What is Exposition in Writing?

drafting plotting
What is exposition in writing?

Writers have to convey a lot of complex information to readers. They have to introduce the characters, how the world is set up, what the environment and the characters look like, and so much more. Much of this is done through exposition in the novel.

What is exposition, and how do you write it without boring your reader? Stick around, because in this post, we’re answering that exact question.

What is exposition?

Exposition is background information about the characters, settings, events, or other elements of the narrative. It provides clarity for readers as well as connects them to the emotional stakes of the story. If the exposition provides too few details or information, the reader will be confused, but too much exposition can bore them to tears. Therefore, it’s important to provide them with just enough backstory to tell them what they need to know as events unfold without tiring them out with tedious details of the world.

Tips for Writing Exposition

Reveal exposition through the hero’s eyes

Remember the “show, don’t tell” principle? You’ll need to apply that when writing exposition. Let readers experience the world through the eyes of your main character, and their other senses as well. What smells are in this scene? What can your hero taste? Touch? Most writers focus on sights and sounds in their scenes, and often, the other senses go underutilized. It can be tricky trying to incorporate these senses into your scenes, but if you can find creative ways to bring them in, you’ll create a more immersive experience that will have readers forget they’re even reading a book.

Don’t forget to include the body sensations of your protagonist as well. We all experience physiological reactions to things like stress, fear, or any intense emotions. When these emotions arise for your hero, describe how it feels in their body. Do their arms or shoulders feel heavy, like they’re carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders? Does it feel like their stomach just drops? Does their chest feel tight, or is their heart racing? By including these sensations, you’re helping the reader get inside your hero’s head and experience the world through their eyes.

Break up exposition with dialogue

A good way to break up a long exposition is to use dialogue. This will help you avoid info-dumping and “telling” too much, a trap many writers easily fall into when using exposition, as it allows you to weave the information into a conversation or argument with your characters. It also gives readers a break by having more white space on the page and keeps them engaged and feeling less overwhelmed.

When revising your manuscript, flip through it and see if you have pages and pages of long, uninterrupted text. This can be a sign of too much exposition, and you’ll want to add moments of dialogue to break things up. On the other hand, if you have pages and pages of dialogue, include a bit of exposition in there. This will keep the reader grounded in the scene.

Another way to do this is by having an expository character, a character whose primary role is giving exposition to the reader and hero. An example of this is Madeline Mackenzie from Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. Madeline is so entrenched in the world and gossip of the Pirriwee school in Sydney, it’s natural for her to provide some much-needed information to newcomer Jane, which takes away some of the exposition work from the author.

A word of caution: if you use an exposition character, avoid cramming a lot of exposition into the dialogue all at once. This can lead to characters talking in ways that feel unnatural and boring. Spread crucial information out through different scenes instead.

Keep your prose simple

“Never use a long word when a short one will do.”—George Orwell.

Keep your word choice simple, clear, and appropriate for the genre and age level you’re writing for. You’re not writing to show off your vocabulary skills—as amazing as they may be—you’re telling a story. If a reader has to stop and look up a word you’ve used, it pulls them out of the story. Therefore, the best writing is the kind that simply communicates and is clear.

This doesn’t mean you can never be creative with your word choice, but make sure you’re serving the reader by making sure each sentence is clear, accessible, and serves the story. One way to do this is to keep your narrator’s age and the setting of the story in mind, especially when writing first-person point of view. Is your narrator a young child, teen, or adult? Do they use slang and informal words? If you use a particular word, does your character even know what it means?

Bonus tip: You can create conflict and tension in the story by having a character use a word they don’t know the meaning of or use it inappropriately or in the wrong context.

Find interesting ways to convey information

If you have a lot of complex information that you have to give to the reader, you’ll need to find an interesting and fun way to do this. This could be done using a flashback scene, an exposition character, expository dialogue, or even using epistolary form, which includes documents like newspaper articles, journal entries, podcast interviews, and more.

When describing the setting of a scene, try describing it through your character’s interaction with the environment rather than through their observations. For example, instead of saying something like:

She opened the door to the first room on the right. It was large and inside was a king-size four-poster bed in the middle of the room. The walls were painted an eggshell color and the black and red swirl-patterned rug matched the window curtains and complemented the aesthetics of the room. Two antique nightstands sat on both sides of the bed and a tall armoire stood against the back wall across the room.

Try writing:

It took twelve steps from the door to the king-sized bed in the center of the room. She spun around, marveled at the size and the antique furniture inside. She ran her fingertips along the smooth, curved headboard. Despite the musty air that lingered in the room, all the furniture appeared to be in pristine condition. Remembering why she was here, she grabbed the cold brass handle and pulled the top drawer of the nightstand open. She rummaged through it before moving on to the identical one on the other side of the bed. Her watch beeped, signaling the time was almost up. There was only one place left to look. She nearly tripped across the plush red and black rug as she moved towards the dark, oak-stained armoire that sat against the eggshell-colored walls.

In the first example, the narrator simply describes the room as if the character is standing in one place and observing what’s inside. In the rewritten example, we see the character moving around the room and interacting with different pieces of furniture as it’s being described. Not only does this make the scene more engaging for readers, but it’s a good way to change it from “telling” to “showing.”

Cut out the excess

This tip is easier said than done, but in order to keep readers engaged and the story moving, you’ve got to trim off any excess information that is not important to the story, like the example above. Include only the information that is relevant to the current scene. You want to give just enough information so readers are not confused, but not too much to where it becomes cumbersome and/or turns into an info dump.

Sometimes when doing research, writers will want to include all the information they’ve gathered from their research in the novel. You may have spent a ton of time and effort researching for your novel, and you want nothing to go to “waste,” but please, resist the temptation to include everything.

Bonus tip: If you want nothing going to “waste,” you can either use the extra information for another future story, or you can use it as part of your marketing content to draw readers in and get them to pick up your book. You can do this by creating a blog post or newsletter and sharing some interesting facts that came up during the research for your novel. Let them know, “Although this interesting tidbit didn’t make it into the story, check out my book to see which info about this topic did make it into the final story.”

Remember, when adding expository writing to your story, you want to reveal it through your hero’s eyes, break it up with dialogue, keep the prose simple, find interesting ways to convey the information, and cut out any excess words. If you use these tips, you’ll be on your way to writing effective expositions that will excite readers.

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