In fiction, exposition breaks away from the ongoing action of a scene to give information. It can be a paragraph or go on for several pages. Exposition often provides contextual information critical for the reader to buy-in to character-motivation or the ideas promoted in the story. It gives a story its perspective and larger meaning by linking the reader with the thematic elements. If scene is action and plot, exposition feeds reflection and theme. Exposition can appear in the form of background, setting, back story, or overview. It is most often expressed through a POV character’s reflection and observation.
There are points in almost every story where exposition is necessary. Most stories would suffer without information that adds past, context and overview.
Exposition in writing lets you:
- Describe a person in detail
- Describe a place for more than a phrase or two (important especially if a place serves as a “character”)
- Skip over periods of time when nothing important or compelling is happening, without a jarring break in the narrative
- Draw back from a close-focus action scene to give the reader a meaningful overview (and to say how things got that way)
- Give some background and history of characters, location, event, etc.
You need to balance the show and tell part of your narrative and to maintain a rhythm in your pace and tone. This means doing several things, including:
- Restrain yourself and keep your notes to yourself: I’ve seen excellent writers add too much exposition on a subject that obviously excited them but didn’t necessarily excite me. This often occurs when a writer feels impelled to share their invention or discovery at the expense of story-telling. Doing your “homework” in writing (e.g., research) also includes keeping it to yourself, no matter how much you want to share it. Doing your homework is the “iceberg” and the story is the “tip”. Many genre books (e.g., science fiction, thrillers, mysteries, etc.) must be supported by solid research. The writer takes what she needs for the story and keeps the rest.
- Arouse then explain: introduce your character by letting her act and show herself and engage the reader’s curiosity and sympathy, then explain how and why she got there.
- Build exposition into the scene: get creative and include expository information as props in a scene. This is a great way to add information seamlessly.
- Put exposition in between scenes: instead of interrupting a scene in action, exposition can be used to give the reader a breather from a high paced scene to reflect along with the protagonist on what just happened. This is a more appropriate place to read exposition, when the reader has calmed down.
- Let a character explain: have your characters provide the information by one questioning and the other replying. There is a danger in this kind of exposition, in that the dialogue can become encumbered by long stretches of explanation. Take care to make this realistic and enjoyable to the reader. If done well, this type of exposition can also reveal things about the characters.
- Use interior monologue: use a character’s inner reflections to reveal information, which also reveals something of the character herself. Be careful not to turn this into polemic, however.
Now, go and have fun exposing!
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.