What Exactly Is Exposition?
Exposition is any part of the narration that departs from showing unfolding events. Instead, exposition imparts general facts or informs the readers about something that happened in the past. This is a huge category of text, so let’s look at some examples.
From my critique of Maximum Ride, here’s a typical block of exposition that details an aspect of the world.
There was one other School experiment that made it past infancy. Part human, part wolf—all predator: They’re called Erasers. They’re tough, smart, and hard to control. They look human, but when they want to, they are capable of morphing into wolf men, complete with fur, fangs, and claws. The School uses them as guards, police—and executioners.
Here’s an example from Dawn of Wonder that fills in what happened prior to the current scene.
It had taken much work and perhaps one or two improvements on the facts about the landing, but Aedan had finally convinced Thomas to attempt the dreaded jump. The images he had painted with his words were irresistible – the thrill of the leap, the wonders of soaring flight, the softness of dropping into water. Deep, icy, emerald water that clinked and rattled in the chasm below.
If we just removed all the instances of “had” in here and made it regular past tense instead of past perfect, this would no longer be exposition. Instead it would just be events unfolding in summary.
Let’s look at a subtler example. Examine this block of overdone description from Handbook for Mortals. Can you identify which pieces are exposition?
My well-worn and once brightly colored (but now badly faded with dirt spackle) Converse high-top sneakers made a quick tapping noise on each step. I had just replaced the laces on them so at least they looked somewhat decent. My favorite high-waisted Levi’s dark denim skinny jeans—ripped in all the right places—made the swishing noise as I lifted my legs and my perfect flowy Lucky’s top that I wear far too often billowed around me.
Overdone or not, most of this describes the state of the narrator’s outfit in that moment. However, the phrases “once brightly colored,” “I had just replaced the laces on them,” and “that I wear far too often” are exposition. They tell extra information that isn’t part of what’s happening right then.
While dialogue is technically speech happening in the moment, it’s also considered exposition when the characters say things that are clearly designed to fill in the readers instead of letting the scene unfold naturally. Take these terrible lines from City of Bones.
“He means other demons,” said the dark-haired boy, speaking for the first time. “You do know what a demon is, don’t you?”
“Demons,” drawled the blond boy, tracing the word on the air with his finger. “Religiously defined as hell’s denizens, the servants of Satan, but understood here, for the purposes of the Clave, to be any malevolent spirit whose origin is outside our own home dimension—”
Exposition via dialogue is more common in TV shows and movies than books, because non-narrated mediums have fewer options for delivering information. Instead, exposition in narrated works in more likely to be embedded in thoughts. What is and isn’t exposition gets really blurry there, but it’s judged similarly to dialogue. If it feels like the viewpoint character would naturally be thinking the narration in real time, it isn’t exposition.
Flashbacks are not exposition because they show a scene unfolding, just one that’s further back in the timeline. Exposition isn’t part of a scene, and that’s what makes it less immersive and, by default, less engaging. When exposition is overused, the story becomes boring.
Can’t We Just Avoid It?
While huge chunks of dry exposition will sabotage your story, leaving exposition out altogether can be just as bad. Delivering the right information to your readers is critical, and in most cases, you won’t be able to fit all the information that readers need into the unfolding action. Exposition is a necessary supplement.
However, the natural tendency of most writers is to tell too much and show too little. They have to be told to cut down their exposition and let readers watch the story unfold. Frequently, wordcraft instruction will direct writers to stop telling things to readers and instead weave in hints that let readers infer what they need to by observing the scene. For instance, instead of telling readers that six months have passed, transition from a scene at the beach to one in the snow. While this is generally good advice, too much emphasis on it can turn writers into anti-exposition purists, weakening their stories.
For one thing, writers in this mindset will make too many compromises to their scenes just to make them include the right information. Scenes are the main building blocks of a story, and they should be chosen based on what points in the story are pivotal and powerful. What information readers need is a secondary concern that can influence scene choice, but shouldn’t be the driving force. If readers need to know information that can’t be observed during the story’s dramatic scenes, that should be filled in with other tools. Don’t create a boring scene just to convey something that could be explained with three sentences of exposition.
