Exposition is a difficult aspect of writing to master, and also one of the most pivotal to the success of your story. Done right, the various elements of your story flow together seamlessly—and done wrong, it can cause the whole thing to fall apart. At its worst, exposition can veer off into the dreaded territories of infodumping and telling rather than showing.
On the off-chance you haven't heard of infodumping, it's when information is relayed to the reader clumsily and en masse, which makes it feel feels more like the reader is having the story explained to them second-hand than actually experiencing it for themselves. Rearing its ugly head in such places as too-long monologues, large chunks of background information, blatant hint-dropping, and direct reporting of plot points, it is to be avoided at all costs.
Trouble is, many writers don't even know they're doing it, much less what they should be doing instead.
And that's why we're here!
This post brought to you by guest blogger Tyrone Couch.
The 'What' of It All
If we're going to get exposition right, then we ought to know what that looks like—but before any of that, we have to be sure we understand what exactly 'exposition' is.
In general, the term refers to the revealing of information about the characters and setting of a story. Usually, this involves events or truths that took place before the story began (or at the very least occurred 'off-screen'). Like us, our characters and setting 'existed' long before the time in which the story takes place: thus, by the time the story starts, there's already a lot to come to know about them.
The art of how, when, and why we reveal these details is the art of exposition.
What's The Point?
Even if your main character was an infant, there'd still be plenty to say about what makes them who they are: where their parents were born, the circumstances of their birth, the place they were born into ... so in the much more likely event that your story follows an adult or adolescent, there's a vast amount of things you could say about them to help the reader understand what makes them tick.
The first step in writing good exposition is choosing the right ones to share.
For some writers, this process is challenging, as it can both frustrate progress and be a bit of an ego check. You have to regularly ask yourself: how interesting and relevant is this information, really? Does the insight that it gives to the reader work hard enough to enrich the character/setting, or would the words be better spent on something that does?
It might seem like you have a lot of words to play with in a novel-length manuscript and can afford to have a character spend an entire chapter navel-gazing, but a book that took three years to write can be read in a day, and readers don't have a lot of tolerance for writing that doesn't at least implicitly enhance the overall experience that you're offering them. Half the fun of reading is picking up the threads the writer has left behind and following them to where they lead, so if they don't lead them any closer to the big picture (or worse, lead them nowhere at all), they aren't going to be impressed.
Let's say a character of yours had a highly unlikely experience as a child, and you choose to relay that to the reader. The event itself might make for a really interesting story, and may even have influenced who that character became ... but if that particular experience and the resulting character trait is only loosely related to what's happening in the story, to be blunt, you're better off without it.
Cohesion is the name of the game. Each consecutive punch should make the previous one feel like a tickle, and that's a lot easier to achieve when you're aiming for the same spot.
If you serve the story always and leave out anything that doesn't, you'll have a lot less to fear from infodumping.
Doing The Thing
Now that we know what we're doing and why, let's look at how.
There are four primary avenues for relaying exposition: narration, recollection, dialogue, and inner monologue. The best way to illustrate how to use them (and how not to use them) is probably just to show you.
For the purposes of this, exposition that stands alone from the narrative will be referred to as 'segregated', while exposition that is successfully weaved into it will be considered 'integrated'.
Patrick hesitated at the gates. Ever since a severe bout of turbulence he'd experienced as a child, he'd been petrified of flying. He'd been ten at the time, and his mum had sent him off alone to meet his dad on the other side. The concept of being thirty thousand feet above the earth in a metal tube had been frightening enough, but the turbulence had pushed him over the edge. Now, every time he flew, he reverted to that small child, wedged between two strangers with no one to comfort him, trying desperately not to show his fear.
