Exposition in Fiction Writing

Simply put, exposition in fiction writing is anything which conveys important background information to the audience. In other words, exposition could be considered an information dump. 

The problem with exposition is that a large chunk of it stops the plot cold. 

What could be more boring than interrupting a page of witty dialogue between protagonist and serial killer in order to describe that vital moment in the killer's life where his mother left him and his father beat him? Even if that's what made your character turn into a killer, untimely exposition can ruin a book. A reader won't have enough patience to reach the end of the story if you keep interrupting for an info dump—no matter how vital to the plot.

So how do you get around exposition? There are four main ways, outlined below.

You can try to weave it into dialogue, but this can make your dialogue long and unrealistic. You could introduce a character who asks questions that the reader might be asking, I.e. The dumb friend, but that can sometimes be too obvious (and annoying). 

Flashbacks have fallen out of vogue to some extent, but this is an efficient way to give a lot of vital information. A flashback is a scene where the character experiences a flash back to a previous time in their life, usually connected in some way to the scene at hand. This experience could be triggered by a smell or sight or something another character says. The only problem with these are that they significantly interrupt the plot and take you back into the past—whether minutes or years, it's out of the action.

Similar to a flashback, but shorter, memories look at the scene from the present, rather than experiencing it as it happened like in a flashback. Again, these could be triggered by a scent or sight or a comment. Since these are shorter, they could be considered less of an interruption than a flashback.

Perhaps the best way is to sprinkle it throughout dialogue and narrative. A sentence here, a sentence there, a little bit of setting, a little bit of backstory, but keep the focus on the action. 

It's sometimes hard to know when you're writing what is distracting backstory and what is crucial to the plot. I find I recognize exposition for what it is when I set my first draft aside for a few weeks, or a couple of months, and then do a quick read through in one or two sittings. During that read-through, I highlight the offending scenes and edit them later. (Yes, I've finally learned how to do this! My iPad is vital for this, because I cannot edit as I read.)

Striking a balance of exposition is difficult, and something that even best selling authors can get wrong. Of course, it's also something that readers have varying opinions on. So what to do? Well, definitely get second (and third and fourth) opinion, but try to keep the focus on the here and now. After all, the "here and now" is the story you're trying to tell, right? 


Day 1: Absolution

Day 2: Biography

Day 3: Confidence

Day 4: Daphne