Explaining In Your Story:
When You Should, When You Shouldn't, & How To Do It

When's the right time to drop those delicious details? When should you hold back for awhile longer? Or do you even need to explain this stuff at all? It's not always clear when, where, how, or even whether we should explain something to the audience, so here's what you need to know to figure it out!

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When lack of explanation can go bad

Failing to give out certain information can sometimes weaken your story and hamper your audience's ability to enjoy it. Here are some ways how:

It's hard to follow the story and understand what's going on. We don't always need to understand each and every little thing, and sometimes information needs to be withheld to build up suspense and mystery. However, some information is crucial to understand what's going on and why. While we might not necessarily need to know, say, the exact deadly illness the protagonist suffers from and wants to find a cure for, we do need to understand that the protagonist suffers from a life-threatening illness and wants to cure it. Otherwise, we're just watching some random person wandering around for no discernible reason. And that's not entertaining - it's just confusing and boring.

The story failed to deliver an explanation we were teased or promised would come. Steven Moffat promised Sherlock fans that the third season would explain how Sherlock survived his fall. But it didn't, and the fans were pretty annoyed. Likewise, sometimes a creator will tell fans that the next installment will "answer all your questions," only to answer maybe one or two and ignore the rest. And other times, a story will put a lot of emphasis on a particular mystery and frame it as something that will eventually be solved, only for it to fall completely by the wayside. This is always disappointing and frustrating.

A character appears OOC for no reason. Fans get really peeved when their favorite characters seem to be acting out of character for no real reason, especially when it makes them look evil or incompetent. For example, it's hard to believe that somebody who is normally good at keeping a reasonably cool head through all sorts of crises would suddenly lose it over one incident no worse than anything else faced in the past, or that a character who understands computer security would just fail to use any kind of preventative measures that could keep an unknown program from infecting the entire mainframe if it turned out to be malicious, or that a character known for being empathetic and tolerant would suddenly spout off bigoted opinions. If a character's behavior is going to suddenly go off the rails, fans need to understand why.

Nobody can figure out why a character didn't just do the obvious. Watching a character fail to try an easy, obvious solution that this character should already know about can be very frustrating. It can be very difficult to get invested in the drama as a whole because the fact that it's all so contrived is so glaringly obvious. Additionally, some people might even resent the character for being so inept or brainless. This kind of thing often indicates rushed writing. To avoid this, slow down and look at what your characters are doing, and ask yourself if there's anything they should probably be doing that they aren't. If there is, either figure out a reason the character can't do that, or change your story so that it's no longer an issue.

When an explanation can go bad

On the other hand, some explanations are completely unnecessary (contrary to what some hyper-picky/bad faith YouTube channels might have you believe!). totally nonsensical, or utterly distasteful. Some explanations are even so bad they're worse than no explanation at all. Here are some ways an explanation can go wrong:

It doesn't fit the story's theme or tone. When The Phantom Menace revealed that people's ability to use the Force came from midichlorians (tiny organisms living in one's cells), many Star Wars fans were displeased. The reason was simple: up to this point, Star Wars wasn't a true science fiction story so much as a sword 'n sorcery fantasy with a science fiction aesthetic. The Force was essentially magic, and fans were happy to accept it as such. Midichlorians would have probably worked fine in a soft science fiction setting like Doctor Who, but in Star Wars they felt jarring and made the Force feel a little less magical.

It's pointlessly gross and disgusting. When JK Rowling decided to reveal that Hogwarts never had a proper sanitation system until the 18th century and that everybody just went where they stood and magicked away the mess, even longtime fans were disgusted and appalled. Many were quick to point out that the Medieval period had numerous sanitation solutions including chamber pots and garderobes. So even though this fit into the franchise's history of gross-out humor, it took things a step too far and just made no sense.

It steps on somebody's boundaries. JK Rowling decided to take it upon herself to work out how various Native American beliefs should be worked into her setting's lore, and she ended up doing it in a way that was incredibly dismissive and disrespectful. ("Real" medicine men, according to Rowling, were wizards; the rest were all frauds. To make an analogy, this is a little bit like claiming only wizards can be real priests, and the rest are frauds.) What she should have done was ask some actual Native Americans what (if anything) it might be appropriate to incorporate into her setting and exactly how, or just left the whole thing alone completely. But she didn't; instead, she chose to exploit and misrepresented living minorities, which is a pretty serious cultural boundary violation.

