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Exposition

Many times during the story the author will have to stop and explain various things, describe background facts or give additional information. This is exposition. During exposition, the author tells rather than shows. This is a much less effective method, when it comes to judging it from the perspective of the reader, so it must be handled with great care.

Exposition can be very useful if used properly. Well handled it will give perspective, dimension and context that help all the events in the foreground have more sense The story cannot exist solely though scenes. Therefore fiction is in fact a balance between scenes and exposition. Typically the distribution is about 70% – 30% or even 80% – 20%.
We must be very careful not to let the explanation take over the story. That is a good example of exposition handled badly.

This being said, we must always make sure that we do not bury the story in too many footnotes. Too much explanation will lead to clutter, clutter that is most of the time not interesting to the reader. Stick to the action.

Another fact that we must be aware of is going into what is called a World-Builder Mode.  Writers, especially fantasy authors, seldom create extremely complicated worlds and backgrounds. Sometimes the story itself becomes a description of the world. It may be extremely interesting for the author to fully develop and describe this world, but the reader wants to read about the events and the action and not about where they take place. So, again we must keep the proper balance between describing the world and talking about the events. This process is in fact the phenomenon of becoming infatuated with the invention for its own sake. The story will stop and the reader will be lost.

So, the point here is that the story comes first and everything else is a close second. Especially in the beginning of the story it is critical that the action takes place first before the explanation. First introduce the character and show let him show himself and engage the reader’s curiosity and interest. Then tell the story of his past, only if you absolutely need to.

The exposition must be used to present something or give the impression that something will happen later. But it must seem as it is spawned directly from something that just happened. Otherwise it will seem like an artificial break in the story to present something for the future. Only those things that are important to the story right now must be told.

How to present exposition?

a) Build it into a scene. With this method you introduce exposition in the middle of a scene. You can use props, moods to expose what is needed while the scene happens.

b) Put it between scenes. This is needed when the exposition requires a chapter or a longer part and inserting it into a scene would be too confusing. This is usually done from the author’s all-seeing eye and it is placed between 2 scenes.

c) Let a character explain. With this method we let a character tell the entire story or simply using questions and answers with another character, reveal what needs to be exposed. This must be handled very carefully. We cannot let the character say things that he/she would not normally say because either they know it or it is obvious, just so that the reader can read it. In this case, the dialogue will seem stupid and the characters just puppets made to say what needs to be said so the reader can find it out. Especially when we are talking about obvious things that all characters in the scene know, don’t make them say it just for the sake of having it said. Only make characters say things that they have to say and things that they would normally say.

Another thing to stay away as much as possible during exposition is promoting your own beliefs. Since this is fiction, the main business here is story telling. People don’t care about the author’s opinion about politics, religion and so on. Obviously the story itself will be influenced by these beliefs, but let the story tell it. Don’t stop and ramble for pages about one issue or another just because you feel strongly about it. Just make the story about it if you really want, but don’t stop the story just to tell the world your rants.

Lastly some more suggestions: we always tend to remember best the information that comes to us surrounded by highly charged emotion. When applied to exposition this will make things move faster and be absorbed more easily. So, for instance if a character wants to find out something badly, the reader will soon identify with his/her emotion and will want to find out too. When the character finds out, the reader barely sees that as exposition, even though that is what it was. Instead it perceives it as something that is a part of the action, of the plot.

So, in a nutshell:  to effectively handle exposition move it fast, don’t let it pile up too much in any one place, subordinate it to a strongly moving plot and dip it in emotion. Then, whenever you can cut it, cut it.

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