Stories don’t happen in a vacuum. Conflict might be the seed of a story, but the story has to planted somewhere and be about something. We want to make sure the reader understands the ideas in the story.
This is where we have to guess what they already know. We might assume the reader could imagine what it’s like to hail a taxi, but we should probably explain what it’s like to hail a tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh, both by describing what a tuk-tuk is and what that experience would be like (unless of course you’re writing for people where tuk-tuks are common. If a character is hailing a chronocopter, you should explain a bit about that since no one has heard of one of those.
This is where exposition comes in. It is explanation or description of something in the story, either unique to that story, such as what the character’s apartment looks like, or something more general, like a description of the old city in Baku. Here are some examples:
- Cultural traits or customs
- specific locations
- Scientific processes or new/futuristic technology
- Jargon or technical ideas (e.g. painting techniques, immigration documents, legal ideas)
- Any made up concepts or objects (such as in fantasy and science fiction)
It’s important to remember that readers don’t really care about this stuff. They are here to read a story, so it’s your job to make them care about all the background and to keep the story first. Slip it in where necessary but don’t overwhelm them.
What you absolutely don’t want to do is start the story with an exposition dump, where you explain all about your world, the culture, the characters, etc. Unless they are very motivated, many readers will put the story down if there is too much exposition at the beginning. After all, they came to read fiction, not nonfiction.
You could also call this person the neophyte or newcomer, but I’m going to use noob since that’s how I think of them. The noob is the person in a story who is new to the situation and has to learn everything. It’s Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe, or Thomas in The Maze Runner. This is a common way to give exposition since the character needs the information about the story world and we learn it with them.
Another example is the book (and movie) Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton. In it, three scientists come to the island to look at the dinosaur park. They are all very smart and capable, but in the story they collectively act as the noob since they don’t know anything about the park or the cloning process that’s used there. While the park owner explains it to them, we listen in and learn the information too. When there is a noob character, the exposition is given through dialogue.
“This building looks old,” I said.
“Two centuries, last year,” Yancy said, patting the worn stonework.
“So that was right after the Hobbs family moved here,” I said. The pieces were coming together.
“They came over here from Dover,” Yancy said. “The grandfather fought in Waterloo and got a medal. The city was selling plots to developers and he bought this whole block. Most of it sat empty for years until the price of land shot up. But they kept this building in the family. Right up until last week.”
As you can imagine, it would be pretty boring to start the story with an explanation of historical land development, but here it fits into the story. We don’t explain what the Battle of Waterloo was since we assume the reader already has heard of that, but the rest is nothing they would reasonably have known.
Things to Watch For
1. Make sure the noob is actually new
It strains belief when someone who should be an expert in the story is acting as the noob. Let’s say that you have a detective visiting a police station in another state and asks a lot of questions about basic police work. She is new to that state, but it’s not going to be realistic if she is asking things she should already know just to get that information to the reader.
2. “As you know”
Don’t use this phrase. You will hear this phrase a lot in TV and movies and it is a red flag that whatever comes next is just for the audience’s sake. No one says this in real life so it’s inherently artificial. Just for fun, trying using it in real life: go to a friend and say something like “As you know, we met for coffee last week.” They’ll probably look at you like you’re crazy.
3. Give exposition in small doses
You might take a pill a day to keep you healthy, but taking 7 pills at a time once a week would probably be harmful, and at least not as helpful. It’s the same with exposition. Remember the story comes first. Sprinkle in exposition only when it’s needed. Most exposition is best a few sentences at a time. If it’s a very important idea, maybe a paragraph, but rarely more than that at a time.
When the Reader is the Noob
There is not always going to be a noob character, so many times, the narrator will just give the information directly to the reader. After all, the reader is always a noob.
Depending on the tone of the story, this could be done in several ways. Most third-person stories just state the information. For first-person stories with a conversational tone, it might seem more like a one-sided conversation. Here are two examples of giving exposition about a school and its late rules.
Third person, conventional tone
The school was run like a military encampment. Students lined up outside the classroom doors before class began and filed in at the first tone. Woe to the student who was left in the hall when the bell finished ringing. Jesse had found that out the hard way in his first week. He arrived two minutes late and was summarily escorted to the windowless room across from the principal’s office, know to the students as “tardy jail”.
First person, conversational
I think our principal Mr. Mack was a field marshal in a past life, or he wishes he was. Our school is run like we’re in boot camp. Even the teachers jump when he walks by. We have to line up outside the classroom in the morning and then hustle inside and take our seats as soon as the bell rings. It goes on for ten seconds, but that’s still not that long. I was late once in my first week by two minutes. Two minutes! I tried to slip in but the resource office Krang (not his real name) caught me and threw me in tardy jail. That’s what we call the holding cell across from Mr. Mack’s office.
There are other ways to give exposition as well, of course (like the convenient news broadcast that explains the situation in a movie). Are there other methods that you like to use in your writing? If so, let me know.
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.