Question: I'm particularly curious about exposition in 3rd person narrative.
Which method is preferred to readers, standalone paragraphs of information or not-so-subtle dialogue (I understand both are needed, but to what degrees)?
Answer: I can't give a definitive answer here. It depends on your style, the audience, genre, paragraph length, etc. You have to judge whether the pace feels right and what the best way to introduce the facts are in your scene. If in doubt, ask some people to read your story and see if they think it drags or moves too quickly.
Of course, if you can introduce key facts a sentence at a time, perhaps inserted into a paragraph of action, rather than a whole paragraph at a time, that can often help with pacing.
As for exposition in dialogue, if it sounds natural and in keeping with the context, that's okay. If it's obvious that your character is delivering an info dump like no one in real life does, or telling someone information they must already know, then you need to revise.
Q. Is it best to reveal before or after it is relevant to the story?
Again, it's all about context. Some facts need to be introduced early on, because presenting them after the fact feels like cheating your way out of a tense situation. (E.g. The villain suddenly falls down dead, and the hero says, "Good thing I decided to put slow-acting poison in his drink earlier!")
On the other hand, it's often best to introduce essential background facts AS they become important, rather than slowing the pace earlier with a background dump.
Q: Also, is it appropriate to mention unnecessary things for character building or false foreshadowing?
It's best if you can demonstrate your character through his response to the situation before him, physical traits as they become important, etc. But readers can forgive a little description if it helps them get to know the character sooner. This is actually easier than in 1st person narration, where it makes little sense for the POV character to describe himself.
(The worst are scenes where a heroine looks into a mirror and describes her body, including bust size, in a way that feels forced and voyeuristic).
Red herrings (false clues) are perfectly acceptable in stories involving mystery.
Any help is greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance.
Hope that helps.
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