Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Exposition is one of those horrible parts of writing that you have to get exactly right. Too much or too little and the reader will notice straightaway, rolling their eyes at your inability to explain things directly.
It’s an unfair reaction, especially when there are so many things to explain. ‘Exposition’ is the part of the story which explains or establishes things for the reader: who your characters are, what they look like, what they’re doing, what they hope to achieve, and myriad details about the world in which they live. This may mean also explaining things to your characters (for example, ‘magic is real’), but it might mean sharing things the characters already know (for example, that two of them are siblings).
Every story requires a bit of exposition, but if you’re writing about an alien world, a place where magic exists, or just a group of characters with a complicated history of betrayal and lies, you’re going to have to get good at explaining what’s going on. Most important of all, you’ll have to learn how to explain things to the reader without them realizing you’re doing it at all.
That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at the most effective ways to write exposition. First, though, we have to discuss what you should be trying to do.
Why hidden exposition is good exposition
It used to be that you could have an entire prologue in which a narrator explained everything the reader needed to know. Nowadays, readers prefer realism – they want to suspend their disbelief and treat the world of the story as ‘real’. Few things shatter that illusion quicker than the author popping their head ’round the door to give them a quick rundown of the salient facts.
For many authors, the fallback is a character who’s there to explain the world (think Morpheus in his armchair, explaining the Matrix). Sadly, even this device is showing its age, and readers are wise to the trick of throwing in a character just for some shoddy expositional dialogue, à la Austin Powers’ ‘Basil Exposition’.
Basil: We have evidence that Doctor Evil has developed a time machine, and has traveled back to the year 1969. Luckily, we too have developed a time-travel device to transport you back to the sixties. Ah, this is where you input your destination—
Austin: Wait a minute… Basil, if I travel back to 1969 and I was frozen in 1967, presumably I can go visit my frozen self, but, if I’m still frozen in 1967, how could I have been unthawed in the 90’s and traveled back to… oh no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.
Basil: I suggest you don’t worry about this sort of thing and just enjoy yourself. (To camera) That goes for you all, too.
– Mike Myers and Michael McCullers, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Exposition needs to feel seamless; that it’s either information that emerged naturally, or else something the reader ‘noticed’ as they were witnessing the story. Great authors subtly mold scenes to make exposition easier, but success rides on their ability to do this without getting caught.
In writing, there are two ways to communicate this kind of invisible exposition. The first is through narration and the second is through dialogue. Each is difficult, and yet they share a common truth that can help you nail your exposition.
Exposition relies on immediacy
Let’s look at the same information relayed in three different situations. For example’s sake, we’ll take the myth that red cars get more speeding tickets than cars of other colors.
First, imagine you’re sitting in a field with a friend. You’re having a picnic and, as they pass you a banana, they casually tell you that red cars get more speeding tickets than cars of any other color.
Now, imagine you’re walking down the road with a friend. A red car passes, and they turn to you and tell you that red cars get more speeding tickets than cars of any other color.
Finally, imagine you’re thinking of buying a car. You mention this to a friend, and they advise you not to get a red car, since they get more speeding tickets than cars of any other color.
In the first example, your friend is being pretty strange. In the second, they’re sharing a fact of dubious interest, while in the third, they’re being downright helpful. The information they’ve provided has remained the same every time, so what’s creating the discrepancy?
The answer is the relevance of what you’re being told – information that’s relevant to the moment is expected, and so feels far less out-of-place when it’s shared. This is why most authors instinctively share character descriptions at the moment a character is introduced; it’s the moment when that information is most relevant.
The problem is that many authors want to share a lot of information, and rather than looking for the moment of greatest relevance, they’re just looking for an excuse. There are many stories where a woman enters the room and the reader gets a physical description (fair enough), and then a brief rundown of her professional life (stretching it) including a mysterious incident that may have later relevance to the plot (hang on, weren’t we in the middle of a scene?) and a quick checklist of her fellow board members, one of whom we met earlier (who were we talking about, again?)
Not only does this feel forced, but it leaves the author miles away from where they started, with a long trudge back to relevance. Part of the answer is knowing the limits of what a scene can bear, but happily, you can be a little more proactive than that. How? Well, why wait for relevance when you can create it?
