Drip feeding is the concept of providing your readers with information on your story’s world or your character’s backstory a little bit at a time, with small pieces here and there that come together to form a bigger picture over time. This is in comparison to, for example, a prologue that explains the entire history of your sci-fi setting in one lump of exposition. This works because it allows the reader to get to know the characters before being dumped into a history lesson, it allows for hints at a bigger and more complex universe without you necessarily needing to explain every tiny detail, and it allows for reveals and plot twists through the story about that history.
I want to talk about a TV show that is a very good example of drip feeding done right. Steven Universe is a cartoon aimed at kids, but it has a complexity to it that has given it a large number of adult fans too. In the early episodes, we are introduced to the protagonist Steven, who is living with three gems – beings who each have a gemstone that is their core being but who can project a physical form that looks similar to a human (but often in a colour that matches their gem). We learn from the start that Steven is a hybrid between a human and a gem and he spends these early episodes trying to control his magic powers, going on adventures with the gems, and fighting monsters.
What we don’t know about right away is the thousands of years of history, rebellion, warfare, betrayal, and loss that led up to this. That comes later and no all at once. We are shown little hints that point to something bigger going on. In one episode, Steven is taken to a gem battlefield that is covered in fallen weapons. Looking at what’s left, all these years later, it’s clear that a battle on a massive scale took place here, but the details of exactly who was fighting whom is not revealed until later.
Similarly, there are hints about the gems being in hiding. The gems use warp pads to travel around Earth, and one episode shows us the galaxy warp – a pad that will do the same thing but allow gems to travel from planet to planet. This warp is broken and the gems are performing a regular check to make sure that it’s still broken. An episode has Pearl trying to build a spaceship and wanting to show Steven the galaxy. At one point, she mentions homeworld, but she doesn’t talk about taking him there, she talks about maybe seeing it from a distance. When something finally comes to Earth from another world and starts trying to repair the galaxy warp, the gems are scared and the reveal comes that they rebelled against their government and are in hiding. They don’t want anyone from their homeworld to know that they’re still alive.
This reveal fits with all the clues that have come before it. As the audience, we’ve seen all the hints leading up to this moment, so the information slots into place and completes the picture.
This is just one example of many. Over the course of the show’s run, information has been provided about where gems come from, how they’re grown, the structure of the society, the rulers, the powers that they have, the war to protect Earth thousands of years ago, the history of the main characters, and so on, building up a picture of a complex setting with a rich history.
This means that the plot twists aren’t necessarily a complete shock to the audience, especially in a case like this where a lot of the audience are adults watching a show that’s primarily aimed at a younger audience. The adult viewers pick up on clues that the younger viewers might miss, speculating about future reveals, but there is something very satisfying about being proved right when one of those twists comes. When the show makes a revelation, we can look back at the clues and think, “Yes, that makes sense.”
Often, drip feeding isn’t about shocking plot twists. Instead, it’s about having a box of jigsaw pieces and gradually putting them together to reveal more and more of the picture to your reader/audience.