did the drop-off thing. It did take more of my attention to figure things out but I was fine with that as the author did a good job making things clear without being too obvious.
Cast of Characters Lists and Indexes
Jennie: I actually don’t mind something I see more in the limited amount of fantasy I read than in romance – a list of the cast of characters with short bios at the beginning or end of the book. I think that can be helpful in keeping distracting exposition down while still helping readers navigate a large number of characters or a complicated backstory.
Janine: Cast of characters lists used to also be a thing in historical sagas and I no longer see them used in those. They seem to be less popular generally. With regard to an index where characters, places or other things are described–I remember when I read Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor and reached the pronunciation and titles / forms of address information in the back of the book. My reaction was “Now you tell me!” I really wish they’d let us know in the beginning that an index can be found in the back of the book.
Jayne: Do info-dumps of characters from previous books in a series count as such? I had one of those in Summer Nights with a Cowboy by Caitlin Crews. It lasted almost an entire chapter. The author shoehorned everyone and their relationships in. It had my eyes glazing over after I finished being frustrated by trying to remember who was with what other character then realizing that I didn’t care.
Janine: It definitely counts as awkward exposition. I tried to introduce a friend to Lisa Kleypas via my favorite of her books, Devil’s Daughter, but the first chapter had a bunch of characters arriving for a wedding and who everyone was had to be explained. She bounced off of it hard. And don’t get me started on Mary Balogh’s big families.
Jayne: That is exactly what happened to me with Summer Nights with Cowboy. It was a concentrated character/relationship dump and I did a hard bounce off it.
Janine: With long-running series, an author’s attempts to bring new readers up to speed on the whole series can be awful.
Jennie: It can definitely be a balance in long-running series because some authors either like to or feel they have to bring back favorite couples, but then that requires some exposition for new readers. In a romance, particularly in series with a lot of characters, please remind me in a subtle way of who’s who at regular intervals.
Readers, what are your feelings about exposition and the different techniques used to convey it? Do you favor or disfavor any, and if so, why? What books have you read where the exposition was handled memorably well or badly?