Five Tips for Writing Effective Exposition
Diane O’ Connell
Diane O’Connell, a former Random House editor, is author of 6 books, including the award-winning The Novel-Maker’s Handbook: The No-Nonsense Guide to Crafting a Marketable Story. As editorial director of Write to Sell Your Book she has helped dozens of authors achieve publishing success. Diane’s passion for helping authors improve their craft has made her one of the top editors in the field.
As writers, we need to be able to give backstory, to fill in the blanks, to explain why a character behaves a certain way or believes a certain thing. To give specific details of a time and place with which the reader is not familiar. To explain certain technical details that may be necessary to understanding the plot or milieu.
But here’s the rub: exposition is inherently un-dramatic. By its very nature, exposition has already happened, or is merely information.
So what to do? Certainly, you don’t want to hang your exposition out to dry like clothes on a line. You must find a way to get this vital information to your readers in a way that won’t lose them.
1. Ask yourself, “What is this scene about?”
Exposition should enhance your story world, not replace it. Ask yourself: Is this a love scene? A scene of betrayal? Insight into the opponent’s motives? The characters’ story should be driving the scene, with exposition taking a back seat. If the point of the scene is not clear, rewrite the scene so that it is in service of the story.
2. Get inside your character’s head.
Exposition should not just stand out there as a way to “fill in the reader,” but rather reveal what’s in a character’s head. Good exposition holds the key to how your characters were affected and molded by the events.
Let’s say sometime before a novel begins a character was in a horrible car accident. It was his fault, and another person was killed. What are some possible reactions to this past event? Here’s a sample, using dialog:
“Everyone has it wrong. He should have stopped.”
“My life is over. I’ll carry this with me forever.”
“I’ll never get in a car again. Never!”
Each of the above statements do more than simply report a past event — they expose character.
3. Tie backstory to a current action or detail.
In my short story, “Keys,” I wanted to convey how a marriage had changed over 30 years. Instead of chronicling the couple’s entire history that lead to them growing apart, I chose a particular moment to stand in for the history.
In this scene, which happens after an argument, the wife is sitting at her vanity table performing her nightly routine, while the husband watches her from the bed:
He sat on the bed, staring at his wife’s back. He remembered how it looked when they were first married. Her hair graced her shoulders and her nightgowns were cut low, revealing the supple curves of her back. Her skin was smooth, enticing, inviting his touch. But over the years her hair had gotten shorter and the necklines of her nightgowns had gotten higher, and a rigidness had crept into her back. It had become a fortress, daring him to break through.
4. Focus on conflict.
Instead of having one character tell another character what they already know (“How did that job interview with your former boss who fired you from your first job go?”), try to convey that information through conflict: “I can’t believe you would set yourself up to get fired again from that bastard!”
5. Cut it to the bone.
With exposition, less is almost always more. Choose only those details that will enhance your scene. Be ruthless. Just because you spent months researching and writing a character’s backstory or the historical period doesn’t mean each discovery has to make it into your book. Your readers will thank you for it.