How To Write Exposition
Worldbuilding is fun. It’s just about the most fun you’ll have when initially developing your mythos, but it can actually be very difficult. I get it, you spend hours and hours every day thinking up cool ideas and events in your world’s history and you want your audience to know. You want your readers to know all about the cladistics of all your fantasy creatures, the ancient history of your fictional empires, how the planet itself is actually a sleeping God. Yes, that stuff is cool, but it can be very difficult to express it in an engaging way to your readers. That’s what exposition is for.
But what is exposition? Exposition is essentially the contextual information needed to progress and understand the story. It can be your characters’ backstories, magic systems, world histories, speculative biology, just about anything. For example, the Star Wars text crawl at the start of every movie is just one big exposition dump to catch the audience up to speed. You’ll often hear that exposition is bad writing in and of itself, but this is just not true. Exposition is important, necessary, and useful information that, when done well, is indispensable for the reader to understand the story.
The problem with exposition is that it’s very difficult to make it memorable and/or logical within the context of your story. It can sometimes feel very forced when conveyed poorly. The key to remember is that it matters how you communicate, not what it is that you’re communicating. It really doesn’t matter what you’re telling them, but you need to find a way to make it make sense. Exposition can be just about anything. With this in mind, we can come up with three criteria to meet when writing; relevance, timing, and delivery.
One of the major hurdles in exposition is that the information is more often than not for the reader’s benefit and not the characters. It’s all too easy to have someone stop to explain something that the other characters should already know. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes having someone explain things to other characters is the best option, but they shouldn’t exist purely to spoon-feed info to the reader. A group of demon hunters shouldn’t have to stop and explain what demons are and how they work to themselves, because they should reasonably know already. A common means to work around this is the perspective character; someone in the story who lacks critical understanding of the setting or events in the narrative. You’ve seen this trope hundreds of times: Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Aang, just to name a few. This trope gives a logical reason for one character or plot element to explain something to them, and by extension the reader. All of this new info is new to them as well, so they’ll likely have the same questions as the reader. However, this trope only meets one of the criteria. It sets up exposition in a logical way, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be memorable or relevant. It can feel lazy to the reader if you’re not careful.
One good way to deliver it is to use the exposition as a framing device for a character’s development. Your character should be personally affected by learning this exposition, as it makes the information given more memorable for the reader. Don’t be afraid to explore the emotional consequences of learning something new.
For example, in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Gimli breaks down into tears when he and the fellowship discover Balin’s tomb in Moria. It’s a very emotional moment for him…but who is Balin? What does he have to do with Gimli? Unless you read The Hobbit (and I know most of you didn’t), you aren’t going to know who he was. Despite that, the scene still has an impact on the reader. There’s no need to explain who Balin was beside the little note left on his grave, as everything else is filled in by Gimli’s reaction. Who the information is delivered to will impact the effect it has on the reader. If Gimli wasn’t with the fellowship when they found the tomb, it wouldn’t have anywhere near as much of an impact. Why would Sam or Aragorn care about a dead dwarf they’ve never met? If they don’t have a reason to care, why would we?
Blending exposition with characterization is just one way to make it more interesting to your reader, however. There are other options, such as tying it to narrative payoffs, conflicts, and environmental descriptions. Blending your exposition into these aspects might sound harder than combining it with the characters themselves, but it doesn’t have to be. Narrative payoffs in particular will often overlap with characterization.
A good example of this is in the original Star Wars trilogy. In A New Hope, Obi-Wan tells Luke about the Jedi, the Clone Wars, and his father Anakin Skywalker. Now, everyone and their mother knows by now that Anakin Skywalker is Darth Vader. This information is not terribly important to the characters at this point. The Clone Wars ended 20 years ago, and Luke and Vader have never met. However, it sets up Luke and Vader’s confrontation in the next movie. Obi-Wan lies to Luke, telling him that Vader killed Anakin. Obi-Wan knows that isn’t true literally speaking, but telling Luke that Vader is connected to his father still sets up the two of them eventually meeting, and it leaves wiggle-room for that emotional gut-punch. Place obstacles in the narrative to get to the exposition or frame it as a mystery the reader has to uncover.
That being said, you should only make the exposition the narrative reward in this case for things that are fundamental to your story. What happened to the air nomads? Why are the major political factions fighting? What is the Matrix?
To get less interesting information across, one technique you can use is The Pope in the Pool, which is when unimportant or less interesting information is delivered through the context of a shocking, dramatic, or humorous scene. Do you want your readers to remember something? Make the scene in which it’s said memorable. Easier said than done, but there’s another thing you can do. As said before, you can blend exposition with your environmental descriptions. This is called environmental storytelling, which means you use descriptions of the environment, characters, or events, as a means to deliver exposition.
Say what you will about Harry Potter, but the first few chapters in the first book are written very well. It blends the setting and characterization with exposition very nicely. “Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age…He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape…The only thing Harry liked about his appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning,” contextualized Harry’s physical description with his abusive living condition, as well as foreshadowing events to come with the mystery of the scar on his face. In doing so, the reader not only gets a stronger grasp on Harry’s life with the Dursleys, but can also visualize Harry and his living conditions.
There’s much more to writing exposition than just this, but following these tips can help to make your fictional world feel more lived-in by characters who feel like real people. As always, it’s very beneficial to have someone proofread your writing. Writing fiction can prove to be both fun and challenging. Hopefully these tips have been helpful to you, and aid you in making your writing feel all the more real, interesting, and memorable.