Exposition is a comprehensive explanation of an idea or theory. In fiction, exposition usually happens when an author feels the need to break action in order to explain something directly to the reader.
Often this is done by “breaking the frame” as they say in the film industry, which is when either the narrator does a voice over or a character turns directly to the camera or the viewer/reader and addresses the audience. This can be a little shocking when it happens and can yank the reader/viewer right out of the story or film. Sometimes it is done masterfully so that the audience feels like they are being let in on secrets that even the characters don’t know. But done poorly, awkward will pull your audience out of the action, and it can be difficult to get them settled back in.
Show don’t tell.
Remember when your writing teacher told you to show don’t tell? Exposition is the telling part — when the narrative voice jumps in and talks directly to the reader, delivering facts or backstory. The idea of showing instead of telling means to let the story, description, characters, action, and dialogue communicate information to the reader rather than simply telling them those things the author thinks they need to know.
For example, if you have an exceptionally tall character and a remarkably short one, rather than “telling” by stating that one is tall and one is short, you can “show” by putting them next to each other in a scene and describe how they interact.
Does Mary lean her head way back to try to look up into Joe’s face?
Does Joe duck his head walking through low doorways and easily reach out for something on a shelf that Mary cannot reach to hand it down to her?
When Mary is crying, does Joe sit or couch down to comfort her so he can come closer to looking her directly in the eyes?
Think of showing as painting a picture with your words and telling as conveying information without requiring the element of observation. If your reader has to figure something out from carefully watching a scene you are showing them. If not, you are telling them something they up are supposed to accept as true without observing the truth of it in action themselves.
Is all exposition bad?
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away …
And so begins the most famous section of sci-fi exposition in existence. George Lucas jumped right in at the start, straight-up telling his viewers what was happening before diving into the first scene’s action.
That “Once upon a time” clues the viewer in on the mythological/hero’s journey/fairy tale elements of the story they’re about to experience. “A galaxy far, far away” means nowhere near the earth we live on and lets the viewer know we are in the realm of sci-fi. Then Lucas gives details about the rebels and the Empire. Some people complain that it’s annoying (or impossible if you don’t have great vision) to read those 4 paragraphs before the movie starts. Others see it as perfect.
Could the filmmakers have gotten the point across by just diving into the action without the scrolling text at the beginning? Possibly.
There are viewers who either can’t or don’t read the text at the start of the movie and still figure out that the adventure is taking place far out in space. Spaceships appearing in the first few moments of action are an excellent clue. And thanks to the dehumanizing aspect of the stormtrooper helmets and uniforms, alongside the sour and severe countenance of the Empire’s un-helmeted member’s and with Darth Vader’s unquestionably evil presence, it’s easy to quickly pick up on which side is good and which is bad in this story.
If there was any question in anyone’s mind, the first confrontation between the beautiful and innocent-faced Princess Leia and Darth Vader dispels that uncertainty. By the time Alderaan is destroyed by the Death Star, even someone who didn’t read a word of that original scroll still understands the situation all too well.
The fact that the initial scroll has been parodied so often, either by making the text seem endless, having it scroll by far too fast to read or both at once, shows how much of a cultural touchpoint it’s become. And how many people find it annoying, ridiculous, unnecessary, funny, and significant. And yet, can anyone think of any of the main Star Wars movies without also thinking of the scrolling text that opens the film?
It is without a doubt one of the most memorable things about the franchise. Which makes it hard to say that this particular example of exposition is bad.
When is exposition bad?
We’ve all read stories where the exposition brought the story’s momentum to a screeching halt. It hurt. It may have even stopped you reading, made you put down the book (or your kindle), and possibly even did enough damage that you never went back to finish the story.
Many sci-fi and fantasy authors fall into this trap when they feel like they need to explain things about the story world so the reader can orient themselves. Sometimes there is a real need for some kind of explanation. But if the first chapter of a book feels like a crash course in world-building, it will put the reader off immediately.
