E is for Exposition

Exposition is the insertion of background information that is crucial to the reader’s understanding of a story, be it a backstory (prior events), setting, or description. As with description, my recommendation would be to filter exposition through the story where you can, although there will be moments where you will need to just ‘tell’.

Prologues often fall under the exposition ‘umbrella’. I’ve lost count of how many prologues I’ve read that is nothing more than an infodump – a long and wordy exposition explaining why a character acts the way they do, or the history of a world or alien species. A true prologue adds richness to your story, and will often read like a mini story in its own right. The events in your prologue will relate to the main story in some way, for example, a historical event that affects your main character in the present time. Many a prologue I’ve read could be renamed ‘chapter one’, or deleted completely, as the information the author wants me to know could easily be weaved into the main story. I’ve heard it said that agents and publishers won’t even consider a book with a prologue, although I don’t know how true that is.

Exposition can be written directly, or indirectly, and it is the author’s job to decide what a reader needs to know – and when – and also how to present this information. Fortunately, there are several devices available (and yes, I’m going to show you an example of these using Bob (who made his first appearance in C is for Crafting your Story) to walk you through these:

Direct Exposition

Up until four days ago, Bob had been enjoying his retirement – golf, hiking, and the occasional Go-karting. He’d seen more of his wife, Mary, in the last six months than he had in the past ten years. It was one of the drawbacks of being an astronaut.If he wasn’t in space, he was on camp, training for one mission or another, getting health checks or psychological assessments. His last mission had kept him away from home for eight years and had nearly destroyed his marriage.

Indirect Exposition

Bob glowered at Space Station Ex. What he wouldn’t give to be on the golf course right now, or Go-Karting. Even a ten-mile hike up in the hills his wife, Mary, favoured was better than this. The agency could get him to Mars and back but they couldn’t send him to the right space station a few miles out of orbit?

I haven’t included everything in this example as indirect exposition tends to be more subtle, weaving snippets of exposition (backstory in this case) through the main story.

Exposition via dialogue

“You can send me to Mars and back but you can’t put me on the right space station?”

“We’ve had a few … issues.”

“No kidding.”

He waited for Marsha to offer up an explanation, but the radio crackled in her wake.

“Are you still there, control?”

“I’m here, Bob.”

He should have been relieved, but her tone did little to ease his fears.

“Marsha, what’s going on?”

“We lost control of the shuttle about ten minutes ago. I don’t know how long communications will stay up. You’ll have to make your own way to Ex.”

“How the hell am I supposed to do that?”

“You’ll figure something out.”

Bob scowled. “If this job doesn’t kill me, my wife will. I promised I’d make it back in time for her birthday. This was supposed to be an in and out job. ”

“I’m really sorry, Bob.”

“Yeah, well, the next time I tell you I’m retired, I mean it. I should be on the golf course now, or hiking or something. I’m too old for all – hello? Control? Marsha? Are you there?”

The radio crackled in response.

Using dialogue to reveal exposition doesn’t inform the reader quite as much as it did directly, or even indirectly, but I believe it offers more insight into the dilemma Bob faces. Not only will he have to get himself over to the correct space station with no help from Control (and save the world), the reader now knows that he needs to make it back to Earth before his wife’s birthday. I am also trying to add a little more characterisation to Bob (and Marsha) in this section.

Exposition can also be revealed through action or inner thoughts (which I covered in D is for Description via action and inner voice, so I shan’t repeat myself here). It might also be provided during a character introduction.

As with all the elements of creative writing, I think exposition should be in balance with other storytelling techniques. Too much backstory, or description or setting/history, is (potentially) going to halt the flow of your story and cause pacing problems. Too little, and a reader might not know what is going on. While writing, consider the different ways of presenting this information to the reader, and where possible, keep the story moving forward.

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