Exposition through narration
Exposition through narration is hard because there are no set limits – you can tell the reader whatever you like, whenever you like, so how are you supposed to know when to stop?
Happily, this is mostly an issue to handle when redrafting. Go ahead and splurge out all your exposition in the first chapter of your first draft; there’ll be plenty of time to spread it out more evenly later.
When that time comes, let necessity and relevance be your watchwords. First, necessity: what does your reader need to know right now? This is something you really need to interrogate yourself over, and it’s better to handle it with a ‘big picture’ outlook. For example, consider the piece of information that your protagonist’s mom is a prominent banker. This is important because A) it explains why the protagonist has time to himself after school and B) she’ll later be accused of fraud.
B will happen in chapter twelve, whereas A is relevant right at the end of chapter two. It’s therefore tempting to explain mom’s job the first time she appears, but is it really necessary? All the reader needs to know at this point is that mom is busy after school. Now, this might also be a convenient time to provide some details about her work, in fact it probably will be, but the reader doesn’t need that information. Before trying to fit mom’s job description into the first couple of chapters, you should consider whether it can be more naturally shared in the eleven chapters before the reader needs all the details.Is now the best time to inform your reader? If not, be brave enough to wait.Click To Tweet
Taking this piecemeal approach to exposition can also lead to more natural writing, since small details build up a more layered understanding. If a character glosses over why their partner can’t attend an event and then later reveals they’re in prison, the reader thinks, ‘oh, yeah, that makes sense’. If they instead describe their partner’s situation in the first instance, the reader doesn’t feel this recognition, and the knowledge feels less organic.
This type of exposition can be made to feel even more natural when there’s a direct reason it’s being shared. This is the second watchword, relevance, at work. Good exposition shouldn’t feel like being taken out of the scene, but rather as an experience within it – if you find a character is telling a mini-story within your story, you’ve gone too far.
One of the purest expressions of this can be found in description, where it’s possible for a completely relevant detail to draw the reader’s attention to some subtle exposition. In the extract below, author Katherine Rundell details a physical feature of her protagonist.
Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl. The girl was Russian, and although her hair and eyes and fingernails were dark all of the time, she was stormy only when she thought it absolutely necessary… She had no dressing gown, but she pulled on the jumper her mother had knitted, which came down to the scar on her knee, and ran to the front door.
– Katherine Rundell, The Wolf Wilder
The jumper is being pulled on – it’s completely relevant – but Rundell uses it to draw the reader’s attention to the scar. Using this scar as a measure of where the jumper falls justifies its inclusion, making this moment of physical description feel like an integral part of the action that’s just been performed.Use small, relevant details to parcel out exposition.Click To Tweet
This same trick can be used throughout your exposition. Remember, you are the god of your fictional world – you control the weather, the people, and everything that’s seen or heard. You can have the TV show any advert, or the protagonist walk in on any conversation. Want to share the fact that the protagonist’s mom is a banker? Have him walk in on some friends bashing it as a corrupt profession and show their embarrassment (while also foreshadowing that later accusation through the magic of folding).
Through this type of writing, you can invoke not just relevance, but urgency. Rundell doesn’t just describe her character on first sight, she engineers a moment that draws our attention to a physical feature. Slice your exposition up thin and really think about the necessity of each sliver. When can it be shared as totally relevant information and, if there isn’t anywhere, what moment can you create for the purpose?
It’s a huge help, when asking these questions, to remember that your reader is really smart. They don’t need to be told that much – the slightest implication will generally clue them in. Your protagonist likely doesn’t need to say ‘Mom is a banker’. Instead, have a news report announce that new regulations will crack down on the banks, and have your protagonist think, ‘Oh, mom’ll love that!’ Combined with the fact that she works late, the reader will assume her profession until told otherwise.
The extract below is a great example of this, serving as the first line of Richard Stark’s The Mourner.
When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.
– Richard Stark, The Mourner
This single sentence shares a huge amount of information, and it even packs in some invisible exposition. First, regard that ‘finally’ – a single word, and yet it places the reader in a pre-existing timeframe: Parker has been waiting for a while. Second, think about ‘took his gun away’. This is the first time the reader is even told there is a gun, and yet it’s also the perfect moment – this is when they needed to know about it.
