Imagine that I have a protagonist who’s an expert sculptor, and it’s essential for character development and the plot for the audience to understand the tools and materials she works with and the precision involved. I could have the protagonist (or the narrator) deliver an entire treatise on sculpting, thereby letting the momentum in my story slam to a dead stop.
So how do I convey that crucial exposition without the dreaded data dump? The easiest solution is to show the audience, not tell them. So let’s say the protagonist isn’t a sculptor but has a powerful motive to find out more, perhaps to assess the value of a sculpture he’s stumbled across. The audience learns the details as the protagonist does. This technique works only if it’s believable that the protagonist doesn’t already know the information.
However, in my example, the protagonist is already an expert. It isn’t believable that she wouldn’t know what goes into creating a sculpture. How do I present that information in an entertaining, believable fashion? I have a couple of options:
- I can introduce a character who truly doesn’t know much—a client or a trainee—and have my protagonist teach that person about sculpting.
- People don’t tell people things they both already know unless they’re fighting, and that information sticks in someone’s emotional craw. Maybe my sculptor argues with her estranged husband, who complains about how very little money her art has brought in over the years when compared to the level of effort.
- I can find another source to convey that information: in-universe media such as articles, letters, diary entries, etc.
- I can use a flashback that shows the information without my protagonist having to recount it.