Back in the day, before reality tv shows, soap operas would try to lure new viewers by constantly recapping what had happened. Dialogue between characters consisted of listing both their relationship and what happened in previous episodes. (Sample dialogue: “You are my brother and if you think I’m going to sit back while you sleep with my wife days after our father’s funeral, you’ve got enough think coming!“) If you don’t want your novel sounding like an episode of Young and the Restless, you need to understand how to write exposition.
Whether you are describing your world, the rules of magic, or your character’s background, delivering exposition is a tricky task. Too much and you risk boring your reader. Not enough and they might not understand what’s going on. Here are some examples for how to deliver what your reader needs to know.
Have your protagonist talk to a character who doesn’t know what’s going on. By delivering information to that character, they are also delivering it to the reader. (Example, Hagrid telling Harry Potter about Voldermort, what happened to his parents and why he’s special) Although not my favourite method, it is better than straight narrative.
Let the reader piece together the necessary information rather than spoon feeding it to them. If your protagonist is a retired solider, show him looking at his worn uniform or a rusty sword. Is your character a powerful wizard who can’t control their powers? Have them burn spell books or refuse to assist someone in need.
How does your protagonist’s past affect their present? Has their heart been broken which makes them leery of relationships? Have your character tell us how s/he is feeling and why. Your reader is less likely to skip passages if your protagonist is passionate about what they are revealing.
Of course you should go through your favourite books to see what methods those authors have used, but it doesn’t hurt to go through books you’ve put down to see how they’ve failed.
However you chose to approach exposition, make sure your reader is going to keep turning the pages. Do that, and you’re golden.