Now, exposition is a difficult aspect of writing to talk about. Ask some writers and they will say it should be avoided at all costs, as other writers and they will say that it is sometimes necessary. There are even writers who thrive on exposition, using it as a tool to deliver personality and garner interest.
I have a mixed bag of advice for those unsure of what exposition is and/or how to use it. Read on!
What is Exposition?
Here’s Google’s definition: a comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory.
In the writing world, it comes in many forms. If a character was to explain an aspect of the world, such as discussing the history behind a place or character, that would be exposition. If the narration of the novel was to explain the motivations and backstory of the protagonist, that would be exposition as well.
Now, this may sound like a common aspect of writing, and it is, but there is nuance to exposition.
The exposition often talked about is the type of exposition that explains the plot and world in an unbroken sequence of dialogue, or narration. While typically frowned upon by many writers, there are still successful novels which use this method. It comes down to the type of writing, the personality of the author and their story.
1. Use World Clues
Those against exposition will tell you that it is a lazy way to tell a story. The best way to get these points across to the reader is in pieces, preferably these pieces conveyed through actions or logical sequences in the story. A ‘learn-as-you-go’ approach.
Whenever you encounter a sequence in your story where a character's backstory or the history of the world, or even the plot needs to be explained, try to do so with a more natural scene. Yes, it is natural for people to sit down and have lengthy discussions, but as an author it is your duty to try and make the story as interesting as possible.
By presenting too much information to the reader you run the risk of boring them with the details, details they may find meaningless as they may not have grown attached to these aspects of your story.
For example; let’s say you have a scientist character. One who is quite knowledgeable and has history to reinforce the reason behind this knowledge. To show this detail, rather than tell it, you can lay clues in your story.
There might be a special diploma, or award in their room. There might be stacks of books, or reams of scientific diagrams on their desk. The character might handle machines, chemicals or equations with confidence, showing their experience.
These are world-clues, evidence that can be subtly noticed or mentioned that convey as much information exposition, but in an interesting way.
2. Story-Time Dialogue
A popular form of exposition is story-time dialogue. It is when two or more characters sit down to discuss recent events and the history that led up to them. It could be dialogue surrounding an encounter the characters had, their personal history, or any other aspect of the story that was brought to their attention.
Whatever it may be, there is a pause in the action. The characters have a moment to collect themselves and answer some questions.
The reason this form of exposition is so popular is because it gives the writer a reason to convey some important details, but also to show off a character’s personality. After all, if you have a dark, foreboding night, a dimly lit bar by the harbor, a feeling of dread hanging in the air, why not have the scarred, pirate-like character in the darkest corner tell a story of sea monsters?
As a writer, you can have a lot of fun with the imagery the character describes and the effect it has on the listeners. You describe the way some characters fidget when they're nervous, or the wide-eyed expression of those captivated. Of course, your most important listener is the reader, so you might not want their focus to stray too far from the story-teller’s words.
A story-time dialogue can easily become one of your novel’s highlights, as long as it doesn’t go on for too long.
3. Focus on the Necessary, Cut Out the Rest
I tend to lean towards the straight-forward writing rather than the more verbose uses of verbiage. I like to hit the reader with only the necessary information as I want them to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. It all comes down to telling/showing them what is important and conveying the feeling of the scene.
I have written a lot on the subject, I’ve also made a few videos.
For some writers, it’s easier said than done, pardon the exposition pun. It might seem easier to give the reader all the details and let them enjoy the ride as you take them on an adventure. However, by cutting out as many details as you can without sacrificing logic, you keep their mind active and an active mind is an interested mind.
Think of it like this; when you hold their hand, they can only really follow in your footsteps and see what you want them to see. When you cut out the details, you are a voice occasionally pointing the reader in the right direction as they find a path for themselves. It may sometimes depend on the reader ‘wanting’ to be interested, but you will be surprised how often that is.
For example; when a character has encountered something that needs more explanation for the reader, ask yourself if the reader really needs to know that information to enjoy the story? Is it a small, unimportant detail? Are there more pressing matters the reader might be concerned with? Is there even time to stop and discuss?
Most importantly, can the reader figure it out for themselves?
Depending on your answer to any of these questions, you might simply continue the story with little-to-no exposition.
4. Personality Driven Narration
While I may prefer the straightforward writing method, I can still admire good exposition when I am presented with it.
By far the most enjoyable expositions I have ever encountered are those of Terry Pratchett. Whenever he had to deliver some exposition in his story, he chose to deliver with plenty of personality. Certainly, narration that is informal or amusing or both can make exposition, even lengthy exposition, enjoyable.
Yet, it doesn’t have to be humorous. Personality is all that matters, afterall, story-time dialogue is just personality driven narration through a character. You can narrate a story in different personalities, depending on the story you are trying to tell.
I encountered a short story, although the name of the story and author escapes me as it was long ago, but it had a profound impact on the way I write certain stories today. It was a suspense-horror story about a group of friends entering an asylum, but it was told through narration that matched the story.
The characters were slowly going mad, it was hard to tell who was insane or who thought they were insane and the narrator did not help. The narration was filled with ambiguous details, but not to an obnoxious degree. It was a subtle devil's-advocate that made you feel like you were in the head of one of the characters.
Although it was the author telling the story and there was plenty of exposition, I remained captivated. It’s also a style I try to use whenever I write short psychological horror stories.
If the use of exposition is prevalent in your style and you would like to keep it in your style, try placing yourself into an unknown character’s shoes and tell the story their way, using their words.
5. Simply, Keep it Brief
As I said earlier, there are those times where it’s necessary for you to deliver some exposition. Some writers might suggest going back, changing the plot around a bit so it can be avoided, but sometimes, that isn’t necessary.
Exposition is everywhere and it is impossible to avoid reading.
So, here is a tip for the beginner writers. Don’t beat yourself up, don’t think about scrapping an entire chapter, especially if you don’t feel exposition is that bad. The biggest issue that readers and writers have with exposition is that it can come off as unnatural, lengthy or boring.
All of these flaws can be circumnavigated by keeping the narration brief. Let the dialogue flow, but don’t get carried away. If you are narrating, make it two or three paragraphs at the most, explain other details later on.
Now, don’t just slap the reader with a fact that raises more questions than it answers. Sometimes, being blunt doesn’t get the point across.
I consider myself fortunate to be so easily bored…sometimes. When it comes to exposition, it is a handy reflex. When there is a segment of my writing that makes me yawn, I know I did something wrong.
However, like every writer, I can’t spot every flaw in my writing. That’s why it pays to have someone you can trust to read your work and provide good, constructive criticism. I recommend every writer find that someone, be it a friend or family member.
Of course, if you want professional help in writing your novel, then I recommend joining my writer’s workshop. Second-tier subscribers can send me small segments of their writing for review and third-tier subscribers get 3 months of dedicated support and monthly video calls.
If that sounds like something you’re interested in, be sure to check out the workshop here. I look forward to reviewing your work!
I hope you enjoyed this blog post and as always,
Good day, goodnight and happy writing!