Exposition, what is it? What’s the difference between elegant exposition and an unreadable info dump?

First Off, Let’s Define

Exposition exists in music, plays, or written text. In music, the first part in a sonata or fugue introduces the themes used in the composition. In a play, exposition gives background information on characters and situation. Since you’re here, let’s assume you care about exposition in prose fiction.

The word “exposition” comes from the Latin for “to place.” You want to ground the reader in the details and important information in your story, the writing needs to be concise and easy to understand.

That’s all well and good, but what’s too much? Not enough? How ‎will your reader know the prince is really the son of a poor bagel seller if you don’t tell them? You’re halfway through your epic tale and you haven’t even touched on the implications of the political back-story and the religious sect that worships 70s action figures.

Readers are engaged when they know what the heck is going on. If they don’t know what to worry about they won’t worry, if they don’t know who to care about (and why) they wont care.

But too much information (especially all at once) doesn’t work either. How do you get them grounded in your world without long boring paragraphs of info-dump?

Exposition is always a little tricky, especially because different readers have different tolerances for it. But here are some simple guidelines that can help.

Keep it Interesting, Keep it Short

Don’t tell us more than we need to know, and don’t use too many words to do it.

“My mother was a nun until she met my father. I was born a few months before they married.”

That’s a decent amount of information, all wrapped in some titillating details. It’s short but (hopefully) interesting. Not only is the reader getting vital information about situation and setting, they’re getting hints of things to be curious about. It’s both a hook and exposition.

And about that curiosity: you want them asking questions, but you don’t want them confused or focused on a detail that’s not central to the story. Make sure they’re asking the questions you want them to ask.

Don’t be Coy

What does “coy” mean? Coy means that instead of just saying “The prince was really the son of a poor bagel seller,” you spend pages and pages dancing around the subject and trying to find a way to drop the information in a way that’s not obvious. This is where the infamous “As you know, Bob” dialogue comes from: a writer trying to be subtle and failing.

You don’t want to be blatant all the time, but sometimes you’ll save yourself (and the reader) a lot of time and effort by just telling what’s going on and getting back to the action. If your narrator already knows the information, just say it. A lot of writers withhold crucial information because they think it will pique the reader’s interest and keep them reading, but this tactic is more likely to frustrate your reader and make them put the story down. Don’t do it.

Work It Into the Story’s Present

Have you seen Inception? In the first chunk of the film, there’s someone named Mal. The main character knows her, there’s something weird between them and she’s clearly set on messing up their plans–and yet the audience doesn’t quite know who she is or what she wants. The movie isn’t being coy; all of their dialogue and interactions make sense when you know what her deal is–and at the same time the characters all know what’s going on and don’t need to explain it to each other for the benefit of the audience. We don’t quite get the full picture till a new character comes in and asks who Mal is and what she wants. It feels completely natural to release that information at that point, and it pushes the plot forward. If you’re having trouble working a piece of information into a story, maybe it’s worth seeing if it will fit better into the scene before, or the scene after–or maybe if you need a different scene entirely.

Don’t Put Exposition in an Action Scene

When you have a tiger chasing you, you’re probably not ruminating on how you got into this mess (take my word for it, don’t test this.) You’re too focused on high tree branches and tranq guns and OMGOMGOMG!

Work your exposition into the moments when characters (and readers) have a moment to breathe and think. And while you’re at it, fit it into whatever they’re doing to move the plot forward.

Tell the Reader Everything Pertinent to the Moment, Move On, Rinse, Repeat

In music, exposition hints at the larger musical work, it doesn’t cram the whole thing in. Same in writing, tell the reader what they need to know to be grounded in the immediate action, move them along your story, give them more information they immediately need. Repeat, repeat, repeat till the end.

If you want to practice this stuff, try laying out everything your reader needs to know on a pad of paper, then outline your story’s scenes on another page. See if you can assign where each piece of information needs to show up. Massage that information into dialog and description that’s already moving the plot forward. It might come off unnaturally in your first try, but you’ll start to build an eye for when back-story can be added in.

Your Turn

How do you handle exposition and tiger chase scenes? Any tricks to share? Drop them in the comments!

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