What Is Exposition?
Exposition is the telling, instead of showing, that fills in back story or world-building information. Although exposition can be skillfully integrated into a story, many writers rely on a “data dump” approach to conveying information.
Exposition is anything that is not direct action in the present moment of a scene.
Often exposition establishes setting, reveals back story/character motivations, explains rules/laws/magic systems, and recalls past events in the midst of a current event. Exposition is interruptive of the present action.
Passages of exposition force readers to digest data instead of visualize action. Readers must use their brains and not their “eyes” to process exposition.
Characters gazing into a mirror and remembering some distant lover or traumatic past event as they brush their hair is one of the common moments of exposition you’ll see across genres. The hair-brushing is interrupted by the remembering, and the remembering is exposition.
Direct action: See Dick run.
With Exposition: Dick was running, and boy did he have a lot to run from. His own past was catching up with him. All the candy he’d stolen from Mr. Cooper’s store, as were all the strange feelings overpowering his young mind in regard to Jane, who, although his same age, was a girl.
I just made up this example to illustrate exposition, but you can really see a big-time example further below in this post from the fantasy author Chaste Uncanton.
Using Existing Exposition to Get Unstuck
Imagine you’re feeling stuck in your writing. Don’t worry: it will pass, and you can use any number of techniques to break the proverbial spell of binding that is keeping you from a creative flow state. (The spell of binding is used in the Chaste Uncanton example at the bottom of the post.)
One technique is to identify the exposition in your current document.
- Go through your manuscript and literally highlight all the expository elements.
- Pick one section of your exposition that catches your eye. It doesn’t matter what it is, but it should be substantial enough that you could, if forced, expand on it.
- Copy that exposition to a blank page.
- Bring that exposition into its own current moment. In other words write a scene that brings us into direct action. Show us a moment, don’t tell us.
Long story short: You are transforming a passage of exposition into a “visual” action-oriented scene to get your creative juices flowing.
Getting Unstuck: Writing Into Exposition Technique Example
Using the See Dick run example above, let’s say the exposition that grabbed your attention was the mention of the stolen candy from Mr. Cooper’s store. Write into that exposition: put us in Cooper’s store with Dick, and let us watch as he pilfers candy. What kind of candy does he choose (and which does he skip)? How does he evade Mr. Cooper’s extensive video surveillance? Is he stopped and searched by the Armenian security guard on the way out? Where does he hide the Laffy Taffy? Does he go to Jane’s house to give her stolen candy? Was Jane the criminal mastermind extorting Dick for candy all along?
What you develop may merit inclusion in your draft, or it may not. Regardless, the exercise has now forced you to break into your exposition and bring the story into direct action, thus stimulating a renewed creative flow.
Give the technique a shot, and let me know if it helped you get unstuck! Were you able to use the resulting direct-action scene in your draft? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. May we can include your before-and-after example here in the Book Writing Tips blog.
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Classic Example of Exposition: Chaste Uncanton
As promised, here is the text-book example of exposition from the fantasy classic The Sword of the Paladin’s Wrath by Chaste Uncanton, which many of us English majors studied as an object lesson.
Uncanton is known for florid prose and often falls prey to the blatant misuse the exposition. This tendency often can be found in fiction genres requiring extensive world-building, such as fantasy and science fiction; however, every writer may find plenty of awkward exposition, regardless of genre.
Even in Uncanton’s work some exposition may be useful to the reader, but when dumped in large piles, exposition, exposition takes readers out of the moment—out of the immediacy of the action—just as the same as someone explaining a movie to someone else while the movie is playing. It’s distracting and, often, not as helpful as writers imagine it to be.
Consider the “before and after” difference, first in the full exposition version, and then after it’s reduced to its direct action.
Full Exposition (Before)
Just as Zildar, the dragon with the worst imaginable attitude owing to an electrolyte deficiency, swooped from the sky, Gregory the Paladin swung his sword skyward so its tip seemed to touch the sun, which was one of three suns orbiting the gentle red-green planet of Arthe. Gregory’s sword, which gleamed a brief, shining moment in mid-arc, was forged by the Sylvan tribe, remnants of the elvish kingdom, who were wiped out in the Dwarven Wars under King Zaranos’s eldest son, the one with the goatee and raspy voice. The Sylvans, known for their ability to weave magic into the items they manufactured, were rendered powerless when the Fendarian Dwarves employed powerful de-magicification counterspells. They were wiped out almost completely, except for Gregory’s loyal side-kick, Qwerkian, whose favorite food was Terdish cheese, mined from beneath the royal stables. Then with a single bold stroke, Gregory killed the dragon.
“Ah,” Gregory said humbly, recalling his lost love, a young peasant woman from near the Nictic marshes. Her name had been Rubella, and she had left a mark on him.
Qwerkian, whose mouth was full of ripe Terdian cheese as usual, cheered, then hurriedly swallowed the brownish clump he’d been chewing even during the heroic battle, such was his appetite as befitted a member of the Tumtum tribe.
“You’ve killed the Zildar the dragon! Now you must track his lair in order to rescue the Princess Aberfitch! For only she can reveal the spell of binding to release the curse on your home village of Diggle-Diggle, which lies far beyond the Frindian Sea, a journey fraught with brigands and sea monsters, like the many-vented Porpipus.”
Exposition Removed (After)
When we remove the expository sections from this bloated passage, what remains is the action within the moment:
Just as Zildar the dragon swooped from the sky so its tip seemed to touch the sun, Gregory the Paladin swung his sword skyward. Gregory’s sword gleamed a brief, shining moment in mid-arc, then with a single bold stroke, [he] killed the dragon. [Qwerkian ate cheese.]
Side Note: Maybe Uncanton’s epic 650,00-word book could have been reduced to something smaller than a cannonball to the gut? Who am I to argue with the greats, though.