Exposition is a trap that writers fall into all the time, even without intending to do so. I critiqued a story recently that started about where the story began, as it should—but then nosedived into a montage of flashbacks to explain things that didn’t need explaining yet. I suggested the writer rip it all out to sprinkle into the story later, but let’s start with this:
What is exposition?
Simply put—exposition is the act of explaining things. This can be done piecemeal, or in massive doses, or anything in between. Exposition can be used to explain a character’s history, the background of a particular setting, why the cat has a shaved stripe down its spine—anything.
All summed up, the dictionary says that exposition is “designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand.”
But let’s take a look at that word “explain”. I like to think that “explaining” is best used in a technical essay. For those familiar with the mantra of “showing versus telling”, exposition falls into the category of telling the story instead of showing.
Yes, a reader will have to know an event that occurred in a character’s history if it impacts the plot. Yes, the reader will have to know about the history of a fantasy setting if it impacts the plot (or sets up the plot, of course). However, there are ways to do it without directly telling the readers “Main character shaved a stripe down the cat’s back because the cat was his nemesis.”
(Why did I choose cat harassment as an example? Cats and I are like the same people.)
A different example:
Erin gave the spider a wide girth. She hated spiders ever since she’d been threatened by one in the mall when she was six. It had lured her into a quiet hallway and pulled out a knife on her.
This is telling and follows the same formula of a technical essay: bringing up a topic sentence and unloading the information.
Erin gave the spider a wide girth. Marcus erupted with laughs and turned to watch. “Afraid of spiders? How unlike you.”She shot him a glare. “Have you ever seen a spider pull out a knife? I have, and I was only six.”
Dialogue is an awesome tool for showing history and spiders with knives, and because it involves character interaction, the writer also has a chance to propel the character arc or allude to different character traits, what with how Marcus says “How unlike you.”
Be careful, though. “Reader feeder” is another trap that a writer can fall into. Reader feeder is when characters unload information to each other that the characters themselves would already know, only for the sake of the reader. Here’s a fancy example:
“Hey, Erin, remember in our math class a half hour ago when you saw the spider?”“Yeah. I freaked out and told you a spider pulled a knife on me.”“When you were six, at the mall, right?”“That’s right, Marcus.”
Avoid this. It’s poison. It’ll make the spider take out an AK-47 next time.
(W-W-Why did I choose spiders instead anyway? That’s a terrible visual to have.)
Now, exposition doesn’t have to be labeled as a bad thing, but like dialogue tags, a story can be written better with as few uses of it as possible. As I mentioned in the beginning, the story I critiqued unloaded a mantra of flashback scenes to explain why the character’s setting was the character’s setting and why her relationship with her mother was the way it was. In this case, the exposition cheats the reader out of wondering WHY. If you’re aiming for a fast-paced story, abstain from exposition wherever you can and leave the question of “Why is this the way it is?” for the reader.
Why is Erin so afraid of spiders?
Why is it unlike Erin to be afraid of spiders?
Why did the spider pull a knife on her?
(Why am I still using this as an example?)
A reader will read on to answer questions. If done correctly, exposition can tease a reader with the answer, or even ask more questions that’ll have to do with the plot. Bits and pieces of exposition can create riddles, in a sense, which was why I suggested the writer sprinkle these bits of history throughout the narrative.
Flashback scenes in general also serve as exposition to explain things—HOWEVER, flashback scenes can pull its weight to be a strong proponent of the plot if not used as a gimmick.
What’s a gimmick?
I like to refer to a plot gimmick as something that’s included as a theatrical act to enforce drama. Michael Bay uses a grotesque amount of explosions to enforce drama. Prologues often do this, and flashbacks can as well. Again, if you intend to have a fast-paced story, setting your reader back in time is the exact antithesis of what you want to do, generally. A fast-paced story must always be moving your reader closer and closer toward the climax of the story. Throwing your reader into a time rift instantly slows down the propulsion.
However, flashbacks don’t need to be exiled. I’ve written a story that essentially utilizes flashbacks to set a separate story arc concurrently with the present story arc, and by the end, the two collide for a greater climax. The two arcs intertwine and feed off each other throughout the story, so it’s not like reading two different stories in one book, but two different halves of one story. Both halves constantly move the reader toward the same big question, so both halves generate a quick pace. In a sense, it follows the same formula as having two separate narrators.
Exposition and flashbacks can harm your story, but they can also be made into a great and unusual feature to your story if you don’t treat them as gimmicks. And if you’re doing something atypical with exposition or flashbacks, make sure you have the right critique partners to objectively tell you whether it’s working or not working. Whatever you do, learn the rules, rehearse the rules from memory, then break all of the rules.