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Using Exposition The Right Way

Using Exposition The Right Way

You’ve probably come across the word exposition in reviews and in writing advice. You might have seen it referred to in negative terms, and maybe you’re nervous about getting it wrong, especially if you’re writing a book for the first time.

What is exposition, and how can you use it effectively to make your story flow well and have depth? This guide will help you understand exposition and how to use it. Let’s begin. 

What Is Exposition?

First let’s clear something up: we’re talking about “exposition”, not “the exposition”. 

What’s the difference? 

The Exposition

In some models of dramatic structure, the exposition of a story is the opening scene. It introduces us to the protagonist and explains some of the circumstances of their life, so that when the “inciting incident” happens, we understand why it matters. Not all stories include the exposition, but many do. 

(We won’t be discussing dramatic structure in this article, but if you want to learn more, you could read our article about Freytag’s Pyramid.)

Exposition

Exposition, sometimes called narrative exposition, is something different. It’s a writing technique used to convey certain information to the reader. Think of it as: 

Text that gives your reader information which comes from outside of the current viewpoint. 

For example, say your viewpoint character needs to learn about an event that was part of another character’s childhood. They can’t experience that event directly, because it happened long ago, to another person. So how can they (and the reader) become aware of it? This is where we use exposition. 

Here’s an example of exposition from Operation Syndrome by Frank Herbert: 

“On the bayside walk, Eric and Colleen matched steps. 

‘You never did tell me what a musikron is.’

Her laughter caused a passing couple to turn and stare. ‘Okay. But I still don’t understand. We’ve been on TV for a month.’

He thought, She thinks I’m a fuddy; probably am! 

He said, ‘I don’t subscribe to the entertainment circuits. I’m just on the science and news networks.’

She shrugged. ‘Well, the musikron is something like a recording and playback machine; only the operator mixes in any new sounds he wants. He wears a little metal bowl on his head and just thinks about the sounds—the musikron plays them.” She stole a quick glance at him, looked ahead. “Everyone says it’s a fake; it really isn’t.'”

In the example above, there are several pieces of exposition woven together. We learn how a musikron works, we learn that people doubt it’s real, and we also learn some small facts from Eric and Colleen’s past experiences. The musikron isn’t in our viewpoint, neither are its doubters; the information about them is coming to us through exposition instead of us experiencing it first-hand. 

Exposition often takes the form of dialogue, as it does in this example. But it can also be conveyed through narration, through written material in the character’s surroundings, and in many other possible forms. The common idea is that it brings information from outside the current viewpoint into the reader’s awareness. 

Sometimes, you’ll hear people talk about exposition as if it’s always a bad thing, but this isn’t true. Excessive or unwarranted exposition (known as an “info dump”) feels unnatural and boring. But exposition itself is just a tool, and every story makes use of it in some way. The key is to use it well. 

Examples Of Exposition

To understand exposition better, let’s take a look at a few examples of exposition from specific genres. Pay attention to how each of these examples brings important information from outside the reader’s viewpoint into their awareness. 

Exposition In Police Procedurals

A police procedural is a type of mystery or crime story that’s focused on a police force, typically with a lead investigator as the viewpoint character. The story follows the steps they take to solve a mystery, prevent a crime, or apprehend a criminal. 

If you read or watch police procedurals, you’ve probably come across the following sorts of scenes plenty of times: 

  • A lab tech intercepts the protagonist in the hallway to give them the results of a blood test. They speak only briefly before one of them has to move on to other pressing matters. 
  • The protagonist is called out to a crime scene, where another officer shows them some broken pieces of coloured glass they found outside. The protagonist immediately makes a connection that hadn’t occurred to anyone else. 
  • A car mechanic calls the police because of some strange damage they notice on a car that was brought in. The protagonist arrives and the mechanic, who has plenty of years under their belt, explains that the damage could only have been caused by tampering. 

Did you spot the common purpose of these scenes? They all offload boring tasks to other characters, leaving the protagonist to experience the interesting parts first-hand. 

As readers, we don’t want to watch the protagonist using a centrifuge, poking around in a pile of leaves, or changing somebody’s oil. We only care about the test result, the bits of glass, and the tampering. But from a standpoint of believability, those mundane tasks have to be completed by someone so the information can be uncovered. 

In these examples, exposition has allowed us to separate the boring work from the interesting outcome. 

Exposition In Immersive Sci-Fi

These stories involve plenty of world-building, and part of the enjoyment for readers is being immersed in a believable, coherent world that’s different from our own. 