We can easily infer it for ourselves. It can be annoying and even feel insulting when the author decides to spoonfeed us facts we could easily work out for ourselves. For example, if the author mentions that the protagonist comes into the house with a dripping umbrella and windblown hair, it doesn't need to be said that there's a powerful storm blowing outside, too - we can figure that one out for ourselves. Likewise, if we already know that someone has a private jet, we don't need to be told how this person traveled from one end of the country to the other.

It's not how this thing actually works. For example, an author decides that the reason vampires drink blood is because vampirism is caused by a parasite that makes them crave it, which is a good and solid start as far as explanations go. But instead of just letting it be a fictional parasite, the author names a real parasite that doesn't actually do that. If your explanation involves something that actually exists, then it needs to be consistent with how it actually works. If the real life version won't work for your story, then you should probably find a different explanation (even if you just have to make something up), or just leave it up to audience imagination.

It creates a method-motive mismatch. A method-motive mismatch occurs when an author tries to explain a character's actions with a motive that should actually lead somewhere else. A good example of this is Thanos from Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos's murderous goals are explained with "he just wants to stop overpopulation so nobody has to suffer from shortage." But as many, many people have pointed out, that was was basically the worst possible way of achieving that goal and that there are numerous options that don't involve violence at all. For another example of a method-motive mismatch, a supposedly well-educated character with near-infinite resources wants to eliminate crime. But rather than addressing the root causes of most crime (which are typically poverty and poor education), the character uses these resources to become a superhero and beat up criminals. So instead of having a genuinely heroic character, we end up with a selfish twit who just wants to act out a power fantasy and/or gain public admiration at the expense of others.

It otherwise makes no sense in context. For example, a long-awaited backstory involves character going to a city that wasn't built yet, reading a book that wasn't available in any language the character knew yet, and meeting several people who wouldn't have been there at all and/or wouldn't have been interested or motivated to interact with the character. A good explanation always makes sense in context.

It's a pointless and boring infodump. To explain what constitutes a pointless and boring infodump, let's first look at an example of something that superficially resembles one, but actually isn't. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy often takes a moment to share an amusing snippet from the titular guide. They're scattered consistently through the story and are all pretty brief, so when one pops up you are neither caught off guard nor bored to tears by it. Additionally, they're all relevant (if only tangentially so) to the actual plot in some way. And very importantly, they're actually entertaining. On the other hand, an exposition of something completely unrelated to the plot right right now (or at least seems completely unrelated) can be a very unwelcome intrusion, especially if it's lengthy, dull, or doesn't concern anything the audience actually cares about. If you do plan to explain something that might not be strictly necessary, ask yourself: Is it the kind of thing that the kind of people reading your story will actually be interested to know? And if so, what can you do to make sure it's going to be genuinely entertaining, and how can you keep it from feeling like a boring lecture?

Something way more interesting is going on already. Pausing a high-speed or high-stakes plot to give a long and detailed explanation of something that isn't actually all that important to it tends not to go over well. It often feels like it's just getting in the way of the actual story, and people mostly just wish you'd hurry up and get on with it.

It's completely underwhelming. If something is framed or hyped up as a big mysterious deal but turns out to have a fairly ordinary or mundane explanation, audiences can feel severely underwhelmed or even cheated. For example, if it's implied that a character who was magically resurrected from the dead was brought back with costly, high-risk magic only for it to turn out that the spell they used was no more difficult or dangerous than any other spell they might use on a regular basis, it can feel like a major letdown.

The explanation is muddled or rushed, or the audience doesn't have time to absorb it. It's true that you don't want your expositions to drag down your story, but if they're hard to understand or if the audience doesn't have a little time for the information to settle in before something else demands their full attention, they won't do much good. You need to make sure that they're comprehensible, and that the audience has time for it to sink in before they're distracted by something else. (For example, a movie or TV show would do well to give the audience a few seconds of quiet before shifting to the next scene or launching into an action sequence.)