For another thing, trying to forgo exposition will inevitably leave readers without important information, confusing them and depriving the story of impact. Even when information is worked into the context of the scene, it is often communicated less clearly. Exposition simply gives the writer more freedom in conveying what they need to, how they need to.
For a more in-depth look at how a deficit of exposition can damage a story, we have some critiques you can read.
- First, check out my critique of Beyond Lies the Wub. This old short story by Philip K. Dick is written in what I call film POV – it doesn’t include any information that couldn’t be conveyed with a TV.
- Second, I recommend my critique of The Name of the Wind. I go in depth there about how the opening suffers because information is missing and pointless scenes are added.
- Last, Oren’s critique of The Blade Itself shows the importance of having some context for action-heavy scenes.
When it comes to anti-exposition purism, remember that unless you’re writing in the literary genre, your narration exists to serve the story. The story doesn’t exist to serve the narration.
When Is Exposition Justified?
Since too much exposition is bad and too little exposition is bad, the big question is how much we should use. The most reliable answer to that is “only as much as necessary.” But how much is necessary? Well, first let me teach you all of storytelling. Then, you’ll know.
Since that’s not helpful, let’s go over some of the most essential information that readers need. First, we’ll look at what information supports the conflict in a scene. If you can’t communicate this through unfolding action and it isn’t otherwise obvious, using exposition to convey it will make your scene less boring.
- What is the protagonist’s motivation for doing what they’re doing? What do they hope to accomplish?
- What is threatening those goals right now? How is it threatening them?
- How could the protagonist fail? What could go wrong?
- If the protagonist fails, what bad things will happen?
In addition to that, there’s information that won’t make the current scene better, but is necessary so that future scenes work. Because this info is for a later payoff, writers have a lot more leeway when choosing where to include it. That’s a good thing, because exposition describing these things is also more likely to be boring. Exposition like this should be carefully placed, not too much at once.
This type of information is used for:
- Foreshadowing later reveals for believability
- Establishing why something in a future scene matters
- Building the readers’ understanding of the world or the current situation ahead so future scenes don’t need too much exposition
These aren’t the only uses for exposition. It can also add to the readers’ experience by building atmosphere or offering supplementary tidbits. But the less necessary the exposition is and the more it’s used, the more the writer must work to make it entertaining with a playful voice, evocative details, and generally high novelty. For instance, the famous opening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy shows us how an omniscient narrator can bring exposition to life.
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
Exposition is a natural fit for omniscient narration, because both techniques sacrifice immersion for creative freedom. But this trade-off comes with immense pressure to be witty, and even when it succeeds, restraint is needed. The book Space Opera is almost entirely exposition like this, and each chapter overstays its welcome about four times over.
Unless you’re aiming for this type of narration and you’re prepared for a challenge, cut exposition down to what the story needs. Don’t expect to keep your readers entertained by telling them about your world.
Where Should Exposition Be Included?
Since exposition is an interruption from the scene at hand, working it in is a skill of its own. First, for non-immediate purposes like foreshadowing and worldbuilding, you’ll have to identify which scenes to put which bits of exposition in. Early scenes, and the first scene especially, should hold the bare minimum. They are the most critical time for engagement, and since the readers know nothing, the bare minimum is already a lot. For more details on what information to convey in an opening scene and how, see my article Planning Your Story’s Opening Passages.
After that, match the information readers will need to a scene that’s early enough for effective foreshadowing, doesn’t already have too much exposition loading it down, and focuses on events that are related to the exposition you need to deliver. That will help you work it in naturally.
While you shouldn’t add scenes just to deliver exposition, if you are having trouble fitting important information into a scene, that can be a sign your scene should focus more on central story elements. For instance, let’s say your story includes a treetop culture that’s in a conflict with the people on the ground. Instead of having a scene in the treetops and then trying to work in how the ground people exist, consider an initial scene with an interaction between the two peoples. That brings the scene closer to an important conflict, not only making it more exciting but also making it a lot easier to convey information via context or exposition.
