Sunday, 9 November 2008


When a writer interrupts her main narrative to fill the reader in on a pertinent detail or two about the back story or a character’s history, and then resumes the main narrative, that interruption is exposition. It’s sometimes referred to as an information dump or info-dump, as that’s exactly what it is: a dump of information into an otherwise-continual text. It’s that Scooby-Doo moment that you see in so many TV shows and films where the bad guy pauses once he’s got his hands on the good guy in order to explain exactly why he’s trying to destroy mankind, when you know all the time that a real bad guy would just shut up and shoot.

I’m going to tell you a story here about how I nearly throttled one of my cats just now because of the terrible thing that she just did, but first you have to know that this particular cat came from a sanctuary. She’d been rescued from a neglectful owner and was hit by a car and now has one leg shorter than the others, but she’s gorgeous and I adore her even though she loves my husband and despises me.

And now who remembers or even cares that I was about to throttle her?*

All that extraneous stuff about my cat—the sanctuary, the car accident, her funny short leg and her over-close relationship with my husband—is all exposition. By revealing things in this way you make your readers lose focus on the story and when that happens too often or too harshly, they’re going to lose interest too.

Info-dumps can often just be deleted without leaving a significant hole in the text: it’s amazing how much information can be imparted through implication. If you really need to include the information then you have to incorporate it more smoothly into the text, to avoid those sudden dislocations as you switch your readers’ attention into and out of the info-dumps. This usually means that you’ll have to relocate the information to another more natural place in the text, and you’ll have to rewrite it so that the information it contains is incorporated more tightly into the characterisation, setting or plot. Which might mean that you need to add a scene, or explore an existing scene more deeply than you have.

*For those of you who are still interested, it was because she jumped up on the keyboard and managed to delete half of the first draft of this post. Bless her little furry feet. She’d better not do it again.


colbymarshall said...

Unfortunately I've had this happen to me with the cats before...they love to lie on whatever it is you happen to be doing at the time. :-)

Crimogenic said...

Hi Jane,

I wanted to post on your other blog, but I can't seen to do it. I'm not the best with computers. I wanted to say thanks for your words of encouragement and I wish you all the best in writing as well.

Also, just wanted to say (in relation to your other blog) that marketing is key and it's awesome to see that writers are really coming out of their shells and embracing it. Funny enough, I have my own marketing plan worked out, for when I get published.

Jane Smith said...

Colby, a friend of mine was once phone-interviewing someone important when the someone important fell silent in the middle of a sentence. Just for a few seconds. Then there was a yell, and the line went dead.

When my friend finally got back in touch it transpired that the important person's cat, which had been asleep ontop of the computer monitor (this was before flat panel monitors), had suddenly woken up and vomited copiously onto the keyboard below.

You've got to love them, eh? And look at my horrible use of exposition there. Sorry!

Jane Smith said...

Crimogenic, I don't know why you couldn't get onto my other blog, unless you tried while I was editing one of the posts there: let me know if the problem persists and I'll shout and scream a bit until Blogger helps me out.

Meanwhile you're welcome to the words of encouragement: I give them out when I think they're deserved because we all need them (especially me!).

Becky Mushko said...

Because my cats usually sit on the left side of the keyboard and my delete key is at the upper right, they usually add zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz or aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa to what I've written.

As for info-dumps, I hate 'em. I was once in a writers group with several members who were afflicted with "golden word syndrome." Not only did they believe their digressions to explain were necessary—and therefore shouldn't be deleted, but they also wanted others to add explainations for a term or passage so readers would better understand. Arrrgggghhhh!

john white said...

What is it they say about dogs and cats?

Dogs have masters
Cats have servants

Good site, Jane.

Lee said...

Have you read David Foster Wallace? Rules are meant to be broken, if they're broken well.

Jane Smith said...

Lee, rules of this kind are made to help writers understand how to improve their work. And generally, writers who dump a whole load of information into their texts don't break those rules well at all.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I had been chewing over deleting ch. 2 of my manuscript - an extended flashback - and had just made the decision to do it when I found this post. Ah, kismet!

I'll still need a swig of courage first before I hit the delete key on all that text, though.