Wednesday, June 18

Writing Basics: It's Exposition, Yeah, Baby!

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Exposition is necessary to tell a story, but it hangs out with some pretty unsavory characters--Infodump. Backstory. Telling. These are all different aspects of exposition, and unless handled carefully, they can be story killers. Because storytelling is about dramatizing, while exposition is about explaining.

The basic definition sums it up nicely: writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain; a detailed statement or explanation; explanatory treatise.

In writing terms...
  • It's the science fiction protagonist who gets into a anti-gravity car and the story stops to explain how it works and what it looks like.
  • It's the romance protagonist who has a bad date and the story stops to explain why this guy was particularly rough on her due to her past.
  • It's the young adult protagonist who visits her dad at work and the story stops to explain how unhappy he is at work and why this is upsetting her.
You'll notice a key phrase in all of those: the story stops. Whenever the characters stop acting like themselves (or real people) and you feel your author-ness sneaking it to make sure the readers understands some aspect of the scene, you've probably dipped into the bad type of exposition.

This is so easy to do (and so common) that Mike Myers even named a character after it in his Austin Powers movies: Basil Exposition, whose job is to come onscreen and explain the relevant plot information in that scene. Need a summary of what the bad guy's been up to? Just ask Basil and he'll explain it all. While this is a clever way to spoof the cliché in the movies, it doesn't work the same for our novels.

However, sometimes we need to explain things to the reader for them to understand and enjoy the story and there's no natural way to write it. Or we'd have to spend pages to dramatize something we could just explain in a line or two.

The trick it to find the right balance between dramatizing and explaining.

Spotting Exposition in Your Work

The first step to writing good exposition is to identify the bad exposition. If it reads like notes on how to write to the scene, it's bad exposition. If it doesn't sound at all like the character, it's probably infodumping through dialog. If it's something the character wouldn't know or wouldn't think about, you guessed it--bad exposition.

(Here's more in infodumping through dialog)

Let's check in with Bob and the zombies for a few examples:
Bob walked into the abandoned QuickMart. Maurice used to own it, but he was killed during the first wave of zombie attacks. His daughter Lucille had tried to keep it open to serve the survivors who were fighting back, but with everyone evacuating the cities she finally had to let it go. Which was a shame, because the shelves were as empty as the streets.
That big chunk of explanation in the middle probably jumped out at you, right? Are we interested in who owned the store and how it was abandoned? No, because we're worried about Bob and whatever problem he has at this moment. The information about Maurice and Lucille is irrelevant to the scene and there's no reason for Bob to be thinking about it at this moment. It's just explaining the history of the current setting.

(Here's more on backstory)

But what if it was important for readers to know a little about this history?

Then a few tweaks can turn this from explanation to dramatization. The trick is to use internalization and keep it in Bob's voice so it sounds like something he'd logically think at that moment.
Bob walked into the abandoned QuickMart and sighed. It just wasn't the same without the guy who used to own it--Maurice? Morris? Who could remember anymore. But his laugh, that you remembered. Big ol' Murry behind the counter whooping it up like Santa Claus. Bob smiled as he picked his way through the broken glass. He'd heard through the traders' net that the daughter had taken over for a while, but it looked like she was gone, too. The shelves were as empty as the streets.
Now it sounds like Bob reminiscing about something he misses in the current zombie apocalypse. We also learn another detail about the world with the traders' net comment.

(Here's more on infodumping)

What if you didn't need to mention the owners of the QuickMart at all? Just delete it and focus on Bob.
Bob walked into the abandoned QuickMart and picked his way through the broken glass. The shelves were as empty as the streets.
If this feels too hollow and you want to flesh it out, try adding a small bit of internalization.
Bob walked into the abandoned QuickMart and picked his way through the broken glass. Sally was right--stopping here was a waste of time. The shelves were as empty as the streets.
If the reader doesn't need to know it, don't explain it. If you need to explain it, then just keep it in the character's voice.

But exposition doesn't always come in large chunks. You can have a single line that feels stuck it, which can jar the reader right out of the story or bog down the pacing.
Jane frowned, because Sally never let her carry the shotgun.
Note the word "because" here. "Because" is a big red flag that you're about to explain something. It explains the reason Jane frowns. Try cutting "because" and turning the reason into internalization.
Jane frowned. Sally never let her carry the shotgun. or better still...

Jane frowned. Just once she'd like to carry the damn shotgun.
Minor edits, but they can turn explanation into dramatization.

(Here's more on words that often tell, not show)

Exposition can be hard to spot, but look for places or words that explain or lecture: because, realized, knew, had always, which had been, and explain, are common words that might indicate bad exposition. Common telling red flags are also places you might find exposition, such as: as, looked, heard, felt, caused, made, starting to, began to, would have, etc.

Do you have any exposition questions or comments? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. I think this is where alpha and beta readers are indispensable. Sometimes we're blind to our own text and need another pair of eyes to point these things out to us.

  2. There is a God. BTW she inspired Janice to write this :) I now see so much that is right and wrong with what I'm doing...

  3. There is a God. BTW she inspired Janice to write this :) I now see so much that is right and wrong with what I'm doing...

  4. Some fantasy stories can be good on sharing lots of exposition. I find myself skipping paragraph chunks when they appear. So I try to be aware of this happening in my own writing....thankful to hones crit partners who point it ou.