Writing

Exposition in Novel Writing: How to Do It Right (And How Not To)

Within any narrative, there is certain critical information that is outside of the plot which the author must delivered to the reader. This background information is necessary for the reader to gain a better understanding of the characters, plot and setting, so they can have an authentic experience with the narrative. The sharing of this information is known as exposition. Quite literally, the author is exposing unseen particulars he or she believes are essential to the story.

Why is it used?

Through proper exposition, we learn characters’ past, perspective, opinions, and general backstory. We may learn a character used to be romantically involved with another character. We may learn something simple such as the character enjoys a certain type of food, or something more juicy, such as the character used to be in prison. Regardless of what we learn through these expositional techniques, it should be relevant to the story either immediately, in the future, or it may help to further the reader’s understanding of something that has already happened. Exposition may be setting us up for something we need to know in the future or just helps us understand existing character relationships. It can also be more specific to setting, but typically deals with character development.

Third Person Exposition

A talented writer can go about this process is several ways. Commonly, we may further our understanding through the author’s third person description.

Although Eliza was born in San Diego, she never called it her hometown, since she spent most of her childhood in San Francisco.

The author just revealed some pertinent information that will help us in understanding Eliza better. Now that we know she doesn’t identify much with her  hometown, we can apply that to her interaction, thoughts, feelings, etc. throughout the story.

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Exposition through Dialogue

The author may choose to share this expositional background information through dialogue. Characters can reveal a lot about themselves through their conversations with other characters. Conversations held in secret can bring a different level of knowledge to the reader.

“I wish you could’ve been with me last year when I was recovering,” he sighed to his coach.

Now we understand there is a physical and emotional struggle this character has been dealing with, which will certainly come up again as part of the story. When it does, the reader can readily connect the previously shared dialogue with the current situations. A first person monologue can also be used to let a character deliver their own information to the reader. Exposition can also come in the form of media within the story. Authors can present newspapers, letters, and television, which can go a long way in sharing critical events with the audience. By reading a headline or a letter, or hearing a news anchor deliver a headline, we can store crucial bits of data for future or past reference. In some cases, an author may use a prologue in order to introduce the requisite information, but this can inhibit the reader’s natural discovery of information and flow of the narrative. There may not be as much artistry when using a prologue to deliver the exposition.

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Telling, Not Showing

It’s a popular repetition in the writing community; “show, don’t tell”. But exposition has it’s place in writing. Not everything should be told directly to your reader, although the careful use of exposition can work to counter an overabundance of showing. Regardless of the method employed by the author, the exposition should be entertaining enough that the reader’s interest does not fade, but it should not dominate the story. Exposition, by nature, lacks action, so it is important that it doesn’t drag on because while it is being delivered, the story is not progressing.

Yes, the reader requires these details to make full sense of all the situations and relationships, but it must be done properly. If an author goes on too long with this process, the reader may begin to lose interest. The author must still be working toward the climax of the story and building action. It should be kept rather concise and, ideally, be quite interesting. If the method used to deliver this exposition doesn’t maintain the reader’s interest, the information can go unnoticed or forgotten, and the story ends up with a gap in the sequence of events, along with the reader’s lack of necessary knowledge.

Takeaway:

The author’s artistry must shine through in every aspect of the story. It’s not something that comes easily. The best authors share this information seamlessly after years of practice. Most people don’t even realize there is real thought and effort put into delivering this information to the reader, it just seems organic. We know what we need to know and that’s why we can truly appreciate a properly told story with classic exposition. Make your expositions count in subtle ways, because it should be the exception, not the rule in your writing.

How are you slipping well-crafted exposition into your stories, and what are you struggling with in getting it in? Let us know in the comments!

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