Exposition is a word writers use all the time, but what do we mean when we talk about exposition?
It’s a term used to provide the reader with certain information about characters, events, actions, settings or the background. It’s a necessary component of any story, but it’s how exposition is delivered that makes the difference. It can be done correctly or incorrectly.
Despite the amount of information on the internet telling you there are umpteen different types of exposition, for creative writing there are only two types of exposition that matter: Direct and indirect exposition.
The title tells you all you need to know. The information being provided is direct. It’s telling the reader all the important stuff, but it tends to end up as info dumps because the writer hasn’t handled it very well, for example:
John had lived in the town all his life and still lived in the house that his grandparents owned. He felt a strong bond with the place and couldn’t entertain the thought of leaving, like his brother had done. He couldn’t leave behind the grand history of the house or the land upon which it stood, especially after the upheaval of the war. He had been a small child when war broke out and his life was turned upside down, particularly when the first wave of bombers destroyed much of the town and had killed his grandfather.
This is example is direct exposition. It’s directly telling the reader John’s background information via narration. Lots of novels do this, but they should be handled carefully to avoid ‘info dumping’, which this example does.
Direct exposition is necessary in every story, but it is how it’s executed that makes it effective and less like a chore to read. The best way to tackle direct exposition is to fold snippets of it into the story at appropriate moments, when the story demands it, rather than throwing huge narrative chunks at the reader from the outset.
In other words, the example above could be dissected into more relevant snippets that can be slipped into the narrative as the story unfolds, while other bits are just not necessary. Remember, every story must move forward, so large chunks of narrative-laden exposition have the opposite effect.
Drip feed relevant information. Don’t force-feed your reader.
The other way to deliver direct exposition is to use dialogue, but that, too, needs to be done correctly, because there is nothing more annoying than two characters talking about stuff they already know, just to provide information to the reader. This is seen in almost every movie known to man – they assume the audience is stupid and end up explaining stuff we already know. As a writer, don’t make that assumption.
To deliver direct exposition in dialogue, make sure that the information you want to make known is not just a disclosure for the reader’s benefit, but also a revelation to one or more characters within the scene. For instance, in the example below, let’s assume that Frank and Amy are talking about the past and that Amy (and the reader) don’t know the full truth:
He handed Amy her coffee. ‘Did your mother ever talk about me?’
She eyed him with suspicion. ‘We don’t talk much. We’ve never been close.’
‘Let’s cut to the chase, Frank. Why did you rescue me out there on the mountain?’
He seemed reluctant. ‘I have a vested interest.’
Her eyes narrowed. What do you mean?’
‘Your father...he didn’t create that vaccine...’
This example sets up the expository revelation that the main character, Amy, isn’t aware of. But neither is the reader, so the direct exposition is necessary and relevant for that scene and that moment. It wouldn’t work if both the reader and Amy already knew all this from earlier in the story, but the reader just repeats it to make sure the reader gets the idea. This is common among new writers. You don’t have to hit your reader over the head with it.
Good old fashioned ‘show, don’t tell’ description. It’s indirect because it is subtly woven into the narrative in a seamless way, but adds to the overall effect of the story without it becoming a burden for the reader, or a way of smacking them in the face with the obvious.
In other words, the writer shows the reader through vivid description and or careful dialogue pertinent facts about the story, for example, we’ll use John’s story from earlier:
John peered at the far wall; the picture of his grandparents shrouded in shadows. He felt the burden swell in his chest; that he teetered on the edge of financial ruin and the one thing he had left in the world – the house that his grandfather had built – might be wrenched from him. He looked away and found solace in the rain-lashed trees outside, sad that something so beautiful and ornate had survived years of German bombing, yet could vanish beneath the force of bulldozers because of a bad decision.
Rather than directly telling the reader, this shows the reader John’s predicament. It shows his sentiment, what the house means to him, how he feels about losing it, and what his grandparents mean to him. It’s subtle, effective and doesn’t need to be repeated further into the story. That’s because the reader will get it first time.
Indirect exposition works because it’s brief but subtle and moves the story forward. Direct exposition doesn’t.
If you feel the need to go into expository mode, stop and remember that the story should always be presented on a ‘need to know’ basis to the reader. So, instead of bombarding them with information from the outset, simply let them in only when they need to know.
Next week: Better writing – Creating Plot Twists