Patrick waited until the final call before approaching the gate, sweat beading on his brow. Stepping into the jet bridge, trailing behind the queue and trying not to hold up the stragglers at his back, the enclosed bridge began to shake violently, lights flickering. His stomach sank as the bridge began to fall. He looked out a window at the ground far, far below and shut his eyes tight. He thought of his mother's farewell at the gates, realising it was their last. His father would be left waiting for him at his destination, where he would never arrive. The shaking stopped. When his eyes flew open, he was not ten years old, but thirty-five, his parents neither behind nor ahead of him. He smiled weakly at the stewardess, flashing his ticket.
Though the information being communicated by both of these passages is largely the same, the method of delivery is much different. In the integrated version, rather than being thrown at the reader as cold, hard information, the expository details are packaged within actions and experiences. By doing this, the 'movement' of the story doesn't have to stop while the exposition takes place. For everyone other than Patrick, this makes for a significantly less turbulent journey.
On a rainy day back in high school, Thomas, the school bully, had challenged me to a fight after last bell. He'd called me a coward in front of everyone. I'd never been in a fight before, so I was scared, but I was more worried about what the others would think if I didn't show up. I lost the fight, but standing up for myself that day prepared me for the challenges that lay ahead.
The grounds slick with recent rain, in full view of the whole cohort, Thomas had challenged me to a fight behind S Block after school. If I showed up, I'd be beaten to a pulp—and if I didn't, I'd be proving that everything he'd said about me was true. I wasn't sure which was worse. I may have lost the fight, but by having had the courage to show up at all, I gained something far more valuable. Looking back, if I'd made a different decision that day, things might've ended up a lot worse than they did.
Once again, there are only minor differences in the actual content here, but the message is the same. One of the key changes in the second example is the language—specifically, the voice—being used. More of the narrator's personality is coming across, and as a result, the exposition feels less like a list of facts and more like the way a person might actually recall the event as it happened to them.
'Do you read much?' asked Martha.
'Oh, no,' said Sean. 'My parents were very strict about what what I was allowed to read when I was growing up, and made me read a lot of things I had no interest in. Because of that, I have a negative association with books.'
'Bit of a nomad, then, are you?' said Martha. 'I've just finished reading this great travelogue, if you'd like to borrow it.'
Sean gave a lopsided smile. 'Not much of a reader, to be honest. Wasn't a lot of reading in our house back in the day—unless you count the 'approved subjects', in which case there was plenty. Prefer to see things for myself these days.'
There's a little more going on in this example. The content of the first speaker is almost entirely different, and for good reason. One of the worst ways to handle exposition is through 'question and answer' dialogue, in which it's apparent that the questions are more of a convenience for the writer to have the second speaker give their answer than a genuine question. Here, it's imagined that Sean has indicated an interest in travel, which gives Martha a more conversational and character-driven way of prompting Sean to communicate the exposition.
This city really brings back memories. As much as I used to think I hated the place, I've always looked back on it fondly. Now that I'm here again, I'm realising how much it meant to me. Somehow, even now, it feels the same as it always did. I wonder how Sara is doing.
Never thought I'd find myself back in this old snake pit. As unkind as this city and I had been to each other, I couldn't deny I thought of the good times a lot more often than the bad. Being here again, it's almost like I could walk right back into the old arcade and seeing Sara hunched over the House of the Dead cabinet, five tokens deep, brow furrowed even deeper.
Aside from the obvious injection of a bit more personality, the integrated example elaborates on the previous one with more detail, making the characters and the world they inhabit feel more 'alive'. Emotional language is used to enhance the otherwise generic sentiments, and there is less reliance on cliché to communicate them.
Weaving The Tapestry
From exposition, to show vs. tell, to the horrors of infodumping, we've covered quite a bit of ground today! It's a lot to take in, so if it feels a little imposing, don't be discouraged. Hopefully, the examples above have given you a sense of how to approach exposition and identified some some opportunities for you to improve your storytelling.
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Word of the Day
In a discussion in which something is being considered, information that is relevant and meaningfully linked to the subject is considered germane. It is often used colloquially to suggest that a sentiment is not germane, and therefore incongruous with a particular ideal.
The informant provided intel that was germane to the investigation.
His recent behaviour had not been germane to the company's vision.
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