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Exposing Exposition (Exposition Part I)
by Victoria Grossack
Return to Crafting Fabulous Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version
October 15, 2015
Let's start with a definition:
From Wikipedia: "Exposition is the portion of a story that introduces important background information to the audience; for example, information about the setting, events occurring before the main plot, characters' back stories, etc."
Please notice that the word "important" has been included in the definition. Often your readers really need the information so that they can comprehend what is going on in your story. So why does the word "exposition" tend to make people groan? Besides being a four-syllable, rather user-unfriendly word, that is?
One reason is because exposition is sometimes done in the form of an information dump, which calls attention to itself. The story's momentum can come to a screeching halt while readers are lectured on what is going on. Ironically, because the momentum stops, readers eyes may glaze over and they may not even pay attention to what they need to know. Exposition is often the epitome of telling and not showing.
Yet, as we said, sometimes the readers really need the information. Hence, exposition is done in many ways: in the narrative, through dialogue, flashbacks, character's thoughts, background details, media or the narrator telling back story, either in the frame or elsewhere. Let's go through some examples and discuss the problems.
Exposition in the narrative
Just telling background information within the narrative is the easiest way to get the information to your readers. You may choose to set it off in a separate section, such as a prologue, or simply baldly insert it in a paragraph or two.
The Aztec treasure in the large old chest is cursed. Anyone who removes even a single gold coin will not be able to die. Nor will he be able to taste food, or wine, and the pleasures of the flesh will be denied him. He may not be able to die, because he is already dead, but nor can he enjoy life.This sort of exposition may work well in short doses, but if you have a lot of information to convey you will slow down your story and you may even lose your readers.
Exposition in dialogue
Some authors are tempted to put explanations into conversations being held by the characters. Many automatically class dialogue as showing instead of telling, and so the authors mentally congratulate themselves for avoiding too much telling. However, there are several times when this is especially awkward.
Repeating Information the Characters Already Know
This is sometimes called the "idiot lecture" -- in fact Wikipedia prefaces it with the opening phrase, "As you know, Bob..." The problem here is that the characters already know the information, so it makes no sense for them to be having the conversation. The conversation is being held for the reader, who has generally not seen/heard it before, and who may need it to understand what is going on (an especial challenge exists when some but not all of the readers know the information, a situation that you may encounter often if you are creating a series).
Of course, in real life people repeat themselves all the time, and if a subject were of particular importance to your characters, you'd expect the topic to come up more than once. For example, in Harry Potter & the Deathly Hollows, the trio of Harry, Hermione and Ron are hunting Horcruxes. It would make sense for them to spend a lot of time discussing where those Horcruxes might be.
However, novels do not always imitate life and this is one of those instances where art should abridge reality. Readers notice if conversations repeat, and generally, they become bored by the repetition. Oddly, storytellers can get away with this sometimes in movies, with some variation, Groundhog Day being perhaps the most famous example -- but what is being repeated is generally not exposition but action with different twists.
There are some ways to get around the problem in your story. One way is to have one of the characters not know, so that he is asking for information. Another way is to acknowledge the repetition, but instead of introducing it with the phrase, "As you know, Bob," have one of the characters object to the conversation:
Still, awkwardness often remains and your readers will probably sense it.
Use of Formal Titles
In some cases, to make it clear to readers the relationships between the characters, the author will have the characters use names and even titles or roles in conversations to each other. Here's an example:
The problem is that the use of titles feel forced and artificial on paper -- even though, oddly enough, people actually do sometimes use them in real life. Sometimes it is better not to put it in the dialogue but keep the information just outside, as in this example:
In my opinion identifying the woman with the phrase "His wife" in a sentence just outside the dialogue is less intrusive, but it is a subjective matter, and you will have to decide which method best suits your story.
Confessions and Explanations
In many books, the villain confesses to the hero, explaining why and how he has committed his evil deeds. This can be extremely convenient for getting information to the reader, who should be curious about how and why these evil deeds were committed. Yet would the villain truly do such a thing? And then continue to attempt (and almost always fail) to kill the hero?
This is a situation for which I, thankfully, have no real-life experience, but I can attest that it happens frequently in books. It is a standard trope, and yet, I can actually imagine its happening (possibly because I have read it so often). The villain may be feeling triumphant, but to whom can he brag about his cleverness? Only to someone about to die! Then how come he's so incompetent afterward and fails to kill the hero? If you use this technique, try to come up with some reason for the latter.
Variations on these last confessions exist. Often the hero-detective, such as Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, explains everything that has happened just before the story concludes. These may be emotionally comprehensible, and even quite satisfying to the reader, as we learn who did it and why. Nevertheless, these conversations often strike me as odd, because you'd think that the sleuth would have told someone else, if just for the sake of caution, beforehand.
Conversation Continues Too Long
Sometimes writers will have expository dialogue run on for many pages. This can also weary the reader. I would argue that when you have conversations in which one character is telling another something that happened, your writing has switched from showing into telling.
However, note that what wearies a writer may not weary a reader. Writing, for most authors, takes a lot longer than reading. You may not be able to judge how a passage would strike a reader until you have put it down for a while and come back to it fresh, with the eyes of a reader instead of the feelings of the author.
Nearly all of your story will take place in either within the narrative or within the dialogue, because that is mostly what story is. There are a few other ways to do it, however: prologues, maps, inserts, pictures, newspaper articles, and so on. These can work well. They can also be skipped completely by your readers, who often only read the text proper, so that your efforts to give them the information that they need to know will frequently fail.
Conclusion (or Rather, Intermission)
In this column we have defined exposition, explained why it is necessary, discussed some of the ways it appears in fiction, and why it is sometimes so disliked and despised and other times why it is tolerated. Next month, we will review some techniques that storytellers can use to improve their exposition.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.