How to Write Exposition: Transform Tedium into Triumph
Want to know how to write exposition?
The first step is to appreciate exposition.
Seriously. Exposition gets a bad rap. It’s boring. It’s tedious. Oh no, I have to explain that thing that happened last summer and it’s going to slow the pace of the whole story.
But the fact is, exposition is part of the thrilling tale you’re spinning. Background details give color and dimension to the world of your novel. They create emotional context for your characters’ fears, desires, and choices. Exposition illuminates the theme, guides your reader’s attention, and can even raise new questions that keep them turning pages past their bedtime.
If you’re struggling to communicate necessary background information without boring the reader out of their mind, don’t worry. There are countless ways to make sure your exposition is just as juicy as the main action.
I’m about to explain how to pull that off, how to know which exposition strategies to use when, and what role genre plays in all of this. Let’s get to it.
What is Exposition?
Exposition is any background information on the characters, setting, or circumstances of your story. Your hero’s traumatic past, the culture of their community, what happened to make your dystopia so darned dystopian… it’s all exposition.
You may also associate the term “exposition” with the very beginning of a story, especially if you learned the five-act structure while studying Shakespeare in high school.
But when we’re talking about how to write exposition, we’re talking about the way you dispense background information throughout your story.
How to Keep Your Readers Awake During Exposition
If a beta reader tells you your pacing is a little slow, odds are good the problem is exposition.
Simply put, you’re doing too much explaining and not enough storytelling. How do you get around this if you have to explain some things in order for the story to make sense?
Reveal, don’t tell. Exposition keeps up with the pace of the story when you reveal the right details at the moment when they are most relevant to the reader, using the most compelling language.
Here are a few tips to help you pull that off.
Explain Only What Matters
Have you been told that one of your scenes has too much exposition? Yeah, me, too.
Was your internal response that every word is precious and if it weren’t precious you wouldn’t have put it there?
Also me, too. But we’re wrong, you and I. The reader usually needs a lot less detail than we think. It’s good to have specifics—to mention the JTT poster in the childhood bedroom instead of just saying the protagonist grew up in the 90s. But we don’t have to also show the Bonne Bell lip gloss and the inflatable furniture. Create an image and move on.
Also bear in mind that all exposition should have a purpose in your story. In your character interviews, you may have determined that your antagonist loves lacrosse. But if you make a big deal about their high school lacrosse career and the lacrosse ball they keep on their desk, be aware that the reader is going to expect those details to play a role in the story.
This is called Chekhov’s Gun—the principle that any detail treated with importance must eventually contribute to the narrative.
Play with Juxtaposition
Juxtaposition is a powerful technique for helping your reader connect with the emotional context of your story. Juxtaposition is the act of placing two dissimilar things side-by-side to create a contrasting effect.
Let’s say you have to establish a detective’s strained relationship with the six-year-old daughter he only sees once a month.
You could mention it in a scene where the detective is driving to work and thinking about his life.
Or you could have him get a call from his daughter while he’s at a grisly crime scene. As he promises to be there to see his daughter twirl like a fairy at her dance recital, he examines the body position of a corpse.
You are juxtaposing the darkness of the detective’s career with the innocence of the personal life he’s struggling to maintain.
Way more engaging, right? It’s more clarifying, too.
Sometimes understanding how to write exposition is simply a matter of remembering how you write a story. Bring the reader into the moment with your character.
Don’t just tell us that Chuck is from the Ozarks. Tell us how he misses those winding dirt roads in the hills, the sun occasionally catching his windshield as it broke through the thick trees. Help us understand why he’s remembering this now, as he lies on his IKEA bed in a closet-sized city apartment.
Keep Some Secrets
I just started reading Delilah Green Doesn’t Care. There is someone in Delilah’s past whose name is Jax. It sounds like Jax is a former lover and probably broke Delilah’s heart, though references to Jax have been vague and scarce, so I really don’t know for sure.
The author is letting me know that she has an interesting backstory to reveal. I want to know this backstory. And so I read one more chapter.
As a writer, you know how important it is to make the reader ask, “What happens next?” Don’t underestimate the power of the equally compelling question, “What happened before?”
Tools of Exposition
Now you know how to write exposition in an engaging way. Let’s talk about the many tools you can use to weave backstory into your book.
In your journey as a writer, you will probably get advice suggesting that some of these tools are preferable to others. I personally believe it’s hard to make that claim. The power or shortcomings of each of these tools is all in how you use them. I’ll explain as we go.
We’re often taught to keep exposition out of narration as much as possible, but I feel like this advice causes writers to awkwardly shoe-horn exposition into dialogue and newspaper headlines.
While you should use multiple tools for exposition, don’t be afraid of plugging backstory into your narration. It actually works great if you honor the classic elements of strong narration:
- Engaging voice
- Compelling tone
- Vivid imagery or specific details
- Emotional engagement
- Relevant details that connect to the actual story
All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss.–Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
We’ve got specific names, we’ve got a sense that this is a gossipy community, and we’ve got intrigue (Who are Mirabelle and May Ling?).
