What is exposition?
One of the hardest things to do in a novel is to give the reader necessary information in a way that is natural and does not distance them from the story. Whenever you include background details about a character, the world they inhabit or events that took place before the story began, you are doing so through exposition.
However, fully describing a character the first time they are mentioned or explaining the very complicated magic system you painstakingly created as soon as a character is introduced to it will, in most cases, tempt your readers to tune out, skip ahead or even put your book down.
Exposition dumps are hard to escape, especially for novice writers.
So, how do you avoid bad exposition?
Dump it all on the first draft
Writing a first draft is already difficult enough without having to worry about where you should be including exposition. Besides, you will still be learning what your story is about and really getting into the minds of your characters.
You might finish writing your first draft and, surprise surprise: the story took a sharp left-turn from what you had originally planned, or you had a brilliant idea midway through that you will have to go back and revise in anyway.
The first draft is for you. No novel is ready for publication after only one draft, so don’t worry too much about getting the exposition in the right places the first time around. Once you know what you need to say, you can focus on where it goes. Revision is where you can truly sharpen your exposition.
Trust your readers
Do your readers absolutely need to know this information? Will the entire book make no sense without it?
A good example I like to use to illustrate this is in the film Back to the Future. In it, Doc builds a time machine out of a DeLorean car. The most important element that makes this time machine work is the flux capacitor. Doc talks about how he had a vision of what the capacitor looked like after hitting his head and discloses other minor details about how the car runs, but we are never told how the capacitor is built, how it works or what it actually does. Marty even directly asks Doc what a capacitor is, but he does not answer.
Does this make Back to the Future any less believable?
Not really, does it? We are trusted to understand that a flux capacitor makes time travel possible and we are shown it working, so the inner details of ‘how’ are irrelevant.
Trust your readers to fill in the gaps of your story. You do not need to tell them every single detail. Save your exposition for when you really need it.
Avoid ‘as you know…’
Exposition often happens through dialogue, when one character is telling another something they (but really the reader) must know. Think of mentor-type characters bringing the newbie in on the secrets of the world they have just discovered.
What you should definitely avoid, though, is a character telling another information they already have. These conversations ofter start with ‘as you know…’ and serve no purpose other than dumping information for the benefit of the reader, who will, in turn, think ‘why are they talking about this?’
Keeping with the film examples (since they are the biggest sinners of bad exposition), at the beginning of Big Hero 6 we are introduced to Hiro, an incredibly intelligent child who builds robots and takes them to robot fights. His older brother does not approve of this, wanting him to pursue an education, and says ‘Oh, what would Mom and Dad say?’ when he resists.
Which takes us to a very short, but incredibly jarring line of bad exposition.
‘I don’t know. They’re gone. They died when I was three, remember?’
Yes, he would definitely remember his parents’ deaths. This only serves to tell us, the audience, that their parents are gone, but makes no sense within the world.
Read through your dialogue. Make sure that information being shared with characters is new to them.
Show when you can, tell (shortly) when you must
Now, I can nearly feel the eye-rolls through the internet right now. Yes, ‘show vs tell’ is one of the biggest ‘rules’ of writing, and you are probably tired of reading about it, so I will keep it short.
In fact, I have already covered how you can use this to your advantage! (Sneaky, I know.)
Doc in Back to the Future showed us how his time machine worked. We were told about Hiro’s parents’ deaths.
Telling is not the villain of exposition, though. If what you need to tell readers (spot the word choice) can be better communicated that way, then showing it instead will probably take longer and defeat the purpose. If it’s something absolutely necessary to the story but you cannot show it interestingly (or it is not an inherently interesting fact, like the passage of time), then tell it and move on.
Is it relevant?
When you use exposition, you should be telling the reader information they need to know. It’s when you start sharing things that are irrelevant at that moment that they will tune out and lose interest.
You can, of course, tease your reader with little tidbits of what is to come (which is a great way to keep them invested), but keep the bulk of your exposition to what is needed there and then.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a great example of keeping exposition relevant. In the first chapter, character descriptions are short, only sparse details about District 12 are shared and the first mention of the Hunger Games is in a joke between Katniss and Gale.
Collins does not immediately go on to fully explain what the Games are because the moment is not about that; it’s about Katniss’ relationship with Gale. So the Games, the titular element of the novel, are irrelevant. Much like knowing the inner workings of the DeLorean’s flux capacitor.
How do you know if something is relevant? Well…
Do your readers care yet?
Most exposition in a novel tends to happen in the first narrative arc, when everything is still new to readers. One way to ensure they will remain interested and read through your exposition is to make them care about your characters and the story first.
In The Hunger Games, there are several moments where Collins comes close to diving into what the Games are, but she shares just enough to imply that they are dangerous. A full explanation does not come until just before the Reaping happens and Katniss’ sister, Primrose, is chosen to go to the Games.
Why do we care here?
‘How could I leave Prim, who is the only person in the world I’m certain I love?’ (p.12)
This is said very early on in the novel, and it’s not even about the Games; Katniss and Gale were contemplating running away. But when we have already been made aware of just how much Katniss cares for her sister, how difficult their life is, and then she volunteers in her place just as we learn what the games really are…
You reader will be a lot more invested in (and receptive to) your exposition if you present it at a moment when it will incite an emotional response. And that will not happen if they are not invested; if they do not care.
All in all…
Exposition in writing is unavoidable. You need it to tell your readers pretty much everything about your world, who your characters are and what is happening.
It can, though, be done brilliantly or slog on for pages. If you keep your exposition as natural as possible, spread it through your novel as and when it is needed and use it as a tool to pack a punch, you can create a story that is much more fluid to read and will keep readers hooked until the last page.
Sofia Matias is a professional writer, editor and proofreader. She specialises in working with independent authors of Young Adult and genre fiction, publishers and publications. She is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). Learn more about her and her services on her website and connect via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram.