On November 21, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on exposition as the spotlight topic. We’ve edged around it before but never focused quite like this. Here are the show notes:
Theme for the day
Before the Story Began
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- What is exposition?
- How do you put it in the story?
- How much is too much?
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So we’ve talked about exposition in a number of episodes but I couldn’t find an episode that we had focused on it. So that’s what we’re going to focus on today. What is exposition? How do you build it in? When to say when. That kind of thing.
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What is exposition?
From Wikipedia: “Narrative exposition is the insertion of background information within a story or narrative. This information can be about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc. In literature, exposition appears in the form of expository writing embedded within the narrative.”
So it’s anything that happened before the story started including political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal (PESTEL) conditions. We worked a little bit on this in the world building episode over the summer (here) and in our fourth episode on world building in fantasy novels (many moons ago) and somewhat in our episode on prologues (here) where Kasie explained why it’s a waste of paper to write a prologue.
There are several kinds of exposition according to literaryterms.net:
- Backstory or prologue — the dreaded fact dump that precedes a story
- Inner monologue or flashback — where the character remembers or thinks about something that happened in the past and therefore gives us that prior knowledge we need
- Dialogue — where one character tells another about something that happened before the story so we (the reader) get that information, too.
Which is the best? I know, I know. “It depends.”
Why do we need exposition?
Because no one wants to “begin my life with the beginning of my life” a la David Copperfield. We all want to see the action. Anything else that matters to the action but is not actually action, should be delivered as exposition.
Where do you put it?
- In the beginning of the story — as an introduction to the world in which the characters are living. Set the scene (this is the world building stuff we’ve talked about)
- Throughout the story — when it’s relevant. As something is occurring, put it in context with a line or two of exposition
- Foreshadowing — in an adjacent or inconspicuous place (an amusing anecdote, a memory that’s triggered) but setting us up for needing it later when it becomes important
- At the end — in a kind of “what you didn’t know was” reveal (think mystery novels) that makes confusing things make sense
- A variety of approaches — the “It depends” method
How and when do you put in the exposition?
Introductory-style relies upon the narrator. We will learn only what the narrator knows. In a third person story, that could be quite a lot. Consider the Stage Manager from Our Town who was clairvoyant enough to know the ghosts in the cemetery.
In a first-person narrative this might be more limited. We will only see what he sees and feel what he feels, so consider the experiences he has in the first few pages and how you might deliver needed information. In After December, Brian returns home so we of course get memories of all his other returns and the childhood he spent in that house.
- Not unlike the “Once Upon a Time,” portion of the story, early exposition delivered by narrator is a classic device and meets readers’ expectations.
- Many novices are told to get right to the story and come back for the exposition later and that’s not bad advice because we really want to be engaged early on, but we also want to know what’s at stake and frequently why the action matters is delivered by exposition.
These can be tricky. Flashback pulls us out of the story and into some circumstances that occurred before. We need past-perfect verb tenses and/or the squiggly lines on the screen to tell us we’re moving back in time.
Flashbacks can be indicated by timestamp “Phoenix, 1952” or by a page break. Some writers use italics — I’m not a huge fan of that because it renders the italics pretty useless elsewhere.
Context clues like the vocabulary, dress, or other artifacts of the era can tell you we’ve traveled back in time. But put the flashback in perspective. For example, if it’s a third person close, the flashback must be something our main character witnessed. The character has moved on and so there should be a kind of editorializing to it — regret, fondness, yearning, bitterness — the present-day character feels some kind of way about what happened before. That feeling is what connects the flashback to the current story. So don’t leave it out. Put the flashback in context.
I like a good monologue where someone explains to someone else how things used to be. These, too, need context. The person doing the explaining has a take on what happened. Give them the slanted view. Show they have a stake in what’s happening now by demonstrating how they feel about what happened before.
Avoid the interrogation, but you can have one character ask another a series of questions to get at the exposition. This is a “What the hell was that all about?” conversation. Again, context is what matters. You want these two present-day characters to have a conflict over what is and is not being revealed.
So who needs the exposition?
The writer should have it all. You should know enough of what happened before the story that you can write the “now” version and know what’s at stake.
How much of it does the reader need? Whatever’s relevant, of course. And some writers use exposition to misdirect the reader. Make them like a character who shouldn’t be liked or suspect a character who hasn’t done anything wrong. Exposition and how it’s delivered can shape the reader’s impression not only of the story itself, but of the characters, the setting, and the outcome.
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