Exposition: The Good, The Bad, and The Unnecessary

Recently, Cracked.Com ran a great video rant on sloppy exposition in movies. In essence, using a fake news report to set up the exposition of a movie is not only sloppy, but boring and often unnecessary.

This too holds true for literature. There are good and bad ways of introducing the necessary background information of the world a story is set in for the story to make sense.

Just to be clear, when I talk about exposition, I’m referring to narrative exposition, or the insertion or presentation of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ back-stories, prior plot events, chronological context, and so on (Wikipedia).

I’ve always been a fan of the way science fiction does this, as a literary genre. In many science fiction stories, from The Time Machine to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there are characters that are in the dark to what is going on in the world. When The Narrator or Arthur Dent learn something new about this strange world they’re set in, so do the readers. This trick isn’t isolated to the genre of science fiction, but it does work extremely well in sci-fi because it allows a lot of exposition in a way that doesn’t feel strange or forced to the reader.

In literary worlds that parallel our own or are set in a real-world like setting, not much exposition is needed. For example, if your story is set in Florida, your reader already knows that there are a lot of alligators around. Or if your story is set in a proper English Victorian-type era, we get that people obsessively drinking tea. If there are pages and pages and chapters full of background exposition, then the story isn’t going to be very appealing to the reader. Instead of reading like a story, it may read like a history book.

There are some easy ways of working exposition into a story without making it boring. Here are a few tricks to get rid of unnecessary and bad exposition.

1. Don’t give the exposition all at once, but rather, reveal it little-by-little, as the reader needs to know the information. This not only prevents the first part of your work feeling disjointed from the rest of the story, but it helps move the story along as the reader gains a bit of pertinent information, then moves on to the parts of the story it is relevant for. This can also create an air of mystery around the story and keep a reader glued to the page to find out what happens next.

2. Give background information through a conversation. People love gossip. There are shows like TMZ dedicated to it. Heck, cable channels like E! wouldn’t exist if people didn’t like gossip. So, use people’s natural lust for gossip to give them some background information that will come in handy in the story. This makes the exposition information fun to read and gives your reader the thrill of being a voyeur.

3. Make sure the delivery of the exposition makes sense to the story. This is where exposition can get hard. If you have a group of lifelong best friends eating dinner together, and one asks the other about their life story because you need it for exposition, it doesn’t make a whole ton of sense since all the characters are all super close friends. Making exposition feel natural to your story takes a bit of planning and work, but it can be done, so do it and think about it carefully. Instead of having a group of lifelong friends, have one person bring their new boyfriend or girlfriend after a trip abroad so you have one person there that doesn’t know anything. Remember: there should be a reason this information is given in the story so it feels like it is part of the story.

4. Edit your exposition aggressively. This is the place to be a minimalist in your writing, even if that isn’t your style. You want to give just enough information to where your reader doesn’t feel lost, but you don’t want to over-inform your reader through a long section of text that reads like a list. Some exposition is always necessary, but there’s never a reason to be heavy-handed with it. Even after you’ve written and edited your story, you should go back to just the exposition portions and see what you can trim out.

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