Write Talk: Strength in Exposition
Exposition is a tricky son of a bitch. On one hand too little no one will know what you’re talking about, too much and it can end up doing the worst thing a writer can do to a story: kill it. As a writer, there are obviously exceptions to every rule but if there was ever a rule to be put in stone, “If it kills your story, it’s not a good idea” seems like a worthwhile candidate. In the end, exposition is a necessary but cruel part of writing especially in terms of speculative fiction that we’ll have to learn to live with.
In my opinion strong exposition comes down to giving your reader exactly what they need to know and then nothing more. While this may very well be a personal preference I’m a proponent of exposition that gets to the point, and then gets out of the way of the story. If it’s integrated into the story naturally rather than being a jarring interruption exposition can really add substance and clarity to a story. Again though there’s a danger in knowing just how little exposition you can get away with. In a sense it’s a balancing act; one false step and the story splatters all over the pavement thirty-stories below. We don’t want that to happen, so let’s talk about it.
What does “good” exposition look like? What about “bad” exposition? To help explain these concepts please direct your attention to Phil and Norman. (If you do not have a Phil and/or Norman in your immediate vicinity you may use the Phil and Norman located below):
Norman: Hi There
In this example Phil will be telling his friend, Norman, about how he got a flat tire on the way to work. Remember Phil’s purpose is to keep Norman’s attention because (according to Phil) he has a really awesome story to tell Norman.
First without any exposition…
Phil: I got a flat tire on the way to work, and this guy pulled over to help me. It was Hank.
Now, given there is nothing wrong with Phil’s story. There was a problem, rising action and a resolution, he told Norman only what was absolutely necessary. Norman will be satisfied but it’s not necessarily a story that’s going to stick in his mind. Just for fun let’s play around with Phil’s story a little bit:
What about if he were to use too much exposition?
Phil: It was morning, and the sun was just barely up when I decided to pour myself a cup of coffee that I had bought from the grocery store just that weekend. It was Folgers, I would have gotten something better but there was a guy standing there looking creepy, he looked a little bit like Randy they guy who sits outside of the bar we go to on Saturday’s the Beer Pour Tavern, the one that was built in the fifties by the Col. Kint. So I finish my cup of coffee when I realize that I got a bit of it on my tie, that I bought from the store just two weeks ago it was a blue and black one with stripes that I really like. My father used to have a tie just like it; he bought his at a flea market and blah blah blah blah blah…
Poor Phil, you had a great interesting story about how you got a flat tire on the way to work and Norman has already fallen victim to expository overload. Not to worry Phil, we’ll help you out.
So we let’s take a look at just one of the many ways expository information can be integrated into a story effectively.
Dialogue. Let’s try this again Phil…
Phil: I got a flat tire on my way to work. When this guy pulls up in a beat up blue Chevy and I thought I recognized him. Next thing I know he yells out, “Oh shit is that you Phil? It’s Hank from School” So I’m just blown away at this point I haven’t seen Hank in twenty, twenty five years. So I ask him, “Where you been all this time?” And he gets this big grin on his face and is all “I’ve been in jail for murder.”
In this example the exposition is integrated seamlessly into Phil’s story, it doesn’t interrupt the main plot of the story and does more than just exude information. Norman will be on the edge of his seat demanding more. Of course dialogue isn’t the only way to effectively utilize exposition. Some other tools can be to have the setting itself give expository details, use a flashback, have it done as a story within a story or who knows maybe you can find another cool way to deal with exposition.
I’m a bit reluctant to ever dish out “rules” for writing because on one hand I confess that I’m just an amateur with nothing more than a strong interest in writing with maybe too much to say about it but more importantly that 95% of the time “rules” are just plain inaccurate, too overreaching and just plain stubborn. Having said that though I would like to leave you with at least some general guidelines when it comes to exposition feel free to spit on them and prove me wrong though; that’s the beauty of writing after all if it works, screw the rules.
- Try to start your story as late into the story as possible
- Good exposition gets to the point and then gets out of the way
- Only tell the audience as much as they need to know
- You probably need less exposition than you think
- Good exposition is integrated into the story naturally, rather than a jarring interruption
- Good Exposition conveys more than just data
- First person narration can be an ace when it comes to exposition. It’s warped, biased and unreliable and when it comes to exposition that subjective point of view can be very effective
- There are exceptions to everything, even this.
Now go forth and write!