See if you recognise either of these scenes: 

  • Our protagonist needs to locate an arms dealer in a space port. They go to the market area, where they’re immersed in a sea of bright signs, food smells, snips of conversations and arguments, strange alien bodies, and loud-voiced merchants with exotic wares on display. The protagonist fumbles their inquiries, angering the locals, and is about to be attacked when a helpful character pulls them aside. The good Samaritan explains the local custom they’ve violated and points the protagonist in the right direction. 
  • Our protagonist has been brought to a meeting of the ruling council of the galactic empire. While scavenging in deep space, they received a strange transmission that they’ve been asked to share with the council. As they enter, the council is engaged in a lively debate about clashes with a rival empire, how those might be affected by the disintegration of the trader’s guild, and whether a new warp drive invented by a reclusive genius can give them an edge. 

What’s the common thread this time? We want to give our reader an immersive experience of the history, politics, culture, and technology of this world, but our protagonist is just one person, and can’t experience everything first-hand. In these examples, exposition allows the market and the council chamber to become conduits to the wider universe, exposing our protagonist to a variety of experiences in a single place and time. 

Exposition In Disaster And Survival Stories

These stories centre around a protagonist who’s thrown into a physically threatening situation and has to figure out how to get through it alive. Whether it’s making a difficult sacrifice, overcoming a deep fear, or learning to trust another character, the reader’s enjoyment comes from watching the protagonist grow in a way that allows them to survive. 

See if you recognise any of these scenes: 

  • The protagonist is riding in a helicopter to a remote island. The pilot explains that the island has no radio communications, and the waters aren’t safe for boats to approach, so the helicopter travels to and from the mainland once each week. 
  • A tour bus is hijacked by masked men and taken to a location outside the city. The protagonist overhears one of the masked men on their phone, demanding a ransom and explaining that one hostage will be shot every hour until the ransom is delivered, starting one hour from now. 
  • The zombie apocalypse is here, and society is falling apart. The protagonist rescues a man who tells a harrowing story of watching his wife become a zombie after she tried to protect him and was bitten. 

Here the exposition is doing the job of explaining the rules of the game. “There’s no way off the island”, or “you have one hour until a hostage is shot”, or “if you’re bitten by a zombie, you’ll become one”. 

If we want the protagonist’s struggles and setbacks to feel dramatic, the reader needs to know these rules. Which choices are available to the protagonist? What’s dangerous and what isn’t? What are the chances something will work? 

These rules are created by the author, but they need to be explained from inside the story. Exposition lets us do this. 

exposition

How To Use Exposition In Your Writing

The examples above have shown us three different uses for exposition: offloading boring tasks, creating a conduit to a broader world, and explaining the rules of the game. 

How can you use exposition effectively in your stories? How do you get across crucial information without boring or annoying the reader? 

Writing good exposition is mostly about the decisions you make ahead of time. If your exposition is being delivered by the wrong character or at the wrong time, you can’t fix that by tweaking the wording. If you spend time setting up your exposition, it’s much easier to make it feel natural. 

Try using this step-by-step formula as a guide: 

  1. Determine the facts that are crucial to your story. Make a list of important information you need to convey to the reader, along with when they need to know it. (This could be a mental list or an actual document—whatever works for you.) Avoid including information in your story just for the sake of including it; think actively about what you include. 
  1. Understand the limitations of your story’s viewpoint. If you have a first-person viewpoint, you can only narrate what the character knows and sees, but you can imbue the text with their feelings and opinions. If you have an omniscient narrator, they can see everything, but a character’s feelings will often be conveyed more indirectly.
  1. Diffuse as much as you can. Diffusing your exposition means breaking it down into smaller chunks by spreading it over time or pushing some of it out into the environment. The more you can do this, the less intrusive the exposition feels (ie no ‘info dumps’), and the easier the next step tends to be. 
  1. Pick a good framing. For information you need to deliver directly, figure out a framing that makes sense. Who can deliver this information? When would it make sense for them to do it? Use your framing to help you write a great scene to deliver the exposition.
  1. Prime the reader. Set your reader up ahead of time by creating anticipation, curiosity, or anxiety about the information you’re going to deliver. How can you make the reader want to hear about this subject? 

Many writers don’t think about exposition this consciously. They just write, and if the exposition feels awkward, they try to smooth it out. But given how often readers and reviewers mention bad exposition, it might not hurt to approach it systematically. 

You don’t have to use this framework before writing. If you prefer to write “in the flow”, start by getting your first draft onto the page, then use this framework to guide your revisions. 

