Not long ago, I wrote a short article on the concept of ″Show, Don′t Tell″, and made sure to add that both sides of the equation are needed to tell a good story. When it comes to exposition, it is the skillful use of both show and tell in unison that can give your story a smooth and natural feel, while still giving the audience the tools it needs to fully understand what′s going on. Finding a way to finesse both sides takes a little practice, but once you nail it down, it will pretty much become automatic in your writing process. So that′s the topic for today! Let′s talk ′exposition′!
Exposition is basically a way to fill your readers in on everything that′s going on with your story. Details like time, location, character details, what period the story takes place in, and more. Who are these characters? Where did they come from? What is their background? It′s fuel for the imagination, and it gets the writers and their readers on the same page as far as kicking things off and keeping them going from beginning to end. This is especially important if writing something from the supernatural or science fiction/fantasy genre, or in a story that takes place during some sort of past era or during a historical event. The world building aspect makes exposition super important so your readers can grab onto the rules of society and boundaries put in place for what they′re about to read. Now, exposition is a bit more ′tell′ than ′show′, but I′ve always thought that it was important to figure out how to find a decent balance between the two, regardless. Doing it out of balance can slow the entire flow of your story, and that′s not good. There are two ways of delivering exposition…narration (Or simply what you write about the characters and their situation) and dialogue (What the characters say out loud to one another). Without balance…giving an entire ′info dump′ of narration all at once can seem a little complicated and boring. While having a character deliver 100 years worth of backstory in one long winded speech can seem weird and unnecessary. It would be like randomly asking a stranger on the bus how they′re doing and having them tell you their life story without so much as taking a break to realize that you only wanted to hear, ″Fine. How are you?″ as a response. We want to give readers details, but we don′t want it to be a stumbling block in the story itself. Not easy, but possible.
One thing that I′ve learned over time is that exposition goes a lot smoother when it′s spread out over time. Not only does it keep your audience from getting bored, but it actually makes future chapters more engaging as your audience finds out a little bit more information as they keep reading. Things get a little deeper, layers are added, characters become more developed. It builds momentum in your storytelling. Much better than explaining everything all at once in the first ten pages of your story and having everyone try to remember it all for later use. Many readers look at exposition and treat a lot of the info as, ″Is this going to be on the test?″ So trying to cram a ton of details into their brain all at once can be a bit of an overwhelming experience. Trim it down. Think about what′s most important for them to know right away, tell them what they need to know to get started, and then add more details along the way. I′ve always found that it works out better that way in terms of reader involvement.
So, how do we choose between ′showing′ and ′telling′ when it comes to delivering the important information? And how do we trim it down in an efficient manner?
When I first started writing stories on Nifty, I used to always make sure that I mentioned the fact that my main character was gay. I was still brand new to writing gay fiction, and I always felt it was necessary to make that distinction so my readers wouldn′t suddenly be caught off guard. That…was totally unnecessary. Hehehe! I was writing gay fiction on a gay website for gay readers. There was hardly any ′surprise′ involved when it came to the fact that my main character was a homosexual. So I don′t feel the need to add that detail anymore. That can be ′shown′ to anyone reading, simply by stating the fact that this is a boy who finds another boy attractive. The fact that he′s gay is demonstrated through his feelings and his actions, and the audience will immediately come to the conclusion of, ″Oh, so he′s gay. Got it. Moving on.″ Done. The information has been delivered, and I didn′t have to muddy up the waters by explaining to my readers what′s going on. They got the memo, now let′s keep going.
You can ′tell′ your readers what they need to know without actually ′telling′ them at all. Use your prose to set up situations that will deliver the message you want them to receive. Like…you could begin a story like this:
′It was a particularly cold Winter night. I was huddled in a tent with three other soldiers, dreading the next battle against the Confederates that was sure to come just before dawn. I think about my dearest sister Eliza, back home…and I pray that her and the baby are alright.′ Now…in those first few sentences, you can cover a lot of ground in setting the stage for your audience. What has this small section suggested to us as readers? We know that it′s Winter time. We know that our main character is a soldier during a time of war. We know what side he′s fighting for and what side he′s fighting against. We know that he′s frightened and worried about going into battle. We know that a battle is quickly approaching. We know that has a sister, named Eliza, and that she has a baby back home, and he loves them both dearly. There we go. ALL of that information was given to your readers in the first three sentences of your story, and your audience is immediately engaged in what′s going on, and intrigued by what might happen next. You don′t have to explain the entire history of the Civil War, or talk about the horrors of combat, or mention that the soldier is straight or gay or anything like that. The audience has the foundation set for the story you′re trying to tell, and that′s all they need for right now. Later on, maybe you write a scene where the soldier wakes up the next morning, and while feeding on breakfast rations, your main character looks over and sees another soldier that he thinks is beautiful beyond words. (″Oh, so the main character is gay″) You can use that moment to mention that he′s been camping out with them for the past three months, you can give his infatuation a name and a description, you might hint at a few friendly moments between them that gives your audience a hint of their relationship…and then jump right back to the main plot of the story. Just give bits and pieces of information at a time when it′s useful, and keep your momentum going forward. Don′t stop for an info dump of details that aren′t directly relevant to that particular scene.
The same goes for all stories. At the very beginning of ″Jesse-101″, I started off with a bit of narrative exposition to detail an event that led up to exact point where the story begins. Something that I felt was necessary to set the stage. But after those first few paragraphs, the main character, Tristan, is simply talking to his best friend, Lori, in his bedroom. While the opening scene is mostly dialogue, I tried to use their back and forth conversation to deliver the exposition needed for the audience to get a clear picture of what was going on and dive right in with no further explanation. Just from their banter, you learn that Tristan is in high school, he′s only out to his best friends and no one else, that he and Lori share a history of friendship together, that Tristan sees himself as being a bit ′sissy-ish′ and doesn′t have much in common with other boys his age, that he′s dealing with a recent rejection…that one conversation delivers a TON of needed information to the readers about the story, but without just having me write the details down in a narrative with no human interaction or emotional involvement. The bonus to giving exposition through dialogue is that you not only get important details and story plot points out there, but you get a sense of your characters′ personalities as well. You kill two birds with one stone, and you flawlessly move from ′tell′ to ′show′ without your audience even being aware of it. See? It′s all magic! Hehehe!
So…all in all, exposition is a part of writing a good story. It′s necessary. I know that there are critics who will pick it apart and try to make the ′E′ word something awful and lazy and worthy of dismissal, but it′s not. It is a necessary function when it comes to telling an effective tale and bringing people into the world that you′ve created. Don′t be afraid to give your readers a map to navigate through the situations that you′ve got planned for them, but don′t be afraid to have faith in their intelligence either. The actions and dialogue of your characters will infer and display the story details your readers need to know for them to understand what′s happening without you telling them directly. They′ll get it. ″Oh, this person is taking an insulin shot every morning before breakfast. He must be diabetic.″ Or, ″The main character is being woken up by his mom opening the shades and telling him to come down for breakfast. He must be a teenager.″ Or, ″This guy is wearing a skin tight costume, and he′s perched on a rooftop looking down at the dark city landscape for criminals doing wrong. He must be some sort of hero or vigilante.″ Whatever. ′Tell′ in some parts. ′Show′ in other parts. And train yourself to know the difference, and what will be most effective in any given situation.
Ok, I′ve babbled on for long enough! Stop reading this and get back to writing! The world needs more of your genius! Hmmm…I wonder if this whole article counts as exposition. Food for thought, I guess. Best of luck! And I hope this helps!