Being a Better Writer: Balancing Beats and Exposition

Welcome back, writers, to the final Being a Better Writer installment of 2022!

I know, right? It really doesn’t feel like we should have come this far already, but … here we are. 2022 is drawing to a close in less than three weeks. As to why that would make this post the last of 2022, I still need my Christmas Vacation, which is usually around two weeks this time of year. Which means that, to my surprise, when I looked at the calendar today to check my schedule, I realized that if I wanted my customary vacation, this was going to have to be the last BaBW post of 2022.

Now, this doesn’t mean all the posts will vanish for a while. There’s always a Christmas post. And there are usually a few other posts scattered in there about the usual odds and ends. Plus my vacation won’t officially start until next week. So this week I’ll continue to chug along on that latest Jacob Rocke book, plus keep up with the usual (or is it “unusual” right now?) stuff.

Anyway, if you find yourself hungering for Being a Better Writer while I’m on my Christmas break, you can always browse a selection of the site’s classic posts! At this point, pretty much typing any writing question into the site’s search bar will bring you a BaBW post that touches on the topic. Nine years of Monday updates (since August of 2013) will do that.

All right, so that’s the Christmas break discussed, but we’ve got a few other items of important business to tackle before we get down to nuts and bolt’s with today’s post. The largest of which is pretty easy to guess: How’s Starforge doing?

The answer is pretty awesome: It’s doing great. The whole trilogy is. Now that another week has passed it’s pretty clear that this is definitely one of my strongest, if not the strongest, launches ever. Starforge is tearing it up on page reads and purchases, along with both the first two books in the trilogy. I’m not certain if anyone’s managed to finish it yet, since it is such a titan (you could fit six large paperbacks inside this juggernaut), but from what I’m hearing and seeing everyone’s loving the journey.

Although if you have finished it, do please consider leaving a rating or a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever you read and rate books. Ratings help new folks who haven’t heard about the series via word of mouth if they want to pick it up!

Now, related to this news item, and honestly the other big news item of the weekend, is a little snippet about Colony, the first book in the trilogy. It is a quarterfinalist in the Self-Published Sci-Fi Contest! The reviewers had some pretty nice things to say about it as well. Now it moves ahead to the next phase of the annual contest: culling for the finals!

We’ll see if it makes it. I hope it does. Regardless, it was pretty nice to see out of nowhere a bunch of nice words lavished on Colony about how much it was worth reading.

Okay, one last bit of news. I promise. And it’s short. If you haven’t seen it already, be sure you don’t miss last Friday’s post on the Ten Year Price Update. This weekend most of the price changes on a number of my books went through, but there are still a few that haven’t been completely updated (for boring technical reasons, quite honestly), but will in the coming weeks. The new prices are now up, the chart explains them in full, and if you’re curious about any of them you can hit that link to the above post.

Got it? Okay, good. It’s time to talk about today’s topic. Which, I will note, is a request topic! That’s right, we’re finally getting around to it! And I can very easily see why it is a request topic: because it’s a hard one!

If you hadn’t gathered the full nature of today’s topic from the title—and no shame there, don’t worry—the request for this post posited how one could properly balance their story beats with their exposition. This is a completely understandable topic to have concern about.

That said, it’s also a difficult skill to properly pull off in any book. How difficult? I’ve read award-winning titles that have swept notable awards from “important” organizations that have flummoxed their exposition and their story beats. This is something that writers of all experience levels struggle with.

It’s also something that you are not going to be getting perfectly the first time around. Or the second. Or the third. You can work on it, you can improve it, but the odds are that this is going to be one of the things your early editing folks look for. In fact, this is one of the things that the Alpha Reading looks for during that stage of editing. And wouldn’t you know it, I know for a fact that authors that sell tens of millions of books still have folks going through their manuscripts looking for exactly today’s topic and helping the author refine things.

My point being that this is a lifelong struggle for every author, and very much a part of the job that every author and writer, from the newest noob to the most decorated of wordsmiths has to pay close attention to.

I realize that may be upsetting to some of you, including perhaps the individual that requested this topic, but it shouldn’t be. Learning how to balance your exposition with your story beats—or better yet, carefully interweave them—is akin to learning exactly how much traction a race car’s tires have on each spot of pavement during a complicated, winding course. In other words it isn’t something you learn about and then forget, but something that will be important to keep in mind with every twist and turn of your book.