Top Tips For Exposition Writing

Now that we’ve looked at the step-by-step formula, what are some specific tips and tricks you can use when writing exposition? 

Determining The Key Facts

  • Try starting from a blank slate. Pretend you aren’t going to use any exposition at all. What problems would this cause? Which information would be missing? 
  • Go through your story and, for each scene, ask yourself “What should the reader know (or not know) by the time this scene happens for it to feel as dramatic as possible?” 
  • Look at your world-building and ask yourself, “Which ideas or experiences would the reader be sad to miss out on? Which ones will stick with them long after reading?” 
  • If your plot hinges on any sort of specialist of technical knowledge, take some time to understand what the average person knows and doesn’t know on that subject. For example, if you’re writing a historical novel, what does the average person know about that time period? What misunderstandings or misinformation are common? 

Diffusing

  • Try using architecture to convey history and past events. Which buildings were built strongly, opulently, or shoddily? Which have been cared for and which have fallen into disrepair? Plaques and dedications can also convey information from the past. 
  • Try using media to convey the present: news broadcasts, posters, advertising, music, TV and videos can all convey current events in your story, as well as a social, cultural, or political context. 
  • Try using reactions and body language to convey existing relationships. Two people who know each other will react in some way, positively or negatively, overtly or in subtle ways, when they see one another. Parsing these reactions, instead of being told directly about an existing relationship, can be a more enjoyable way for the reader to learn this part of a character’s backstory.
  • If a character absolutely needs to read a long passage of text, try having them read it over several sittings. This also allows you to quote short excerpts each time, omitting boring parts that might have come in between. 
  • If a character needs to learn about a complicated sequence of events, try having them learn about one step at a time. This gives the reader time in between to absorb the meaning of each step. 
  • Remember the mantra “show, don’t tell”—if you can have the protagonist gain the information through an experience instead of a dialogue, that’s preferable.

Picking A Good Framing

  • An argument provides a great excuse to bring up facts that two characters already know, since the point of an argument isn’t to relay new information, but to clash over interpretations or values. This is also a great opportunity to convey a character’s personality. 
  • A confession offers an emotional framework for talking about past events. (Confessions can segue into a flashback if desired.)
  • An expert speaking to a non-expert can deliver technical or specialist information. The common setup is for the non-expert to seek out and interrogate the expert. Try subverting this somehow—perhaps the expert initiates the conversation, or perhaps they’re brought together in a different way. 
  • A planning meeting can help review a complicated situation for the reader’s benefit. Set it up so that the meeting has an objective—a decision to be made or a problem to solved—and the people present have different motivations and values. 
  • You can offload boring tasks to an assistant, ally, or bystander and have them report only the essentials to your viewpoint character. 
  • When you only have a single fact to deliver, you can either find a framing that is naturally brief (a rushed conversation, a post-it note left on a desk), or you can embed it within another interaction. 
  • If the information is key to the story, consider delivering it through a memorable set piece. When the assailant tells his captive he has six hours to live, does he write it on an 8.5”x11” piece of lined paper, or embed an audio recording in a remotely-triggered jack-in-the-box? 
  • If you’re stuck finding a framing, start by asking yourself, who has the information? How might they deliver it directly or indirectly, voluntarily or involuntarily? 

Priming The Reader

  • Make the protagonist suffer (a little or a lot) for not having the information. Maybe our detective needs to link a suspect to a crime before he can get a warrant, and in the meantime a second crime has been committed. Or maybe a character commits a faux pas because they don’t know local etiquette. 
  • Have a character engage in some unexplained behaviours. Perhaps they display an emotion that doesn’t fit the situation, or they’re seen talking to someone you wouldn’t expect  them to know. This can raise the reader’s interest about their motivations or backstory
  • Have someone give a half-answer and withhold the rest. Perhaps our lab tech calls and cryptically says, “turns out that bullet we analysed wasn’t really a bullet… I’ll need to explain this one in person”. 
  • Make the reader wonder how something incredible was accomplished, by having the protagonist experience it first-hand before anybody explains it to them. 
  • Once you’ve made the reader want the information, it’s often good to make them wait for it a little. Give them enough time to enjoy forming their own theories. 

Writing Exposition

We hope this guide has helped you understand what exposition is and how to use it in your story. Writing exposition well can be tough; but getting it right can make all the difference between a story full of info gaps and info dumps…and a well-rounded, exciting story that keeps your readers gripped!  



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