Exposition is a literary device defined as the author providing information to the reader. The mistake of many new fiction writers is to immediately give the reader all the information. Right away. All at once. Page after page. This sort of exposition is dry, boring and likely results in your book being put down after a few minutes.
Don’t get me wrong, exposition has its place in the world; scientific articles, news reports and encyclopaedias are typical examples. It is considered a formal, matter-of-fact writing style and is sometimes given the name direct exposition. Direct exposition is considered a poor style of fiction writing – readers can’t handle all the information in one go, or the immersion of the story is broken by poorly disguised or placed information.
So, how do you get your information across to the reader?
The key is to trickle your amazing world history (or whatever) into the story as you go, ideally before the reader needs to know this information. Building up this way is simple and discrete and does wonders for your readership.
Jo Walton suggests that the best way to get information flowing throughout your work is to scatter it discretely, allowing it to seamlessly integrate rather than dumping it in. You can achieve this through various actions; dialogue between characters, flashbacks in which the story unfolds much like in movies and TV series, character thoughts and feelings, even describing news reports in the background of the situation. We call these forms of exposition indirect exposition.
The details, let’s get into more detail!
Dialogue is the verbal exchange between two or more characters. It can help you slip in some subtle exposition if the topic of the conversation relates to the information you’re trying to include. It’s as simple as discussing past events, concerns for the future or predictions based on a character experience.
Flashbacks are the author or narrator taking the reader backwards in time to describe a previous situation pertinent to the plot of the main story. They give the reader a sense of time and depth to the characters involved and can offer insight into possible future events beyond current time in the story. Tension can be generated when the reader knows a little more than the characters do. Don’t overdo flashbacks though, they can become tedious if they’re the only source of indirect exposition.
Thoughts and feelings are personal views belonging to your characters and are used in much the same way as a flashback, usually from an internal perspective:
“Why didn’t she turn left? Twenty years of living on the estate and she’s always turned left – she couldn’t help it.”
In-story media or news can really kick your exposition home. All that needs to happen is for a character to interact, either seeing, hearing or indeed taking part in the media platform:
“Chelsey grabbed the remote and flipped the TV volume up. She couldn’t believe her eyes – the stock market had collapsed. All the money they had invested, all the effort and pain they had endured to get their business working had been for naught. Economic war, the news presenter said, was leading to air, sea and land deployment of US troops on EU soil.”
Finally, a worthy note on narrative backstory.
Narrative backstory is when the author promotes some of the history or relevant information at the start of the story. You would normally find this sort of prologue in older fiction, usually pre-1950’s (the height of pulp fiction). It can work in modern fiction, but should be used sparingly – there’s a reason it’s not as popular anymore! However, if a character is recollecting the events or situation it allows for the reader to come to an understanding of the personal effects of this backstory. You will find that authors like H.P Lovecraft often wrote in the fashion of a personal journal or statement of the narrator, which adds a personal feel to a classical plot.
That wraps up today’s literary devices article! If you’ve been affected by any of the content of this article, or if you know of anyone who has, please get in touch and we can discuss the ideas more!
J.D Ferris, CC