Okay, so with all this said, let’s hit the jump and start talking about the how as opposed to anything else. You ready? You know what to do.

Okay, so to start things off, let’s establish some terms so that we’re all on the same page. We’re talking about exposition and story beats, so let’s make sure we’re all thinking of the proper terms here.

Let’s start with exposition: Exposition is when the story—be it through the narrator, a character, or any other of many methods—is teaching or explaining something to the reader about the world or setting. Now, I want to make something clear: Exposition is everywhere. For example, take the opening two lines from Shadow of an Empire presented here:

It was warm out. Not hot.

That’s exposition. Small, yes, but it’s exposition all the same. It’s telling or showing the reader something about the world. And yes, I used telling and showing in that last sentence because exposition can be both, from a character informing another character of something specific (which is very literal telling, if carefully concealed in dialogue) to a character feeling the grit of sand that’s gotten into their boots (showing the reader how the sand of whatever setting is being an annoyance).

Exposition is everywhere and can truly be as small as a single line. As a general rule, anything that introduces or explains something about your setting, characters, story, whatever, is exposition. That means a character cupping their head in their hands and lamenting “I don’t know how I’m going to deal with ______ anymore” can be exposition. It means a character showing off some element of the world to a Watson (a character who’s in the story or scene so that something can be explained to them) is exposition.

I stress this because I have met some young writers that think exposition is a sign that an author or creator has failed. But they’re not thinking of exposition, they’re thinking of what we refer to as “infodumping.”

See, exposition really will be woven into our story. In little bits or even large ones here and there. But when exposition goes poorly such as for example two characters discussing what both already should no, for no other reason than to inform the audience … we call that “infodumping.”

Now, we’ve spoken about infodumping before on the site at length, so I don’t think we need to dive into it in any great detail here, but a basic refresher should serve pretty well. Infodumping is what it’s called when the audience notices that the story is pausing to just dump exposition on them, and it feels out of place.

This last bit is important, and again we’ve talked about this before, but one of the things that keeps exposition from being infodumping is if the audience is engaged with it.

Another example from Shadow of an Empire, there’s a scene where one character shows another how they’re going to find water to subsist on while out in the desert, and we learn a fair bit about the ecology of a particular plant that makes it all possible. It’s 100% exposition … but it’s also really fascinating to the reader and feels natural, since the character who is getting the explanation is perfectly justified in both her interest and her lack of knowing some of the basics of desert survival. But because both she is interested and the audience is getting a unique look at something that’s both relevant and fascinating to them, there are few who realize how much exposition it is.

But if the audience does realize how much exposition it is, or if the creator doesn’t attempt at all to make it engaging or even appropriate to the matter at hand … well, that’s when the audience is jerked back from the book and realizes they’re having information dumped on them.

Let me offer an example. There was a much-lauded (but honestly quite poor, in my opinion) Sci-Fi book I read a number of years back that had no interest in weaving exposition into the plot or characters. Instead they’d just interrupt whatever was going on to drop a giant wall of text on the reader. In one instance, there was a somewhat critical discussion going when one character dropped a colloquialism.

Rather than just let the colloquialism stand and have the audience infer what it meant by reactions, or making sure they story had taken the time earlier to teach the audience that, the story instead, in the middle of this sentence after the colloquialism was dropped, used an em-dash to go into a page and a half long exposition dump informing us about the cultural history of this saying and how shocking it was, before using another em-dash to go back to the mid-sentence that had been left over a page ago.

In some stories you could get away with that. A comedy? Yes, that’s something you can get away with as a form of non-sequitur humor, where the joke is how jarring this is for the audience to be yanked away, told something, and shoved back.

But in a very clear non-comedic setting? It’s just jarring. It threw the entire scene and its drama off. Worse, if I recall correctly that saying never comes up again. The entire exposition that had been dumped on the audience? Utterly pointless since the book never goes back to it.

Again, we’ve discussed infodumping in greater detail before on this site, so I think we can just leave it at that. Exposition is anything that informs or educates your reader about the setting or world, from a single line to pages, while infodumping is when our exposition is done poorly and feels jarring or out of place to the reader.

