An Introduction to Exposition

December 10, 2020

"Exposition" can be a scary word. In some writing circles, "experts" will warn you to exercise extreme caution when using it, or they'll make it out to be a difficult but necessary evil. But ultimately, exposition is just another writing tool, and it's used in all sorts of writing, even beyond fiction. Think of it this way: no matter what you're writing, you want your readers to understand and follow your train of thought. In non-fiction, you do that by providing necessary context and historical data. We do that in storytelling too, but it's easier to think of it less as "exposition" and more simply as "introducing new information."

You can also think of exposition as "backstory." Which is to say, it might not always be immediately clear why certain facts are relevant to the story at all, but the reader will still need to know them to understand what's going on. Exposition reveals new information that helps readers understand why a character behaves the way they do and gives meaning to their motivations. After all, they live in this world that you created, and that world is filled with its own rules, politics, and cultures. You need to help the reader understand this world so they can understand why things happen the way they do.

Part of exposition's bad reputation comes from the fact that a lot of writers feel compelled to place all of their exposition right at the beginning of the story.  But your beginning is precious story real estate, and you have a very short time to get your readers invested, so you'll want to integrate some of your exposition elsewhere. Provide just enough information to hook your readers. You can add in the rest when it fits more naturally into your story's plot and events. 

How much is too much? How little is too little?

The important  thing to keep in mind is balance. Your exposition should really only reveal what's necessary right in the moment. You want to curate this information so the story can drive forward naturally without giving away too much too soon. The trick is giving your readers enough to stay interested in the plot, but not so much that it interrupts the flow - you'll risk spoiling all of your tension (and your conflicts, and your tension, and your plot twists, and so forth).

Keep in mind that not all genres use exposition in the same way, either. Genres with lots of worldbuilding (like secondary world fantasy or space opera sci-fi) require a lot more exposition because the author has to introduce entire worlds to the reader so they can understand what's going on. Some genres in non-fantastical settings have to do this as well: historical fiction also requires extensive context to explain things like societal norms or historical events that are relevant to the story but might not be known to the reader.

In future posts, we'll look at specific techniques you can use to provide expostion, so be sure to check back!