The extract manages to tell the reader that this man has been outside for a while, and that Parker is ready for him (probably knowing he was there thanks to his heavy breathing), and it’s all done before the comma. This is great exposition on all counts: it’s all necessary, it’s all relevant, and it assumes the reader is smart and paying attention.
This is especially important in first-person narration; here, you’ll have to really think about why a character would be ruminating on a world and set of relationships that they already understand. Who are they talking to and, if the answer is ‘themselves’, is it really believable that they’re recapping the mechanics of their world? Necessity, relevance, and confidence will work here, but it’s worth considering whether you can insert some kind of justification, such as a diary or an imaginary friend.
Writing great narrative exposition is like threading a needle – it takes concentration, effort, and a steady hand, but after you’ve gotten it wrong a few times, you can make it work. Thankfully, it’s rare that you’ll only be able to deliver exposition through narration. Often, you can even get your characters to do it for you.
Exposition through dialogue
Exposition through dialogue is, by its nature, more realistic and organic than exposition through narration. One is a disembodied voice informing the reader of what’s going on, whereas the other is an overheard discussion between the ‘real’ people in the story. In practice, there are two types of exposition through dialogue, and one is far harder than the other.
Explaining things not all your characters know
The easier form of exposition through dialogue is sharing information that not all characters know. In this situation, the ignorant character simply needs to make their ignorance known, and another character can explain exactly what’s going on.
The biggest challenge here is making this exchange feel realistic – not allowing your in-the-know character to get too preachy, or your out-of-the-loop character to be too lacking in knowledge.
Many stories begin with a new character entering an established environment for exactly this reason – they don’t know a thing, so it makes sense for the other characters to be constantly expositing for their benefit. Think of Harry Potter, raised with no knowledge of magic, being dropped into a school of witchcraft and wizardry, the beneficiary of exposition from friends, teachers, ghosts, paintings, books, and hats (okay, just the one hat).
Again, be sure to account for necessity and relevance in your writing, and remember that you can make absolutely anything happen. Also, keep in mind that constantly having things explained can make a character seem stupid. Try to mix up who’s asking the questions in your story – J.K. Rowling gives Harry one wizarding-world friend and one bookish outsider who’s a little more clued-in than he is, allowing for different combinations of culture clash and explanation.Introduce a ‘newbie’ so you have a reason to explain your world.Click To Tweet
If you’re looking for a masterclass in this type of exposition, go check out the first episodes of some popular sitcoms. Scrubs, Friends, Arrested Development and Porridge all begin with an ingénue entering into an established world. In a sitcom, of course, we need to understand the rules and characters fast, so we can start finding them funny. Whether you enjoy these programs or not, it’s worth looking into how they exposit their whole world while also trying to grab your interest.
Explaining things all yours characters know
As easy and natural as it is to have your characters explain something to a newcomer, it’s far harder to use dialogue to explain something your characters already know. Done badly, this is one of the most cringe-inducing parts of writing – the moment where two characters say things they would never speak aloud, clearly for the benefit of an unseen reader.
The extract below is a particularly painful example from the television show Riverdale, in which a woman is turned down for a job by an old flame. Keep in mind that these two know each other personally and that her husband’s crimes are being reported on the news.
I can’t very well have Hermione Lodge, the wife of Hiram Lodge, on trial for fraud and embezzlement, balancing my books, can I?
– Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, ‘Chapter One: The River’s Edge’, Riverdale
The way this character dices up his sentence to slip in something that needn’t be said is mortifying, especially because he does it multiple times. Really, the woman’s last name is the kicker – that’s what’s keeping her from the job, and that’s the point he’s making, however unnecessarily. Even saying ‘the wife of Hiram Lodge’ belabors this point past believability, let alone going on to list his misdeeds. The moment is especially egregious because the two characters know each other so well – it would be an unbelievable statement for a stranger, let alone a former lover.
And yet it’s clear that Riverdale is trying to do something in this moment; there’s a reason it thinks this scene is perfect for an exposition dump. Why?
This is the one simple tip that will always improve your exposition: when it comes to getting characters to repeat information everyone already has, conflict is the key. Heighten the conflict and exposition can be camouflaged as rhetoric, as explained in the extract below.