So, that leaves us with “story beats.” What in the world of writing is a “story beat.”

All right, well I hope you’re familiar with the term “pacing.” Pacing is what authors use to describe the “cadence” of a story. A proper story will have rises and falls, slow periods and quick, fast ones. Like a song. Pacing is what we call it when a story properly spaces and arranges these rises and falls, slow, contemplative moments and action-filled points in a manner that is pleasing to read. As a quick example, if a story just offers action action action with no breaks, not only does the action lose its impact, but the audience can feel as if there’s no space to breathe to a degree that they become bored. But putting a single moment for the cast and audience both to “catch their breath” and recharge mitigates that.

“Story beats” come from this type of thinking. If a story is a song with rises and falls, the “beats” are the little moments of the story that make up the larger rising and falling action. So a beat might be a character dueling another, or having a bit of dialogue with someone. It’s a somewhat nebulous term, because each author might see their “beats” a little differently (for example, I see a shift in a conversation as a clear new “beat” while other authors would simply call the whole scene a “beat” as long as there is talking), but the gist of it is that you have beats making up chunks of the story (which we don’t call measures, I guess out of a sort of defiance to our whole analogy being completely swamped in music) which make up the rising and falling cadence of our pacing.

Okay, we’ve talked about all these terms now. We can move on. Phew!

So then, how can we balance our beats with our exposition? Now that we know these terms, how can we make sure that we’re not delving into infodumping while still delivering our readers the information that they need in order to understand our setting or story?

Well, we’ve already touched on it above (and even written a whole post on this topic from another angle, so check that one out too), but we want to weave our exposition into the story in a way that feels natural.

“Oh,” you may say. “Is that it? You make it sound so easy.” I can hear the sarcasm. No worries, I wasn’t leaving it there. See, there’s more to it than simply reaching a scene as we write and saying “And now the reader must know this because I have reached the point where the reader must know this.”

We don’t want that. No, what we want to do is plan what the reader needs to know. We, as creators, should have a handle on what our audience understands about our story, and when and where they will need to know a specific bit of information for things to make sense.

Yes, this is part of writing: Knowing what exposition we need to convey to the audience. And if I’m honest, you cannot properly weave exposition in with story beats if you don’t know that, because if you’re not thinking about what the audience needs to know, you won’t have any framework or guidance for what you need to present.

What I’m getting at is that the first step to properly weaving your exposition into your story is figuring out what the audience needs and wants to know. Note that I said “wants” to know there. As an aside, recall what I said above about an audience being interested in details about your world and therefore not being bothered when they come up. Giving your audience information that they’re curious about is useful, even if it may not be quite as important to understanding the story. There’s a balance there, but I’ll leave that to you to think on for now.

So, what does your audience need to know in order to understand your setting or story? This can be tricky, and I will tell you right now that you won’t satisfy everyone. There’s always going to be a small percentage of readers that either won’t get it, lack basic required knowledge to understand it, or—and yes, I’ve seen this happen—will attempt to shove their own headcanon over atop your own exposition and then complain that it “breaks” the book and it’s your fault.

You’re not writing for those people. You’re writing for the audience that wants to enjoy the book. That’s going to be pulled in by your characters, your adventure, etc. So, what will they need to know, and what do they want to know? You can’t plan this all out in advance, but you can get a good chunk of it figured out.

For example, if you’re writing a fantasy novel and the big bad’s aim is to take control of a certain mountain fortress, and everyone says “we need to stop them,” the audience needs to understand why keeping them from gaining control of said fortress is important. We need to have exposition of some kind that gives us an understanding of why the big bad controlling this fortress would be bad. What do they gain? If it isn’t vital in some way, then why does anyone want it? Why does anyone care?

Make no mistake, I’ve read books that have failed to adequately explained this. I once spent an entire action-climax sequence completely puzzled because the author had not given me (the audience) any exposition as to why any of what the characters were finding or doing was important. All I had to go on was “will they live or die?” Which meant that several moments of “reveal” fell flat completely. The characters were acting shocked and alarmed, but nothing leading up to those moments had prepared me for—or even set up why—understanding their reactions. It was just “Characters are shocked? Okay, I guess something is going on.”

