Show, Don’t Tell: how to get rid of background exposition

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Background exposition. When your characters have enough history to fill another whole book, but you’re not ready to write that book yet (or ever).

It usually looks like this (notice the proliferation of past perfect tense):

She had been living alone since her husband, Tom, left. He hadn’t stayed around long after their baby died. It had been a long, intensive labor, and the little girl, born a full month early, hadn’t survived.

Or this:

I had been the youngest ever accepted into the Academy, and the quickest ever to graduate. Since then, I had sought out every acclaimed blade-wielder in the five kingdoms, and defeated them all. I had come to this city for one reason only; to challenge the last.

 

Why is this a problem?

Because real people don’t go around summarizing their own histories in their heads. So when fictional people do it, it ruins the suspension of disbelief.

Now, let’s find a way to show.

We have to seamlessly work all the same details into an actual scene. Into action. Into dialogue. The trick is to plant clues for our readers. Let’s start with our first example:

It didn’t matter if no one else was around to appreciate it. It was Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake; the house shouldn’t be completely devoid of twinkle lights and fake greenery. Maggie yanked down the attic stairs and ascended them with a flashlight.

She found the tree right away; it was still in the box it came in. Nothing else was labeled, of course. Waste of effort, Tom would say every year, I’ll remember which ones are which.

            “Fat lot of good that does me now, Tom,” she said aloud. She pulled up the flaps of the next closest box.

And stopped breathing.

A tiny pink dress stared up at her from atop a pile of tiny hats and tiny pairs of overalls and tiny white socks fringed with lace. She blinked. Tom must have put it up here. After he said he’d get rid of it all. She remembered, because she’d specifically asked him to.

            What else would I do with it? he’d snapped; I don’t know why we bought all this crap so early on, anyway.

            Early. Everything had been too early. The clothes. The morning. The baby.

            Maggie bowed her head and sobbed into the cardboard.

A little bit of past perfect tense sneaks in there, but it’s much more organic to the scene.

See how we use Maggie’s present to illustrate her past? See how we don’t actually come right out and say anything, but it’s all evident in what she’s doing and what she’s thinking? We never say Tom was her husband, but our readers see that they had a house together, celebrated holidays together, and at some point thought they were going to have a child. We never mention that the baby died, but from the baby’s absence, the boxed-up baby clothes, the couple’s angry conversation, the “early” tie-in, and Maggie’s tears, our readers get the message.

To sum up:

  • Show the past by telling the present consequences
  • Give your reader clues, not facts
  • Work those clues into the action and dialogue

Stay tuned: next week we’ll do a “showy” version of the second example.

Read last week’s post on how to “Show, Don’t Tell” with description.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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36 Comments

  1. What an excellent post – it’s evident you know your stuff! You can really see the difference between the two excerpts of writing. Instead of a condensed biography, there is a punchy, interesting, fast paced story.

    I hope to be able to incorporate your advice into my own writing!

  2. This was very educational! Thank you! As I sat here reading, I realized just how little I know about real ‘writing’ and story crafting. 🙂 I need another prompt for practice! LOL

  3. Well said. I commit this crime pretty often. Sometimes I’m trying not to drag out the story, but this post has great examples of turning that into a strength.

    • Yeah, well, if you can plant those clues in an existing scene, then you really don’t have to “drag out” the story. But if you do need to write a new scene or two, it will still work better than exposition!

  4. I must share this post with one of the writers in my writing group. She tends to write in the narrative style. By comparing your two examples it is evident which is the better choice. Thank you!

  5. Excellent help. Thanks. Robin

  6. Ah, another very helpful post! Thank you, Stephanie! 🙂

  7. I think I have been occasionally guilty of telling, rather than showing, in the past. Your examples demonstrate beautifully the effect that a story can have if we do that little bit of extra effort.

    Great post! 😀

  8. Great post. I tweeted it! : )

  9. I learn better by example and this is a great example. Thanks.

  10. I started off extremely exposition-heavy, and I still have to fight against that. It’s just so much easier to tell than to figure out how to show! But then, if this were easy, I probably wouldn’t find it so rewarding. Le sigh.
    Excellent post with excellent examples. Another tricky question is when to hint and when to be explicit, how to trust one’s readers without being confusingly obscure.

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  12. Point. 🙂

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  20. FANTASTIC before and after examples… thanks so much for the inspiration!

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  22. I detest and boycott all “show, don’t tell”-style stories. There is no way you can corrupt me into showing deliberately instead of telling. The more exposition, the better!

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