It's actually a fake explanation. For example, a character does something that other characters and audience members alike know full well should be impossible in this world. Attention will be drawn to this fact by having a confused character point this out. The first character will smirk and say, "But it's not impossible for me." The lampshade hung, we're supposed to just accept that we've been ~outsmarted~ and move on. Except we haven't been outsmarted, because the author clearly has no idea what happened, either. It's nothing more than a pretentious and lazy way to look clever without actually doing anything clever.

The explanation is only found outside of the story itself. A well-crafted story never needs the audience to refer to supplementary materials, read the author's Twitter, or read the comic book it was adapted from to understand what's going on. If the audience needs to read or watch something else to understand what's going on in this story, then it's not well-crafted. A good story can stand on its own two feet without needing anything else to prop it up.

How, where, and when to explain

How exactly do you know when and where to explain something? How should you do it? There's no one exact answer. Instead, you'll have consider what you're trying to say or accomplish with your story and weigh out which choices are probably the right ones for you. Here's what you need to think about when you do this:

How are you going to deliver the information? You don't always need to have a character verbally explain something. You can aim for a "show, don't tell" approach. For example, rather than having a character say "this city is full of magic," you might show or describe a handful of magical things happening to give people a sense of just how magical the city is.

If you are going to have a character verbally explain it, does the action make sense in context? It doesn't always make sense for a character to deliver a verbal explanation. One example is the "As You Know" moment: in order to get the audience apprised of what's going on, one character explains what's going on to a character who already knows, and therefore doesn't actually need anything explained. This is why having a character who truly does need to have something explained can come in handy. This is why John Watson is useful: being unfamiliar with Sherlock Holmes's methods and being someone that Sherlock Holmes likes, the detective is motivated to explain things to him that the audience needs to know and understand.

The character who needs things explained doesn't necessarily need to be a regular, either. It could be a student or employee dropping by to ask a quick question, a nameless person on the other end of the phone, or a concerned neighbor checking in to see if everything is all right. The exact nature of who or what this person should be depends on the nature your story and what you want to accomplish with it.

Don't forget that realistically, not everyone should have the time, energy, skill, or patience to explain something. Some people are happy to explain things; others find it exhausting. Sometimes people just have more important things to worry about. Some people might overshare certain information because they have no filter or think that anyone who gives them the time of day is their BFF, but other people will take information to the grave. If everyone in your story is ready, willing, and able to explain everything all the time, then not everyone is behaving authentically.

Is the tone and mood right for the amount of information you want a character to deliver? Long and in-depth verbal expositions are best for slower parts of the story where things feel stable and secure enough that the characters can slow down for awhile, or when they're waiting for something and have nothing better to pass the time with. For bustling or action-packed scenes, it's better to be brief and to the point. You want to make sure your information is delivered in a way that feels natural and fits the rhythm of what's going on.

When will you deliver the information? People easily forget information that seems irrelevant and useless, so if you explain something too long before it becomes relevant to the story they might forget about it. But if you deliver it too late, it can feel like you pulled it out of your ass at the last minute.

The best time to introduce a piece of information is when it does actually something for your audience, for your characters, or both. You don't want to define the function and purpose of a thrazmalian in chapter three, only for a thrazmalian to never be seen or spoken of again until chapter thirty-nine. You might have a character briefly talk about a thrazmalian early on, but you wouldn't start too getting heavy on the details until it's about to become important to the story. Alternatively, you might introduce little bits and pieces about what a thrazmalian is and what it does throughout the story to build up suspense as part of a mystery - discovering what this thing is and what it does could be the focus of your story.

To evaluate what a piece of information might do for your audience, ask yourself: Does it help them visualize what's happening? Does it tell them anything they need to know to understand what's going on right now, or to have a sense of what they can expect very soon? Does it help them understand what the general mood and tone of the story is supposed to be? Does it help them understand a character well enough that the character's previous or subsequent actions will make sense to them? Does it answer a question that's been hanging in the air for awhile now? Will they find the information interesting or entertaining, and will they find it contextually relevant?