All right, we’re getting a little off track. Point being, you cannot weave exposition into your story beats unless you already know beforehand the general shape of the tapestry. If you want a reader to be surprised, or shocked, or understanding of a detail when the time arrives, then they’ll need to know why it is significant, how it functions, or whatever else about the background, etc, in order to parse that moment.

Yeah, this is planning. And the first step is going “Okay, what do I need to explain.” A good way to look at this, at least to start, is to examine what the “big moments” are for you, as the one who understands the story, and then look at why they matter to you and what knowledge makes them so. For example, if you say one of the big moments is character A asking out character B, because character A has struggled with a lot of insecurity since having a really bad relationship in their past, and the asking out should be seen for the moment of growth it is … then the audience will need to know about all that insecurity and understand the character enough that they’ll also see the growth.

All right, but then how do we weave that into the beats of our story? Carefully. There’s no right answer here, unfortunately, but there are plenty of wrong answers. Ideally, once you know what a reader needs to know, you’ll see ways in the events of your story to work it in organically. Sometimes this may not always happen, but a lot of the time you’ll see a clear spot where you can slip in a little exposition. For example, if one protagonist meets another and is expositing to them who the big bad is, that’s a great time to say “The big bad wants to seize this fortress because it’s nigh impossible to crack from this side, and he’d have complete control over one of our primary trade routes, starving us.” You could expound that further if desired/wanted/needed, but it’s a good, natural place for a character and the audience to learn “oh yeah, it’d be bad if that happened.”

But sometimes this isn’t as easy. Sometimes it may even involve setting something up far in in advance, or even creating new scenes, new “beats” in our story, in order to get the exposition across. Again, when this happens, remember that if our readers find it interesting, they’re a lot less likely to notice that the scene may have been carefully crafted just so that they could learn about a topic—though again, the more you can weave in, the better.

Again, there’s no “right” answer here outside of “carefully.” Think ahead. Think of what your readers need to know, or will want to know, and then think about the beats you need to cover to bring your story to its conclusion. Which of these naturally flow together? If your characters are going to have a downbeat where they relax and open up with one another, might that be a good point for exposition about one’s background that will be good to know prior to the final battle? Or is it too early for their character development to trust the others with that? If so, then where can you fit that in? Maybe you’ll need another downbeat, because it wouldn’t feel right anywhere else. Or maybe you’ll hint at it in the first downbeat, but then build it up for a critical moment in an upbeat so that you’ve laid the groundwork with that earlier hint?

In other words, trying to say “here’s the right way” would literally be writing someone else’s story for them. This takes practice. Lots of it. And again, as I noted above, you’re still going to want to tackle this in editing, because there will be moments where the weave isn’t quite so well put-together, and a good editing team with Alpha Readers who will say “Hey, this felt a little stilted” or “I didn’t quite understand this” will be invaluable.

Again, I stress that authors who sell millions of books still have to work on this while they edit. It’s just part of writing.

EDIT: I do acknowledge that the original question was in regards to “balance” specifically. But there isn’t an appropriate answer for that insofar as “50-50” or similar terms. Rather, each beat can hold more or less exposition depending on what you need to exposit and what the beat is. A chapter made up of a meeting between scientists to go over the upcoming mission and get feedback on who will carry out what duty? An excellent spot for lots of exposition on various relevant topics woven into the various beats of the chapter, such as what each characters’ job is. That exposition would be poorly placed elsewhere. The “balance” so to speak is from the need of what our audience must understand, but also in how smoothly we can integrate it with our story beat. If we can’t, it’s less about balance and more about finding another beat to drop that exposition into.

Okay, this post became quite large. Let’s wrap it up and recap. Exposition is when we inform and educate our readers about our setting, world, characters, etc. Plot beats are the moment to moment snippets of story that make up the larger whole. And we, as writers, should spend time working out what our readers need to understand in order to carefully weave our exposition into our beats in the proper places, IE where they will feel natural, flow with what’s around them, and answer questions the readers may have before they even have them or know they should be asking them.

And again, I know this is not easy. It’s not a “I did this, now I’m good.” It is like keeping track of the traction of all four tires on a car through twists and turns. It’s just part of the job of being a writer.

But when we keep that focus, when we check, and plan, and acknowledge what our audience needs to know before they need to know it … Well, we’ll still most likely have editing to do.

But that polish at the end, and that satisfied audience? It’s worth it.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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