A writing element that is completely imperative, but extremely difficult to balance is exposition.
Too much exposition at once, presented in the wrong way, will leave your reader bored and they’ll start skimming or abandon the book entirely. Too little exposition, and your reader might be too lost to understand the story.
In the past, authors could take the entire first chapter to lay out everything about the world and characters. See how writers like Jane Austen and Daphne Du Maurier open their novels–lengthy descriptions of the protagonist, their life, their family, their social status, their struggles, their hobbies–it’s all there, right up front.
In Rebecca, Du Maurier drags on for several chapters before you really get into the story. Rebecca is one of my favorite books, but even I start skimming the first half.
In modern writing, readers have different expectations. They want to be dropped into the story and figure it out as they go. This is accomplished with hidden exposition and subtle revelations.
Let’s talk about what exposition is, look at some examples, and then learn how to use it properly!
What is exposition?
Exposition is a literary device. It gives your reader information about events, characters, and the world around your story.
There are several ways exposition can be done well. Let’s look at a few examples from the same writer, Krystal Blaze Dean.
One way to work in exposition is outright stating information, like this opener from You Know Kaila?:
That summer sizzled in, taking my favorite classes away and sending me back to work. Our first spot of the summer was the Biloxi fair. Our trailers were parked behind a little church with a broken statue of St. Peter on the roof, one of his hands taken by the last hurricane. The fair was set up in the field beside it, the rides in a semicircle around the line of joints set up. That week, I was put on the Sizzler–a ride that spins and twists, forcing riders against the outside so they squished each other and spent most of the ride complaining about it. My buddy, Lizzie, was assigned to the ride with me and we were all set for a weekend of insanity. We were always a bad combination.
This is a great example of exposition well-done. The writer established the setting in a natural way. We know it’s Louisiana because of the references to Catholicism, hurricanes, and fair rides. We know the time of year, the weather, the age of the narrator (she’s in school), a little about her personality (intelligent, observant, troublemaker), and it established the theme and voice of the piece.
You can also show exposition through dialogue. This is a flash fiction called Visiting Hours, also by Dean.
I can’t play anything on the piano except “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But she doesn’t care.
She sits and shakes, her cheeks wrinkled up in a smile that her face can barely hold. She doesn’t flinch when I hit a key wrong and the piano clangs out an ugly note or two. Her smile doesn’t fade when the tune drops and I have to pause and think about the next key to press. She watches my hands. She says my rings amuse her because they make their own music when they hit each other.
“Oh, Dana. You’re worth every dollar your father and I put into those piano lessons.”
I smile. “Thanks, Mamma.” I’m pretty sure the piano would punch me if it could. I suck.
She clasps my hand, patting the top of it. “Play for me once more, love. I’m a bit sleepy.”
So I play the same little song again, screwing up twice. After all these times playing for her, I should be better than this.
The nurse comes in. “Ms. Jensen? It’s time for your nap.”
The old lady pats my hand again and waddles to the bed. “Next time, Dana, you can play my favorite song.”
I smile and nod. “Of course, Mamma.”
The nurse leans toward me. “Your mom’s waiting to pick you up out front, Emily. Have a good day, hon.”
I glance at the little woman in the bed, the one who calls me Dana every weekend from four to six. I smile. “I already did.”
We learn Ms. Jensen thinks Emily is her daughter through her dialogue, then we learn she isn’t through the nurse’s. Dialogue between characters is a good way to reveal exposition, but it should always be something the characters would naturally say.
The most natural way to show exposition is by revealing tiny, crucial details as they become relevant, as simply an interaction between the character and the world.
Here’s an excerpt from Malibu and Pineapple:
She smells like pineapple and rum. Her tongue tastes the same. She whispers my name, but I don’t even try to remember hers. She shoves me against the wall.
Still on the bed, barely dressed, she stares at me. Her eyes shine a little too brightly in the dim room and I wonder how much she’s had to drink.
“Whatever,” she says, snatching her shirt from the coarse, gray carpet. Without another word, she leaves, taking the taste of pineapple and rum with her. I give her a few minutes to disappear into the crowd downstairs. Then I follow, ignoring my friends at the bar. I stumble out the door, finding my car in the line of vehicles outside.
When I pull into the driveway I see the lights are on inside. I park and lock the car. Before I step out, I open the glove compartment. My ring waits, dull gold and faded white design. I put it on.
She’s in the kitchen, having a midnight snack. “Honey, I thought you weren’t going to be home until later. Isn’t it your boss’s birthday?”
I shrug. “I missed you.” I lean in and kiss her.
She hums and smiles. “Pineapple and Malibu rum. My favorite.”
