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Handling the Exposition of a Story

Exposition is the fancy term for anything which isn’t a part of the story you’re telling, but is nevertheless important to explain what’s happening or put the events into context.

  • Imagine you’re writing a novel set in an advertising agency. The exposition would be all those facts you include that explain how ad agencies work. The facts may serve no dramatic purpose, but they are important to add authenticity and understanding to the novel.
  • Or suppose you’re writing a science fiction novel set on an entirely new planet. The exposition here would involve explaining the planet’s history, its geography, its language and customs, and so on.

For the most part, though, exposition is information about a character’s past (or a character’s backstory).

It fits into the definition of exposition I gave above because events from a character’s past are not a part of the present story, but they nevertheless have a bearing on it.

So if your novel is about a woman battling cancer, for example, it’s not obviously relevant that she was abused as a child. But it’s important that the readers know about it when her parents come to visit her. It also adds extra depth to her characterization.

We’re all a product of our pasts, and it is no different for a character in a novel. They, too, have a history that has made them the person they are at the start of the novel.

So if the reader is to get to know the character fully, and understand the events of the novel fully, they need to know about this history. Or they at least need to know about those parts of the history that help to explain the here and now.

They need to know where the character has come from, what their childhood was like, why their marriage failed – anything which helps to explain what they are doing here, what they want, and why they want it.

The Key to Handling Exposition

Exposition is a little like description. Both are important, but both are potentially unwelcome distractions.

How come? Because when you stop to describe something or explain something, the action stops. And that’s not good!

So here’s the first thing to understand about handling the exposition of a story: a reader is primarily interested in the story itself…

Yes, they want to find out about the inner workings of your advertising agency, or the folklore of Planet Zorg. Yes, they want to hear about the time your hero almost drowned as a kid.

But what they don’t want is for these things to significantly disrupt the flow of the story they’ve become engrossed in.

Exposition might be necessary to explain the events, but the events themselves – the plot, in other words – must always come first. So here’s the key to handling exposition…

Get in and get out fast.

In other words, present whatever facts you need to get across in as small a space as possible – a line or two here, a small paragraph there. Then return to the action.

Exposition in Action

One way to work in these snippets of background information is to incorporate them into the dialogue. Like here, for example…

“Staying long?” asked the receptionist.

“Two days, maybe three,” said Frank. “I’ve got to be back in London for my daughter’s birthday.”

“Family man, huh?”

“Two boys and a girl,” he said. “And a wife somewhere in France sleeping with a kid half her age.”

Another way is to work the same information into the prose, probably in the form of interior monologue (i.e. the character’s thoughts)…

“Staying long?” asked the receptionist.

“Two days, maybe three,” said Frank. “I’ve got to be back in London for my daughter’s birthday.”

“Family man, huh?”

Frank took his key and started up the stairs. He could have told the lady that he had two boys and a girl back at home who were missing their daddy like crazy, and a wife somewhere in France sleeping with a kid half her age, but he really wasn’t feeling chatty right now.

In either case, you’ve managed to get across some important background information without significantly disrupting the action. And that’s much better than the alternative, which is for the narrator to simply tell the reader about the character, before launching into a scene…

Frank White was a family man. He had two boys and a girl back at home who were missing their daddy like crazy, and a wife somewhere in France sleeping with a kid half her age. He wanted to be home himself right now, caring for his children, but instead he was 100 miles away on a business trip, stuck in this crummy hotel.

“Staying long?” asked the receptionist.

Nothing is happening in that first paragraph of exposition. Readers can’t create a movie in their minds because there’s nothing to visualize.

By working the exposition into the scene itself in small snippets, like in the two previous examples, you’re not leaving the readers stranded.

How Do You Get a Lot of Information Across?

You can still work it into your scenes in small doses (you’d be amazed at how much exposition you can “hide” in a scene). The key, of course, is to spread it out across the chapters, only giving readers information that they need to know now.

If that still leaves a big chunk of information, it’s perhaps best to bite the bullet and tell them in one long block of exposition. If you do that…

  • Still keep the exposition as short as you possibly can. And make it as interesting as you can.
  • Do it when the reader is hooked – at the start of Chapter 2, for example, right after a cliff-hanger ending. Certainly don’t open your novel with exposition.

Another Example

To give you the feel for what a block of pure exposition looks like, I’ll quote a passage from Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist. (I’ve edited it somewhat for the sake of brevity.)

The main character, Macon, is a travel writer. On page 10 of the novel, Tyler gives us a couple of paragraphs explaining the character’s job.

This information is potentially very dry and dusty. And the author has put the main story on hold. But note how Tyler still manages to bring what could have been a tedious couple of paragraphs to life…

Most of his work was done at home. He had a little study in the spare room off the kitchen. Seated in a stenographer’s chair, tapping away at a typewriter that had served him through four years of college, he wrote a series of guidebooks for people forced to travel on business. Ridiculous, when you thought about it: Macon hated travel.

He covered only the cities in these guides, for people taking business trips flew into cities and out again and didn’t see the countryside at all. They didn’t see the cities, for that matter. Their concern was how to pretend they had never left home. What hotels in Madrid boasted king-sized Beautyrest mattresses? What restaurants in Tokyo offered Sweet’n’Low? Did Amsterdam have a McDonald’s? Did Mexico City have a Taco Bell? Other travelers hoped to discover distinctive local wines; Macon’s readers searched for pasteurized and homogenized milk.

Entertaining, right? Not as entertaining as the story itself, which Tyler shortly returns to. But still an interesting couple of paragraphs that contain a lot of information without ever descending into dullness.

Use a Flashback

Another option for handling a large chunk of exposition, and in particular an episode from a character’s past, is to turn it into a dramatized flashback. The idea is simple…

Rather than put the story on hold while you tell the reader about the event from the past, you…

  1. Move back in time and let the event play out like it’s a scene happening in the here and now.
  2. Rejoin the present and get on with the main story.

That way, you enable the reader to continually have something to visualize in their mind’s eye, like a movie.

Yes, this movie is set in the past, which isn’t ideal (the reader is interested in the present). But it’s still a lot more entertaining for them than many paragraphs or pages of dry exposition.

Further Reading…

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