Your character’s thoughts can show your reader where your character has been and how those past experiences influence them in the present moment.
That said, there is an art to doing this well. Avoid a situation where your character is telling themselves about their own history, especially if you’re putting their thoughts in quotes. I have never thought to myself, “I’ve always hated peas.”
Also be sure to connect your character’s thoughts to the story’s present moment. Let their thoughts reveal their feelings, motivations, relationships, or fears.
[Izzy] reminded Mia, oddly, of herself at around that age, traipsing through the neighborhood, climbing over fences and walls in search of the right photograph, defiantly spending her mother’s money on film. –Little Fires Everywhere
If you know how to write exposition in dialogue, you know a lot about writing dialogue in general.
That’s because we often use dialogue to convey important information in an interesting way. You can knock out a lot of important backstory using dialogue in which a character:
- Reveals a secret
- Explains a situation to a newbie
- Confides in another person
- Gives a presentation
- Gets interviewed
- Argues with another character
The list goes on forever. So where’s the risk?
Expositional dialogue goes off the rails when characters start explaining things they don’t have to explain to each other. “You owe me, Harold. You’re my brother, and I helped you find a new apartment when your wife Sharon left you because of the alcohol problem that runs in our family.
”Don’t do that.
Put yourself in your characters’ shoes, keeping in mind what your characters already know.
“Do you sell enough to get by?” she asked.
Mia correctly interpreted this as a question about rent and her ability to pay it. “We’ve always gotten by,” she said, “one way or another.” –Little Fires Everywhere
Media and Communications
You know this one very well. Something that affects the character is on the front page of the newspaper. Or on the evening news. Or in a text exchange.
As with dialogue, this can be a great strategy for revealing exposition to the reader and your character at the same time. It can also raise the stakes when your protagonist’s conflict is front-page news.
Bear in mind that using this tool of exposition signals to the reader that the information matters. If there’s not an obvious reason for including the TV news anchor’s dialogue in the scene, your reader will assume the reason will be clear later (Chekhov's Gun!). Kindly do not mislead them.
Inside was a hastily scribbled note.
Harry—DAD GOT THE TICKETS—Ireland versus Bulgaria, Monday night. –Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
Action is the place to dish out the gasp-worthy exposition. Your character is in the thick of it, whatever “it” may be. What background information will immediately make this moment and all the moments that follow more compelling to your reader?
The action hero confesses that they’re afraid of sharks just as the speedboat bursts into flames. A baker’s repressed anxiety bubbles to the surface during a major bake-off.
If you want to know how to write exposition that doesn’t read like exposition, this is it. But to make this work, you have to be picky about the details you drop during the action. Keep it short and keep it explosive.
“Harry, come on, move!” Hermione had seized the collar of his jacket and was tugging him backward.
“What’s the matter?” Harry said, startled to see her face so white and terrified.
“It’s the Dark Mark, Harry!” Hermione moaned, pulling him as hard as she could. “You-Know-Who’s sign!”–Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Ideally, your characters and story come with background information that makes your conflict even spicier. A great time to divulge this information is—get this—in the midst of conflict.
Exposition commonly appears in conflict when a character is forced to make a revelation in order to get what they want. One famous example is Darth Vader’s mid-fight paternity announcement.
Be aware: conflict is a great place to put exposition that makes the hero’s journey or decisions more complicated. But if you have background details that help your reader understand what’s at stake for your protagonist in this moment of conflict, divulge those deets early enough for your reader to be emotionally involved in the moment.
“Well, they’re okay!” said Ron angrily, looking at Harry’s robes. “Why couldn’t I have some like that?”
“Because… well, I had to get yours secondhand, and there wasn’t a lot of choice!” said Mrs. Weasley, flushing.–Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
How to Write Exposition to Fit Your Genre
The way you share exposition with your reader will depend partly on your genre.
A fast-paced thriller might lean more on dialogue and conflict to reveal backstory. Meanwhile, literary fiction tends to unravel the past through engaging narration.
Fantasy readers expect more details about the languages and rules of your fictional world. But if you write action-adventure, your readers will probably be happiest if you keep it simple and literally cut to the chase.
Learn how to write exposition by reading top authors in your genre. Notice how they do it and how their methods influence your experience of the story. Consider which techniques might work for you.
Track Your Secrets
Artful exposition gets messy. On page one, you’re keeping a lot of secrets from your readers, and then you reveal them strategically as the pages turn.
Three small secrets on page five. One deceptively small one on page ten. A real shocker on seventy-three.
It gets hard to keep track of which secrets you’ve told and whether your readers know what they need to know to feel the feelings they’re supposed to feel.
The good news is, the Dabble Plot Grid really helps with that. It’s a great way to plot your story beat by beat while also keeping track of character arcs, exposition, and more.
Want to see for yourself? Click here to try the Plot Grid and all of Dabble’s Premium features for free for fourteen days.
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