After you have the general scene matched with the information you need to include, you’ll need to find a precise place to insert it. If you need to explain something in detail, look for places where time is passing for the viewpoint character or protagonist. The last thing you want is to ruin the story’s pace by sticking several lines of exposition in the middle of the action. The time that passes might be short, just as long as you aren’t making what’s supposed to be a few seconds feel like several minutes. If you want to insert exposition in a passage where seconds are ticking away, such as during dialogue, it must be as short as possible. A sentence is probably okay; a paragraph is probably not.
How Should Exposition Be Included?
Provided it isn’t ruining the pace, how much exposition can you deliver at once? There’s no hard rule. Splitting it up into small pieces is generally better, because that keeps the narration from getting boring. However, if you have several paragraphs’ worth of things to say on the same topic, it won’t always make sense to split it up. Left together, it can flow naturally. If you split it into five pieces, you’ll have to find five places to work it in, and the narration will shift topics more often.
To assess the risk of your narration getting boring, consider how much novelty your exposition has, how directly relevant it is to what’s currently happening in the story, and how much tension your scene has. If you’re not feeling confident about those things, err on the side of splitting it up.
Only use dialogue for exposition if you have a character who really doesn’t know the information you need to convey and has a good reason to ask about it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the notorious “as you and I both know” dialogue, which sounds very unnatural. In narrated works, the regular narration is usually the best place for exposition.
Perhaps you’re wondering, “How can I put exposition in close narration? The narration is just my character’s thoughts, and my character wouldn’t think about the basic stuff my audience needs to know.” While the distance of your narration does impact how easily you can work exposition in, even in close perspective it’s never just real-time thoughts. Readers accept some conceits to make storytelling more viable, and this is one of them. For instance, the viewpoint character wouldn’t think through all the description of their surroundings either.
If the exposition doesn’t feel natural, first look for an excuse to get your viewpoint character thinking about what you want. A little cleverness goes a long way. Take this bit from The Martian, where author Andy Weir works in the name of his first-person narrator.
For the record . . . I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”
If that doesn’t work, look for a quiet moment when the character’s thoughts can wander. Start with something they might naturally think about, and then transition from there to the topic you want to cover. Here’s a good example of a quiet moment from the opening of The Hunger Games.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once too. Or so they tell me.
Katniss is watching her family sleep and thinking about how they look. From here, it would be easy to go into her mother’s backstory if that was needed.
If the information is important enough to convey to readers, it will matter to the viewpoint character at some level. You can use that as an excuse to describe it. Even if it’s really basic world information, it’s affected their memories. They could think back to when they were a little kid and still learning about it, to when they messed up something simple, or to that day it happened to be out of order.
Now let’s say your important exposition is being overlooked or forgotten. First, readers are more likely to remember something if it seems important. With foreshadowing, we can’t always make the information feel directly relevant to what’s happening, but if you can, that will help. Repeating information is a good tactic for long works, but it will get tiresome if it’s done too much.
Last, readers are particularly likely to ignore information that isn’t emphasized enough in the narration. Sometimes writers get so caught up in cleverly working information in, we don’t give that info enough prominence in the text. For instance, take this excerpt from Sword of Truth, where we first learn about the murder of Richard’s father in the adverbial clause of a sentence.
On the day three weeks before when Michael had come to tell him their father had been murdered, Richard had gone to his father’s house, despite his brother’s insistence that there was no reason to go, nothing he could do.
This treats the murder like unimportant information given in passing. It still stands out because it’s a murder, but if you did the same thing with important foreshadowing, readers might not notice it at all. This is particularly likely if you’re feeling a little embarrassed about the awkward exposition you’re including or if you’re trying to keep your foreshadowing from standing out.
Skipping and skimming is also the reason I don’t recommend putting essential information in little news article snippets or other supplementary information that appears before each chapter. If it doesn’t appear to be part of the main story, many readers will assume it’s optional material and skip it.
If you take one thing from this article, remember that narration should have purpose. There’s no replacement for considering how the words you’re writing are going to strengthen the story. I suspect that most writers using boatloads of exposition aren’t thinking carefully about what that exposition offers their readers.
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