Life becomes considerably more complicated when a writer needs to get across information of which all the characters are aware but the audience isn’t. Why would a wife, for example, tell her husband that he’s got a potentially fatal illness if it’s something they both know? The inexperienced writer might begin: ‘Listen, you know you’ve got…’ or ‘You heard what the doctor said, it’s…’ The better writer will probably plump for something more like, ‘Are you completely moronic?’ before repeating the point again.
All good exposition is disguised by making it dramatic – by injecting conflict. Desire, in story structure, should always be countered by an opposite desire, and this in turn creates the conflict the drama needs… Exposition works when it’s a tool a character uses to achieve their desire. If this desire is confronted with opposition, conflict is generated and exposition becomes invisible. The greater the conflict, the less visible the exposition.
– John Yorke, Into the Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them
This isn’t just the case for sharing previously known information – though that’s where it’s a godsend – but for all kinds of exposition. Introduce conflict and you make information pertaining to that conflict more relevant than ever while at the same time drawing the reader’s attention elsewhere.
The TV show Santa Clarita Diet manages to do both great and shaky exposition in its first episode – in fact, it manages to do both in one scene. The scene begins with the protagonists, Joel and Sheila, emerging from their house, and shows a brief interaction with their neighbors on either side.Conflict makes exposition invisible – time to start a fight!Click To Tweet
The intent is to tell the audience that both of their neighbors work in law enforcement (though in different areas, which creates animosity), a fact which will be important to much of the tension on the show. The scene begins with one neighbor, Dan, being unreasonably inquisitive about why a house light was left on overnight. His wife apologizes for his rudeness:
Lisa: Cop brain, sorry.
Dan: Not a cop, baby. LA Sheriff’s Department all the way.
(He spots Rick leaving for work.)
Dickless over there is a cop. Morning, puss! Another day of pretend law enforcement?
Rick: Have a good day, Dan. Be safe.
Dan: Santa Monica PD! Shitbirds. Be careful today chasing bad guys, honey bunch. Oh, that’s right, they don’t allow pursuits in Santa Monica; worried it might hurt somebody’s feelings.
Rick: Just trying not to kill civilians, Dan. We protect and serve, not frame and maim like the sheriff’s department.
Dan: Suck me, Rick!
Dan: Joel. Sheila.
(Dan and Rick both drive away)
Joel: Why do we have to live between two cops? Why couldn’t it be two rival pastry chefs?
– Victor Fresco, ‘So Then a Bat or a Monkey’, Santa Clarita Diet
Right up until that last line, it’s masterful exposition. Dan’s aggression gives him a reason to explain his own role and compare it to Rick’s, while Rick’s retort clarifies things further. The audience is left with no doubt as to what each man does, his relationship to the other, and their personal approaches to law enforcement.
In comparison, Joel’s line sounds like it’s there to explain things to the audience – an especially egregious fault since the audience understood completely. It’s believable in the scene (it’s even a funny line), but it’s both obvious and unnecessary, raising two huge red flags to the audience.
Often, writing good exposition will take this exact kind of bravery – the ability to trust the reader and the scene, and not include the little potted summary, even in the form of a witty bon mot.
And if your characters don’t lend themselves to conflict? Create it! Have a poorly phrased remark hit someone’s sore spot, have someone feign misunderstanding for their own ends, or invent a prior disagreement that’s rearing its head once again. If you can’t justify an argument then make it competition or a joke. Remember, though; the more a character genuinely wants to prove a point, the more realistic their exposition will feel.
The best thing you can do for your exposition is practice – write a few scenes where the point is to share exposition as subtly as possible – but most of the real work will come in editing. Exposition is bitter, and it clumps – you need to serve it to your reader in small doses and wide intervals. When done right, they won’t even know they’re taking on information, but your story will grow in believability and engagement.
Creating moments to share effective exposition is exactly what ‘folding’ was meant for, so try What A Blacksmith Knows About How To Fix Your Story for more great tips. And check out One Simple Rule To Avoid Technical Details Ruining Your Story for thoughts on what you do, and don’t, need to explain to your reader. Finally, take a look at 6 Secrets To Writing A Thrilling Argument for help writing the exact kind of dialogue that will camouflage your exposition. Have some tips for seamless exposition? Let me know in the comments.