The exposition we are shown in that excerpt:
- The protagonist slept with someone they did not enjoy sleeping with
- Then they pull the ring out and we know it’s an affair
- Then we learn the wife’s favorite drink and realize guilt was tainting the interaction
Exposition is necessary to tell a story, but there are bad ways to use it. Information should be worked naturally into scenes instead of “dumped.”
An exposition dump is a load of information slapped into a story with little care to revealing it in a way that makes sense. If you read scifi or fantasy novels, you likely know exactly what I’m talking about–the writer dumps a lot of technical details all at once, they’re not really connected to the story, and it’s boring to read. So you do what? Ya skim it!
Unnatural exposition using dialogue might look something like this:
“Hi, Karen,” I said.
“Hi, Maggie” she replied. “How is your uncle? Cancer gettin’ any worse?”
“Yes. Should be any day now. Can’t wait to inherit his entire estate.”
Maggie’s uncle is dying of cancer, and she stands to inherit everything–true information for a story, but is this an interaction two people would realistically have? Nah.
So what exactly is unnatural about that interaction? For one, Karen specifying who she’s talking about and what they suffer from–Maggie would know those details. “How is your uncle? Cancer gettin’ any worse?” could simply be “How is he?”
If Maggie is waiting for her uncle to die and lowkey doesn’t care, she still wouldn’t say that outright. “Should be any day now. Can’t wait to inherit his entire estate.” could be turned into body language that displays the same sentiment, while her words are more tactful.
“Hi, Karen,” I said.
“Hi, Maggie,” she replied. “How is he?”
I shook my head, dropping my gaze to look forlorn. “Not well.”
And later in the story, more details could be revealed as they are relevant.
Exposition is important, but if it isn’t done well, it can rip your reader right out of the story. Here ae some ways you can incorporate exposition realistically.
8 tips to incorporate exposition naturally in your writing
- Don’t assume your reader is stupid. Sometimes writers have the inclination to spoon-feed their audience information when they could let them pick up on it. Readers are better at picking up subtlety than you might think. And if every detail and theme in your story is obvious enough for every reader to notice, it won’t be a very compelling story. You can reveal things about your world by having your characters interact with it, rather than directly telling your audience the relevant information.
- Include only necessary exposition. Only include what is important or relevant to your characters. Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, writers get excited about the worldbuilding they’ve done and feel like they need to MAKE SURE EVERYONE KNOWS. The thick of it is: no one cares. Your reader doesn’t care as much as you do about your political system and religion and world history–if it doesn’t matter to the STORY you’re telling, it’s likely unnecessary.
- Spread your exposition throughout the story. We don’t need the first chapter to lay out every rule and fact of the world–it’s okay for the reader to have questions. You want them to have questions so they feel compelled to keep reading. So reveal information as it’s necessary and when it’s natural for it to come up. Give only enough information for the audience to follow along with what is currently happening in the story.
TIP: outlining helps with spreading exposition, because you can see what information is revealed when.
- Work it in naturally. If you’re in a character’s POV, they wouldn’t naturally be explaining something very mundane to them. When you walk past a photo of your family, do you stop and think about each family member, their personality, what they do for a living, and your dynamic with each of them? Your character wouldn’t either! So how could you show a POV character’s relationships with their family? Have them interact in a scene and reveal it in a subtler way. If you can tell that a character is thinking about something for the benefit of the reader, it’s probably unnatural exposition.
- Show, don’t tell! This advice is beaten to death for writing, but it’s a great way to avoid unnatural exposition. Anytime you start telling the reader something, it’s probably unnatural. If you’re in a daughter’s perspective and she has a tense relationship with her father, you could literally say “she has a tense relationship with her father,” OR you could show it in a scene and let the reader realize it on their own.
- Mix exposition into your scenes. Facts can be revealed with action–you shouldn’t have “story scenes” and “information scenes.” I see a lot of new writers make that mistake, and, hate to tell you: readers skim information dump scenes. If you lace your necessary information INTO your scenes, it keeps the story interesting.
- Bury your backstory. Think of your backstory as a completely separate entity from your story. Bits of it will peek through, but they are not the same thing. Developing your backstory is to help you, the writer, tell a better story. Backstory isn’t for the reader. You don’t have to tell them all of it. Think of your backstory as your story’s shadow–it makes the image of your story richer and deeper, but it should be essentially out of consciousness.
- Do it well. If you must include exposition, make it brief, make it interesting, write it in a crisp and compelling way, and give it multiple jobs if you can. Tie your exposition to developing your characters or furthering your plot–don’t just have it floating in space with no other purpose.
Exposition is somewhat of a necessary evil in storytelling. In an ideal world, your reader would inherently know all things about the universe your story takes place in, allowing you to weave a story without regard for technicalities. Unfortunately, that ain’t it. So we must grin, bear it, and use these tips to write a stellar story.
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