Exposition

Once upon a time and not very long ago, I used to “play pretend” with my friends and siblings. When events in our game did not go as I wanted, I felt the need to go back in time with a long explanation of why certain occurrences could not be so. I invented all sorts reasons that my character couldn’t die. She/he had magic armor beneath his/her clothes. He/she dodged the runaway car at the last second. The rocks at the bottom of the waterfall were actually the soft kind.

Even then, I was not very good at exposition.

When I write, I always feel a need to give a thorough backstory before I begin. I immediately want to divulge how my characters got to be who, where, and what they are. In actuality, my favorite stories are those that do not give a lengthy exposition. The authors reveal information slowly about the characters as the story progresses. There are subtle hints at past events, but not necessarily explanations. Harry learns about Lord Voldemort’s nefarious history over the course of seven books. J. K. Rowling didn’t start Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with a lengthy prologue about Voldemort’s sad childhood.

Something that has helped me to handle expositions more gracefully has been to write short stories. In a short story, you don’t have time to explain anything. In short stories, you have to trust that your reader is smart. They will infer enough about your story’s past by the small hints you are able to give them. That’s where a number of good proof readers can come in handy too. If more than one reader is confused about your backstory, you will know that you need to offer more information. Chances are though, they’re going to get it just fine without a lengthy discourse from the author.

How do you handle expositions? Do you prefer to preface your story a little? Do you like your readers to figure it out themselves?

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7 comments

  1. I read this somewhere, but I can’t recall where at the moment (or I would give the link). In the first draft, you should write out all the backstory and exposition that you want. Then in the subsequent drafts, you pare away as much of that as you can.

    I know it helps me to write it all down, because then as I edit, I find that I feel like I have the whole story while I’m only giving a reader hints. I feel like I’ve put it all in when in actuality not a whole lot is on the page.

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    • Thanks for the tip! I’ve been trying to get down as much backstory as I can in my outline and timeline. I think if I just get it out of my system, I won’t feel the need to put as much unnecessary information in the actual story.

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  2. I think most readers are smart. And most people that read a lot have the experience to infer things (sometimes wrongly, and you can play with that). That said, getting the full exposition on character, later (and gradually, as you say) can be satisfying, once I care.

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    • You make a really good point. Readers probably don’t want to read a character’s life story unless they particularly care about that character. If they are interested in the character, then they would probably be interested in the character’s background.

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  3. I always try to reveal everything a little bit at a time, too. I think this is where having other readers becomes important. I always ask my writing group to let me know if they have questions after reading, so I know if I left anything important out.

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