The Difference Between Narrative & Exposition

Every writer will know what narrative is, but how many understand what exposition is?
It’s easy to think that both terms mean the same thing, but they are different, and writers should understand those differences when it comes to their writing. Not only do writers need to understand there are differences, but that exposition and narrative have different roles to play in story construction and they effect the pacing of the story.
The easiest way to explain the difference is that narrative is a way for the writer to inform the reader with non-active description, a way of simply relaying non-essential information. In its broadest sense, the writer is ‘telling’ the reader, but that information doesn’t really move the story forward.
For example, this is narrative:
In the days leading up to Bobby’s death, Michael never gave a second thought to the safety of his horses. His complacency had become so ingrained that it was an invisible force. He should have paid attention, but in the end, he didn’t.
You can see that this is non-essential background information for the reader. Narrative like this fills the gaps between descriptive, active scenes and dialogue. It is telling the reader some information, it gives some character revelation, but it’s not descriptive in any way, it’s merely telling the reader.
Exposition, on the other hand, gives important information, it explains to the reader in more detail, it contains description, it informs and it moves the story forward. The writer is ‘showing’ the reader.
For example, exposition would be something like this:
The huge chestnut horse didn’t move, and when Michael touched Bobby’s neck, it felt firm and cold. His eyes were darker than Michael remembered; the life drained, his essence vanished, leaving behind a physical shell that continued to die. Whatever had killed Bobby, Michael wanted payback.
Unlike narrative, the exposition is showing the reader with description, it’s informing the reader, but it is also moving the story forward by hinting at Michael’s indentations.
When is narrative effective?
Narrative is most effective when it’s balanced with description (exposition) and dialogue.
There are times in a story that a writer needs to quickly convey necessary information to the reader, without taking two pages to describe it, and therefore narrative is essential.  Because it is merely relaying information – in the right places, with little disruption – it helps slow the pace of the story and allows the reader to take a breather, allowing them to step back from the action while they process prior information or events.  Writers have to allow their readers to take a breather, to vary the pace, to tease them.
Narrative also gives the writer time to establish some background details and setting, the tone, and to set up the next scenes.
By its very nature, narrative will slow the pace of the story and halt the active momentum; therefore writers should be aware that too many long sections of narrative will eventually bore the reader. They will want to get back to action. In other words, keep narrative sections fairly short, but just enough to give the reader any necessary information.
Narrative is also used for transitions, smoothly moving from one scene to another without pages and pages describing how and why. Just a few words of narrative will accomplish a transitional scene.
They are also used to establish flash back scenes, because in just a few sentences the writer can take the action back to a time in a character’s past. This can’t be done effectively if it was written as exposition, simply because it would take half a chapter to do it.
Good writers can successfully weave the narrative between descriptive and action scenes and dialogue scenes. That way, there is no need for huge chucks of narrative that could effectively bring the pace to a complete halt.
When is exposition effective?
As with narrative, exposition works when balanced with dialogue and narrative.
In Latin, it means “showing forth.” Put simply, show the reader what is happening, don’t tell them. And that is the crux of exposition.
Exposition is effective when interwoven with dialogue and narrative in order to provide depth and dimension to the story, because most scenes in any story will be made up of all three elements.
Well written exposition helps the writer to show what is happening, rather than just telling the reader. The descriptions give the reader more information, more facts, and more emotion, and it helps with active scenes by quickening the pace.
Unlike narrative, exposition also allows us to hear character thoughts, for example:
Reflective crystals glittered in the snow, bright beneath the moon glow. David pulled aside the branches he had carefully lain over the large mound, but the snow and dirt beneath had been disturbed.
Someone’s been here, he thought, and his heartbeat quickened. Someone knew Ellen was buried here…
The exposition here not only shows what he is doing, but also shows what David is thinking in correlation to the scene.  
The drawback with exposition is that writers sometimes write too much of it and it then becomes an ‘info dump’. As with anything, it’s all about balance.  Use just enough exposition show the reader in a compelling, interesting and descriptive way, interspersed with narrative, and dialogue, to get the right balanced effect.
In a nutshell, narrative is telling. Exposition is showing.

Next week: Why rejection is a good thing.


  1. I think your descriptions of exposition and narrative are misleading.Exposition is the act of expounding, setting forth, or explaining. This exposition in fiction is what the reader needs to know in order to understand the story. It provides context, setting, reasons etc. It is not the story itself. The story is narrated by a narrator 1st Person, 2nd Person or 3rd Person. Narration is the telling of the story and all the techniques of narration apply. Speech, thought, action, feelings, narrative summary, telling. Narrative distance, a very important aspect of how to engage a reader is determined by how the writer uses all these techniques to tell the story.

  2. I appreciate your thoughts, Dermnot.

    Exposition is direct or indirect. One tells, one shows, so I'm not sure it's "misleading", as I clearly explain what it does and what it provides.

    Also, I never said or implied that exposition was "not the story itself". Those are your words. Also, this is not implied in the article.

    I don't disagree that a story is narrated by whomever - as all stories are - however I never said it wasn't, so unfortunately your argument is somewhat baffling. I talk about narrative and exposition, not who is narrating.

    I'm sot sure what your point is, but it appears that either you haven't understood the article, or you've not read it at all.


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