To evaluate what it might do for your characters, ask yourself: Will it motivate or empower them to do something that will move the plot forward? Will it affect the choices they make sooner rather than later?

Information is delivered too late when it arrives after the point it would have been the most useful or interesting to know. If you show or imply that a character is under mind control right before having the character do something uncharacteristic, you're good. You could also wait and make it into a big dramatic reveal after the fact that forces the characters to rethink the whole situation and how they're handling it. But if you wait until it's too late for to this information to have any impact on this particular plot or plot arc, then you waited too long. Sure, you might make make the character's fanbase happy (and that's not necessarily a bad thing), but it still feels like an asspull.

Information is also delivered too late when it comes off as a deus ex machina. If you show or hint early on that a character is under mind control and create a scenario where the audience is left wondering whether anyone will discover the truth before it's too late, then you're good. You could also make the character's bizarre behavior into a point of mystery, and make the plot about the other characters trying to figure out what's really going on. But if you give the audience no reason to think that they shouldn't take everything they're seeing at face value, then have someone sweep in from left field and reveal that the character was secretly under mind control at the very end, it's going to feel like a deus ex machina.

Who is your target audience? Exactly what you need to describe and explain also has a lot to do with who your target audience is. Obviously you can't read your audience's mind, but you can ask yourself who your target audience is and what they'll most likely want or need to know. For example, if you're writing for teenage fantasy fans, they'll probably find the topic of how magic works to be very interesting, but they probably won't care about your world's tax laws or how the plumbing works. If you're writing for a Catholic audience, you won't need to explain how the religion works, but you might need to add some exposition if you're writing for a wider audience who might not understand what's going on and why if you don't.

Would it be helpful to refresh or remind the audience at some point? If something hasn't come up or happened in a long while, people might forget the finer details surrounding it. This is why a Netflix show might include a recap of the last season when it brings out the new one, or why someone in a book might give a brief summary of something that happened a few books back. But on the other hand, being reminded of something too soon and too often can be irritating. Nobody likes being told something they already know as if they're complete ignoramuses or can't be expected to remember information for longer than three pages.

So how can you know what your audience will probably remember and what they might forget? It's not an exact science, but you can make some reasonable guesses based on the following:

The more central or pivotal something is to your story, the more likely your audience is to remember it. They might forget the name of the person who created your hero's magic sword, but they won't likely forget the fact that your hero fought the final battle with a magic sword.

Anything that appears frequently is more likely to be remembered. People might forget that one specific magical power that was used that one time, but they won't likely forget the one that was used throughout the entire story.

They're also more likely to remember anything they find neat or interesting, and forget whatever they find boring. (See the above bit on teenagers and tax laws.)

People usually remember things that leave a strong emotional impact. They might remember an outstandingly funny scene, or a part that broke their hearts, or a fight that left them on the edges of their seats. They'll remember their favorite underdog triumphing over a bully, or the moment a long-awaited kiss happens.

They also tend to remember anything they're likely to have a persistent mental image of. Once you describe your main character they'll keep that mental image with them throughout the story, and so they won't forget what your character looks like. This isn't to say that you can't occasionally mention something about your character's appearance now and then, but rather that it's not something you need to do all that often.

The more time and distraction that's happened since something occurred to came up, the more likely people are to forget it. If there's been a busy plot arc or two since, or if it's been been a long time between installments, they've probably forgotten quite a few of the less-memorable details and some of the more memorable ones might be starting to get a little hazy. So it might be necessary to give them a quick recap or have a character make a brief mention or explanation they might have forgotten.

Ultimately, you'll need to weigh and consider all of this for yourself. You'll have to decide for yourself what you'll need to explain, and when and how you're going to explain it. You might be afraid of making a mistake, but becoming a creator is all about trial and error and discovering for yourself what does and doesn't work. So try your best, and if it doesn't work as well as you'd hoped, make necessary adjustments next time and try again.

You might also be interested in:

Describing Your Character: Tips & Advice
Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This
Magical & Supernatural Tropes To Reconsider (And Tips To Build Up Your Magical/Supernatural Settings!)
Villain Motives Made Easy

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