Last month we defined exposition: what it is, why it is often necessary, and why some readers sigh when they encounter it. Today we will consider different techniques that you can apply to make your exposition better.
My first suggestion is that you should make your exposition as entertaining as you can. You may have some other objectives as well, but if you're writing fiction, I hope entertainment is among them. Here are a few ways that others have done it.
If you're a little older, and were going to movie theaters when the first Star Wars movie came out (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV), you may recall how cool it was when the yellow letters giving the back story -- "It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire" -- filled up the screen and seemed to vanish into distant stars. While giving the audience important back story, George Lucas also made us feel as we had traveled to another part of the universe.
This technique is known as the opening crawl, and Lucas was inspired by old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers series. One reason it was so new and cool when Lucas used it in 1977 was because then it was really difficult to do. That's not so true nowadays, with computer graphics, but the method is still iconic. Unless you are writing for the screen -- and maybe this technique will be possible with e-readers soon -- you may not have computer graphics at your disposal, but you may want to see what you can do to make your back story as innovative as possible.
Mark Twain's voice is distinctive and delightful, especially when he speaks through some of his characters, such as Huck Finn. Huck could be explaining the quickest way to gut a fish and I would still enjoy it despite my squeamishness. Twain achieves this through his word choice and the amusing observations he includes in nearly every paragraph.
Some authors address their readers directly using a technique known as "authorial intrusion." Charlotte Brontë does this in Jane Eyre, when she breaks through the fictional wall at a particularly dramatic moment and has her narrator say: "Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt! May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine."
Different readers react differently to this technique. Some may feel as if it kicks them out of the story. Others may feel included in the story, with the sense "hey, Jane Eyre's talking to me!" (And note that in the example from "Jane Eyre," Jane Eyre and not Charlotte Brontë is doing the addressing.) Some readers will not care. The rest (probably the vast majority) may not even notice.
This technique is employed in other media. Shakespeare used in the theatre, in his soliloquies and his asides. A more recent example is when House of Cards' Frank Underwood speaks directly into the camera in order to let the audience know how clever he is.
This technique is tricky, and you have to decide whether or not it is right for your story.
One way to reduce the exposition problem is to keep it to a bare minimum, using a method called "incluing." With this approach, the information needed for the reader is only found within the experience of the story, with no background information given. Here is the definition from the "Exposition" entry in Wikipedia:
"Incluing is a technique of world building, in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers into the world the author is building, without them being aware of it."When using settings that are generally unfamiliar to your readers – probable if you are writing fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction or simply using exotic settings -- you're going to have to give your readers enough information so they are not totally confused. If you confine these bits of information to occasional sentences slipped within the narrative, it may work well.
And a Little Bit More
Here's an example from my current project in my Tapestry of Bronze series. Two characters, Alkmaeon and Amphilochus, who have just arrived as suitors for Helen, are being discussed.
"I'll not have it," she said flatly. "Those matricides have no place in Sparta."
If I stopped there, that would meet the strict definition of incluing. However, I felt that a little more was needed to keep the readers oriented. So, after this line of dialogue I inserted a brief explanation:
The two brothers had murdered their own mother, claiming that a decision of hers -- made many years before! -- had led to their father's death.
This is exposition, but by limiting to one sentence, the story only slows a tad; I can hope that most readers will not notice the deceleration.
Some authors may feel that this approach breaks the voice or the person. For example, you may be writing in third-person intimate, a point of view which limits the narration to whatever is observed by a single character within a scene. The sentence containing the background of the two brothers, explaining a bit about why they killed their mother (and reminding some readers of the meaning of the word "matricide," a word that we fortunately do not use often) may feel like a shift into third-person omniscient. I do not think this matters in the scene that I was writing, but you will have to make your own artistic decision.
One way to make sure that exposition is tasty to your readers is to make them want it, badly. You can do this by stoking their curiosity. In The Hobbit, the first chapter, "An Unexpected Party," has fifteen dwarves showing up -- not all at once -- at Bag-End, Bilbo Baggins' hobbit hole. They expect to be invited inside, and Bilbo, incapable of rudeness, does not have the temerity to refuse them. They seriously deplete the supplies in Bilbo's pantry (and it is just as well that they consume all the perishables as the hobbit will depart for about a year the very next day). Bilbo, during all this, is desperate to know who these dwarves are and what they are doing in his home, and by extension, we readers are curious as well. When the explanations do come, in the form of conversation that can be classed by many as exposition, it is welcome.
Instead of giving the information as exposition, which will feel as if you are telling it, you can bring it to life by showing it. Now, showing may be difficult. If you are committed to the point of view of a particular character in your story, and the event happens to someone else, showing the event may seem impossible.
Not everyone may understand the difference between showing and telling, so let me give another Harry Potter-based example. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Rowling has a scene in which Dumbledore meets young Voldemort in an orphanage. Now, she could have had Dumbledore tell Harry Potter about his meeting from more than fifty years ago, and even if she had done this in a conversation, it would still have been telling. Instead she shows us what happened by having Harry observe one of Dumbledore's memories via the magical Pensieve.
Of course, fantasy and science fiction give authors options not always available to those attempting to write reality-based stories. So, when you are presented with this problem you will have to create the solution that is best for your story. I am currently working on a first-person novel in which the main character has an extensive spy network. This allows her to report on events in which she did not participate as if she had been there -- letting me show them instead of tell them.
A second method is to change the point of view, but you need to consider, as always, if this is right for your story.
Even though you may know a lot of information about your characters and the story, you may not want to put it all in the actual text. In the Harry Potter books, Rowling created detailed backgrounds on many characters, details which, despite many hundreds of thousands of words, never made it into any of her novels. For example, the character Dean Thomas was a half-blood whose wizard father abandoned his pregnant Muggle wife during Voldemort's first ascendancy -- not because the wizard did not love his wife, but because if he had stayed he would have endangered her. According to interviews, Rowling had background information on Dean Thomas and many other Hogwarts students, professors, Aunt Petunia and others, but these backgrounds did not fit the story and so had to be left out.
It can be painful to exclude some bits, but you need to ask yourself whether or not the information will enhance the reading experience. If you think not, then exclude it -- but do not despair; you may be able to save the information for sequels or interviews.
Sometimes you have information that you wish to share or that you think would be helpful to readers but you do not want to put it into your story proper. Here are some examples:
Cast of Characters. Some novels, such as many of Agatha Christie's detective novels, have a cast of characters at the beginning or the end. Instead of having to remind her entire audience of the background of Mr. Parker Pyne, the forgetful reader can simply look it up.
Maps and Illustrations. Maps are often included in books when characters go on quests, but they can be useful in other stories, too. And instead of having to remind readers that your band of heroes is crossing the river at the widest point, they can look at it if you give them a sketch.
Author's Note. Here you can directly address the reader, in your own voice, and give them whatever background information that you feel might enhance their reading experience but that does not belong in the story. I've used this spot to explain research or the reasons for making certain choices in my story.
You may find that the references that you create are useful to you as you craft your story. And, as books become more high tech, more readers will be able to call up your references as they go, only pausing briefly before they continue their journey through your tale.
We have reached the end of what I can show and tell you about exposition. I hope these techniques will help you give your readers the information that they need in a time and manner that enhances their reading experience, and I encourage you to create additional ways that suit your story.
Wikipedia contributors. "Exposition (narrative)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.