The Four P’s of Exposition
Writing unobtrusive exposition — that is, getting a story’s background information across in a way that doesn’t interfere with narrative flow — presents a unique challenge if you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or certain types of horror. Not only do you have to worry about things like characterization and foreshadowing, you also have to make sure the reader understands that everyone in the story is actually a plant-person living on Mars. (Or, you know, whatever.) Details of an alternate history, the workings of miraculous yet ever-present inventions, the subtle and finicky rules of magic, all of which your characters probably take for granted… these things can be tricky to convey. What’s a speculative fiction writer to do?
There are lots of ways to write exposition well, and unfortunately, there are just as many ways to get it wrong. So in this post, instead of talking too much about specific strategies, I’m going to set forward four general criteria for you to consider when you’re thinking about how to make your exposition work.
1. Plausibility. However you choose to convey a certain piece of information, it should feel natural to the reader. The classic way not to do this is to set up a conversation where Alice says, “As you know, Bob, we are both plant-people living on Mars.” Why on earth (or Mars) would Alice bother to say something that is so obvious to both of them? That’s a pretty silly example, true, but new writers often fall victim to more subtle forms of this particular disease. Check your dialogue to make sure your characters aren’t telling each other things that they both already know. If they are, put yourself in your character’s shoes and look around. If you’ve done your worldbuilding properly, there will be a host of clues you can use to establish where and what Alice is. Use those instead.
2. Pacing. You might have lots of important information to share about your invented world or your main character’s backstory, but it’s generally a bad idea to do it all at once. Lots of paragraphs packed full of information — which are often called infodumps — can be difficult for the reader to absorb, especially if you’ve stopped the story in its tracks to tell us all this and we’re not quite sure yet how it relates to the main storyline. There are rare exceptions to this rule; if your writing is very sharp and the content of the infodump is sufficiently interesting (both things you’ll want an outside opinion or two to confirm… see Elena’s post on how to find a critique), you may be able to get away with it. But generally it’s easier on the reader if you sprinkle important information in as you go.
You do want to avoid the opposite problem, of course, which is when you put in so little information that the reader isn’t sure where or when the story takes place or (in the worst case) what’s even going on. It may take a few drafts, but with careful attention and good outside feedback, you should be able to find a balance.
3. Point of view. One useful way to think about exposition is that all the background information that isn’t given via dialogue originates as thoughts in your narrator’s head. This can be limiting–as mentioned above, Alice probably does not spend much time dwelling on the fact that she is a plant-person–but being careful to stay inside your character’s head can be beneficial in other ways. Giving your character’s thoughts about the exposition in question can provide an opportunity for characterization, making the exposition more than just a dry recitation of facts. And if the character is hopelessly biased or simply wrong… well, that can make the story even more interesting.
One thing you definitely want to avoid is what I call “exposition mode,” where a character’s thoughts or dialogue simply stop sounding like her own voice because the writer is so wrapped up in setting down the needed information. Ask three people to tell you the same story, and they’ll use different analogies, emphasize different details. What does your character think is important about her magic? What does she compare it to in her mind? What parts does she tend to overlook?
4. Pertinence. After hours of research and even more hours of thought, you have devised what you are pretty sure is the best magic system ever. It is intricately detailed, and all the major branches have their own histories and unique pitfalls. Is it awesome? Quite possibly. Does the reader need to know every last detail? Probably not.
The key thing here is to not think of your exposition as a separate thing from the story that needs to be imposed on the narrative, but as an organic part of it. If background information is important, it won’t stay in the background. It will become relevant and affect the characters’ lives somehow. If you can’t think of a way to fit the information in naturally, the reader might not need to know it just yet, or at all.
There is, of course, the case of foreshadowing, where information early in the story is mainly there to pave the way for a bigger revelation later on, but it still follows this rule. When this is done well, it’s usually because the information is useful to the reader on two levels: one that they accept while they’re reading those words, and another that only becomes clear later on. Readers are smart. If the foreshadowing-information is in there for no apparent reason whatsoever, you may as well put a flashing arrow next to it saying, “Hey, look, it’s a vital clue!”
In short, while we often think of exposition as background information, it should ultimately become a part of the foreground. Avoid contrived and awkward dialogue, pay attention to pacing, stay inside your character’s head, and make sure whatever you’re saying is actually relevant to whatever’s happening in the story, and you’ll be well on your way to writing exposition that works.
Thanks for reading! Have any tips of your own for writing exposition? Fire away in the comments.