Readers want action, conflict, curiosity, and excitement, not a history lesson, even if it is the history of your fascinating story world.
You may be able to point to some classic sci-fi and fantasy books that did this back in the day, some to better effect than others. But even if it was done well, you still need to be careful about overdoing it now.
Today’s readers are used to quality writing and people, in general, have shorter attention spans than they used to.
As an author, your book is competing with a lot of other media. Your reader may be reading or listening to your book on the kindle or audible apps on their phone. So you’re not only competing with the any texts or calls that might come in, but also with social media, TV shows, movies, and games. There is so much that can distract a reader and give them a more immediate hit of excitement than a long, drawn-out introduction to the world you’re trying to get them into.
Capture attention and hold on it. Never let your story read like a dry, boring textbook. Especially right at the beginning.
Balance exposition with mystery.
So, what do you do when you know that you need to explain at least a few things to the reader? The trick is to start off by getting them to care about characters first. Let them see the characters involved in situations and drop little hints along the way. It’s fine if the reader has to do a double-take and starts asking questions.
You want them to ask questions. But let them ask before you answer.
Then find a way to answer those questions through what characters are doing and saying, perhaps with bits of exposition mixed in when necessary. But keep it to a minimum. And even when questions are answered, it should raise more questions in the mind of the reader.
This establishes a natural flow. Burning questions arise, the reader gets time to wonder and guess while tension builds during their search for the answer. They discover the truth as the story moves along, which relieves some of the tension, but more questions should arise, building fresh tension and renewing the search for answers.
When you do offer your readers answers, explain that’s happening in subtle ways. Do it right and you can often get to this through either the character’s thoughts or dialogue.
Exposition through dialogue.
This can be done very well or terribly. Be careful if you choose to explain things through dialogue. We’ve all seen that awful, ham-fisted exchange where somebody explains something that they and everyone around them already knows and that they would never actually need to say, but the author is making them say it in order to feed information to the reader.
“Well, the reason your brother’s in jail, as you well know, is because of that time he blew up the factory.”
If there is the possibility of someone saying “as you well know” then it probably doesn’t need to be said in that way to that character, at all. Right?
Or how about, “So you know how we’ve been married for the past 6 years and have two children named Mary and Jeff, and a dog named Sadie and a goldfish named Alexandria …?”
Yeah, right. Like anyone would ever say anything like that to another human being, anywhere other than in a poorly written story. The people involved already know the information. The characters are so obviously being manipulated by the author to spoon-feed information to the audience, that it’s just embarrassing.
If you need the audience to know something, figure out the most logical and natural way for them to learn about it. If you can’t find a way to do it the moment it occurs to you, make a note that this is a problem you need to solve and move on. The answer may come in another chapter or two. A situation may arise where someone who doesn’t already know the information can either be told or figure it out for themselves, thereby informing the reader at the same time.
Maybe one of your characters is seeing a therapist for the first time and the shrink wants to know how long they’ve been married, how many kids they have, and if they have any pets. The therapist may even ask the names of all the people and pets too.
Then again, does the reader really need all of that information delivered in that way?
Can they instead watch the character come home and greet his wife and kids?
Ask them how their day went and did anyone feed the dog or the goldfish yet?
They will probably glean a lot more than simple information from watching the characters interact because they will also start to get a sense of the kinds of relationships that exist between your characters.
Some TV shows are great about this. At least the better shows are. Sometimes they’ll have season-long arcs where something happens in episode 4 that will later come into play in episode 8. Audiences love that dawning light moment when they figure something out that bugged them for ages and finally, everything starts to make sense!
You could be doing your reader (and yourself) a favor by keeping certain pieces of information back as long as you possibly can.
Sometimes a character will say something to give certain information away in the dialogue. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any way around it. It might be so that someone tuning in for the first time in the middle of the season understands what’s hppening. But usually, there is a subtler way to weave the information into the story. If you possibly can, do.
Let your character do research and read books.
