10 Tips For Handling Exposition

tootsie1Exposition can be one of the trickiest parts of writing fiction. You need it, but opinions diverge over how much you need and when you need it. Here are some thoughts on how to handle exposition:

1. Show, don’t tell whenever possible. Yeah, I know, you’ve heard that a million times, but there’s a good reason for that: it’s the best possible way of handling exposition. It’s much better to  dramatize a scene of your character driving a race car around a track than have a line of dialogue or even a line of narrative that explains your character is a race car driver. Or dramatize an argument between a couple rather than have one tell another character that the relationship is going to break up.

2. Disguise the exposition.  John Cleese, former member of the comedy troupe Monty Python, and his ex-wife Connie Booth wrote the classic comedy TV show Fawlty Towers. In interviews, Cleese has said that the way he and Booth agreed to handle exposition was to always make it as funny as possible.

There are several scenes in the movie Tootsie between protagonist Michael and his agent George. Almost every scene between them functions as an expository scene. They are also among the funniest scenes in the movie, and I doubt anyone in the audience stopped to think that they were being fed a lot of exposition.

Comedy is not the only way to disguise exposition. It can be part of a highly dramatic, terrifying or action-oriented scene. Try to find ways to make an expository scene do some form of double-duty.

3. Beware the exposition dump. This is typically a scene where one character describes the backstory, or describes the history of The Thing Everyone Is Seeking, or explains How Something Important To The Story Works. If a couple have met and are flirting, they might start dumping out their life stories to each other, starting with where they were born and every cute little thing they ever did when they were kids, and so on.

Look, sometimes it’s just unavoidable, and you’ll have to resort to it. But make it your last resort, after you’ve exhausted any other way of conveying the information.

4. If you must do an exposition dump, consider creating a character who will stand in as a surrogate for the reader. This is a character to whom another character or characters explains things to that the reader needs to understand. Say you have a bunch of techie characters and one character who doesn’t understand anything technical. This way you would have a natural way to explain something technical to the reader when the techie characters explain it to the non-techie character. It will feel a lot less like an exposition dump and seem more organic to the story.

5. Make certain the information you’re conveying is essential for the reader to know. Sometimes writers get carried away with giving information, and it can bog down the pace of the story. Pare down exposition to the absolute essentials. ONLY tell the reader what they MUST know to keep from becoming confused.

6. Holding back information can be a great tool for keeping the reader engaged. It’s one of the most effective ways of creating suspense. Again, you don’t want the reader to become confused. But you do want them to be so engaged that they can’t stop reading. One way is to keep from answering every question right away.

7. Reveal information at the most devastating moment possible. So you’re fighting the bad-ass evil dude to the death and he chooses that moment to reveal he’s your father.

Like that.

8. Or, insert exposition at a point in the story where the reader could use a breather. If there has been a lot of action and escalating drama, a good way to give everyone a chance  to absorb all that has happened is to take a moment to put in some necessary exposition. The characters have been fighting the zombies for page after page, find a secret government outpost that has been studying the zombie outbreak, where they learn a bunch of stuff they didn’t know until then . . . and then more zombies attack. Even the fastest-paced stories need moments to give everyone–the characters and the reader–a short time-out from the action.

9. Don’t be afraid to use flashbacks, especially for dramatic moments in the backstory. There are people who react in horror to the idea of flashbacks, but they can be a very effective tool. Mainly because you’re showing, not telling. Again, dramatizing what happened is usually preferable to telling about it.

10. Sometimes the best way to handle exposition is to not explain something at all. One of the most famous examples ever is the Clone Wars. This was mentioned in passing in the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope. Nothing about it was explained and fans speculated about it for years, until it was addressed in the prequels and cartoon series. Director Alfred Hitchcock was said to like leaving a few things unexplained so the audience would have a topic for their “ice-box chat.” In other words, something to discuss after seeing the movie while getting a snack out of the ice-box (refrigerator to us 21st century types). As long as you’ve played fair with the reader as far as essential information, they will probably be intrigued by and enjoy speculating about one or two things left unexplained.

3 thoughts on “10 Tips For Handling Exposition

  1. Thanks Debbie. I’m new to writing and have been warned about the “Exposition Dump” and you’re right…it is tricky! Thanks for some good options on how to insert that “must know” information without it being clunky and amateurish.

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