by Ross Browne
Exposition: a discourse of information. (Often necessary, but also challenging to handle skillfully.)
In an earlier post for mystery writers, I talked a little bit about the value of resisting the urge to lecture your readers on what you might have learned in the course of researching your story or what you might know from your own in-the-trenches experiences. The premise behind this advice is that readers–and fans of mystery/suspense in particular–generally read in hopes of being entertained rather than educated. A reasonable amount of insider’s insight can be great, even vital, for credibility. But too many writers make the mistake of giving their readers far more information than is needed or desirable. This is especially problematic when the information takes the shape of straight narration, which can grind the story to a halt and leave readers feeling lectured to instead of entertained.
This is why the “less is more” guideline is a good one when it comes to exposition and why you should be very discriminating about the length and number of “lessons” you serve up in a mystery or suspense novel. But there are exceptions, of course, and there’s also a lot to be learned from books whose plots demand readers get an in-depth crash course in the esoteric.
A bestselling author who gets it right
One good case in point is Lee Child’s Killing Floor, where Jack Reacher has to do a fair amount of sleuthing to figure out who killed his brother. When it becomes clear that a massive currency counterfeiting operation is at the root of the crime, Reacher realizes he needs to learn all he can about how counterfeiting is done and how the operation might plausibly work. There’s a lot of exposition for readers to wade through on the many aspects of counterfeiting craft, most of which works well because Reacher knows nothing about it at the start. So we learn as he learns, and it’s pretty fascinating.
Because the information is broken up and delivered in the context of a variety of live scenes rather than static narrative exposition–Reacher talking to experts, Reacher reading about counterfeiting, Reacher thinking through what he’s learned and discussing it, Reacher spying on the bad guys to learn aspects of their operation–there’s a compelling puzzle that comes together piece by piece before a dramatic “aha!” moment. It’s all very well done, in large part because the research supports a compelling mystery within a mystery and the question of where these counterfeiters are getting their paper.
The sterling virtue of exposition is unobtrusiveness
In Killing Floor, it looks as if Lee Child gave some careful thought to how much readers need to know about counterfeiting in the first place, then made some sound decisions about how to bring that information to the page. The result is a book that teaches us a lot about counterfeiting and in so doing illuminates some best practices of handling exposition, including:
- Keeping the exposition out of the opening and letting the story get well under way before trying to educate readers.
- Making sure the information is interesting in and of itself and genuinely useful to readers, not just an indulgence leading to bloat and excess.
- Breaking things up and providing the needed exposition on a “need to know” basis–in small bits rather than all at once.
- Conveying the information using dialogue and action in dynamic scenes rather than long passages of static narration.
- Letting the protagonists be ignorant of the facts and thus plausibly in need of an education himself.
- Finding engaging and believable ways to make the protagonist proactive in the effort to learn what he needs to.
- Connecting the information to a burning plot question that’s entertaining in its own right.
Handling of exposition is an important but often overlooked point of fiction craft that can be particularly challenging in thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels where pacing is of paramount importance. In these genres, working the exposition into scenes the way Child does in Killing Floor is almost always a better choice, even if some scenes are comprised mostly of dialogue. This approach has the effect of keeping the story feeling like it’s moving, and that’s generally a very good thing.
Historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy are genres that often require readers to be educated by the author, be it on the backstory of an historical event, the world in which a story is unfolding, or what’s different about an imagined time or place. Authors of these genres tend to have a little more leeway in how they go about delivering whatever lessons may be required, as readers of these genres tend to be more accepting of pure narrative exposition. That said, there’s still a lot of value in keeping this to a minimum and using dynamic scenes to bring information to the page wherever possible, as well as avoiding the common missteps in handling exposition.
What to avoid
While every novel is different and there’s rarely a single right way to do anything when it comes to writing, here are some common mistakes writers make in handling exposition.
Serving up too much information at the very beginning of the book
This is often done with the best of intentions, the thinking being “hey, there are some things readers will need to know to get my story, understand what led to it, and appreciate its context.” The impulse to get this out of the way early on is an understandable one, but too much exposition in the opening of a novel can be a death sentence in the effort to entice readers to read on. You’re far better off staying focused on getting your story started and filling in contextual information as it’s needed, a little bit at a time. It’s far easier to engage readers with riveting scenes than static exposition. And for most novels, the sooner you can get the story going the better.
Using obviously contrived dialogue to convey exposition
Dialogue can be a helpful tool for conveying exposition, but only if it’s natural-sounding and entertaining. It’s generally best to make sure at least one character involved in the conversation is both ignorant of the information that comes to light, and in need of it. Also be sure to have plenty of give-and-take rather than one character lecturing the others.
Overestimating the need for exposition in the first place
Many writers–especially those who are very knowledgeable about the subject matter in question–have the impulse to give their readers too much. Our advice is to restrain this impulse as much as possible and to shoot for something approaching the bare minimum that readers need to know to appreciate the story. We don’t need to be experts in forensics to enjoy a police procedural or go to med school to enjoy a medical thriller. Remember that the first duty of a good novel is to entertain, not to teach. If readers simply want information, they’ll read nonfiction.
Giving too much information all at once
Information of any kind tends to be indigestible in large chunks, even after the story is underway. Once you have a carefully-considered handle on what readers need to know in the first place, try to avoid big “info dumps” where they get everything all at once. You’re better off breaking things up and giving them a little information at a time, and ideally in a variety of (subtle) ways.
For more information on the mechanics of handling exposition, you may want to check out the Proportion, Show Don’t Tell, and Exposition and Backstory chapters of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. And I’d of course recommend Killing Floor highly as a terrific story that shows many of the techniques covered put to very good use.