I’ll call this one the Hermione Granger trick because JK Rowling used it so much in every one of the Harry Potter books. Need Harry (and the audience) to know something that’s hard to have him just come upon by himself? Hermione Granger probably read a book about it.
How many times throughout the series did she say, “I’ve read about that …” before launching into an explanation of what something is or how something works and the history of that thing? It helps if you have a Brainiac/bookworm character to make this one believable. Someone who really might have read a book about that thing and either knows where to find it or would have committed the information to memory.
It can be clumsy if done poorly, or if it gets grossly overused. How many times can you have your characters go into libraries or pull a book off a shelf. Of course, these days, you could just have a character pull out their phone and google the answer to just about anything. So you can always try that tactic as well.
It’s better to give your audience too little information than too much.
Remember that sense of mystery we talked about before? Even if you aren’t writing a straight-up mystery, you can still use the device to build tension and keep your reader reading.
What makes a reader turn the page? The desire to discover what happens next. The need to find the answers to their question, and understand something that isn’t yet clear. Don’t spoil that by always telling them everything upfront. Tease and taunt your reader, giving them just enough information to keep them asking why? Do this and the emotional payoff will be that much bigger once they finally arrive at the answer.
How do you avoid the bad kind of exposition?
It’s straight back to the old, “show don’t tell” maxim. If you can possibly show what you want to convey, then do it. Don’t tell your reader that the old man is sad because his wife died the year before and he’s so lonely now that he’s contemplating suicide. Pay attention to his every move and show your reader how he feels.
Show the way the folds of his face fall as he gazes at the photo of his younger self with a beautiful woman by his side.
Let the reader hear the clink of metal against metal as he taps the ring on his fourth finger against the smaller ring hanging from a chain around his neck.
Show the cracks in the tips of his old dry fingers as he cradles then shakes the bottle of prescription pills.
Let the reader hear the sound they make as he pours them out into the ceramic cat food dish with little fish swimming across the bottom and counts them from one side of its surface to the other.
Show the dawning recognition on his face that he can’t do this today as his cat butts its head, then arches its back up into the cup of his open, pill-counting hand. Then show the wet spots on the cat’s coat as he hugs the animal to his chest and lets the tears fall.
Yes, that takes a lot more time and space than simply saying, the old man was sad because his wife died last year and now he’s contemplating suicide but isn’t it worth it? How much more engaging and engrossing is it to follow along step by step as an observer and watch what a character does in order to figure out how they feel or what is going on in the world around them.
Do you really need to write a long-drawn-out explanation of the monetary system on the distant planet where you are writing your sci-fi space opera? Or can your reader get a basic understanding of it from watching your characters go through their day, buying and paying for the goods and services they want and need instead?
Does an understanding of the monetary system really add much to the reader experience? Will it help them bond with the characters in some way? Does it add emotional depth to the story? Is it something that can be left out altogether without doing any damage to the story itself?
These are the kinds of questions you should ask yourself any time you find yourself launching into exposition.
Hemingway’s take on show don’t tell.
Is it possible to write about showing instead of telling without eventually circling around to Hemingway? I’m not sure that it is. If you are still struggling with the idea of exposition, of knowing when you are doing it and what else you could do instead, here is a quote from Hemingway that has helped generations of writers figure out how to show and not just tell:
“Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish, see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what the noises were and what was said. Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That’s a five-finger exercise…
Then get in somebody else’s head for a change. If I bawl you out, try to figure what I’m thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don’t just think who is right. As a man, things are as they should or shouldn’t be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer, you should not judge. You should understand…
Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don’t be thinking about what you’re going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you’re in town stand outside the theatre and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.”
Think of other people. Consider the actions that triggered that emotion in you and how to describe it so your reader will experience that same thing. Try and practice it. The skill will improve over time.
And if you really do need to use some exposition in your story, remember the Star Wars example. It was epic, but also simple and only 4 paragraphs long. Keeping exposition to a minimum will help keep your prose tight and your story moving along.
Now get out there and start changing the world with your story!
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