This is a tough topic. Why?
Maybe you’re like me and coming to the fiction writing world through a side door, instead of crossing over the threshold like a pro. Yup, I admit, I wrote a lot of books before I knew the fundamentals and yes, probably what the heck I was doing. So, as part of my Author’s Journey, I’m hitting the construction, grammar, fundamentals, tools, and literary terminology hard. But back to exposition.
Exposition provides essential backstory for characters, plot, and other narrative elements.
It’s a story within a story, providing the audience with important background information, advancing the character arc, heightening emotional stakes, or providing clarity and context.Weaving exposition carefully into your story can be tricky. There’s a healthy balance and it must be peppered in the right way so that you don’t lose your reader—or put them to sleep.
To help you weave expositions into your book like a pro, here are a few questions to consider and several resources to read:
How Much Is Too Much? Since exposition brings in the backstory, character’s story, and plot details, writers must be cautious they don’t fall into the trap of info dumping. It really needs to be the smallest part of the story, if at all. Yes, many authors avoid it at all costs. With that in mind, consider your genre, voice, style of writing, and audience. Many young adult books or thrillers have little exposition as the plot moves swiftly and the backstory unfolds through action, flashbacks, or dialogue.
What is Critical? When in the editing phase of your book, you’ll find critique partners, beta readers, and editors pouncing on unnecessary exposition. They’ll let you know what and where it’s needed and be the first to tell you what’s not. When it comes to exposition, determine what exactly your reader needs and what they can (and should) discern for themselves. Readers are smart and can fill in the gaps. But you don’t want to leave them confused and guessing.
How Are You Weaving? Remember, backstory and relevant details the readers need to know should be brief, tightly written in summary, then woven into the story; not a big, massive information dump. Rather, lightly peppered throughout as necessary, and always keeping in mind that exposition should be the smallest portion of your story. Deliver it quickly and smartly when needed but not too much that it slows down the story and makes the reader abandon the book.
When Are You Weaving? With the process of when to weave in your exposition, of course, that’s up to you, the writer. But there are several places in a book when it works well. Used in the beginning of a novel can make for a great hook, or as the characters start their journey forward, or when your protagonist is faced with a decision. Another place to weave in exposition is to propel the story forward. A few lines that transition between scenes taking the reader from say, outside chopping wood to inside cooking dinner.
“Jack walked into the kitchen refreshed from a shower and ready to satisfy his hunger…” In this example the reader doesn’t need to know every detail about Jack finishing up his outdoor chores along with everything he did to get into the kitchen ready to make his meal—unless it’s critical to the story and moves it forward. Rather a quick transitional statement that opens the new scene, summarizing a quick passage of time from wood chopping to eating dinner.
Do You Really Need It? Many authors and editors believe that exposition kills a story. There simply are better ways to deliver the information needed to keep the story going at a pace the reader needs. It probably depends on your voice, your genre, your POV, and your audience. I like a little exposition. I need to know a little bit about what brought the character to where they are and why. Can this be accomplished in other ways? Absolutely. But a showing, not telling, exposition is your goal.
As always, I’ve collated great resource on the topic of exposition. Please share your expertise and helpful links in the comments section below. Happy writing!