Presenting Exposition

So. You've decided what background material is really necessary in your story, and you've been careful to get your story up and running before breaking away for more than a paragraph or so to commit a stretch of exposition.

Now the question arises of how to present it.

Build It into the Scene

If you can, build it right into the scene. If it's important that the protagonist has been married before, invent some prop (a belat ed birthday card from ex-spouse? a final divorce decree in the mailbox?) or a bit of dialogue ("Mommy, is Daddy going to visit me this weekend?") that shows the fact without your having to say a word directly. Try to make each of your scenes multi-purpose: introducing or developing characters, moving the plot, and establishing immediately needed background, all at once.

Put It Between Scenes

If it's not just a fact or two but a mini-essay that's needed, it would be too confusing and cumbersome to try building it into the scene. In that case, the simplest way isjust to tell it between scenes, with strong transitional connections to what goes before and what follows. Use objective narration: you're the all-seeing, all-knowing (but impersonal and invisible) narrator, and you just put in the information the reader is interested (you hope) in learning at that point in the story. That's the obvious choice for longer stretches of exposition, the one you'll probably use most often.

Let a Character Explain

The other choice is to have your characters give the necessary facts: one asks a question, and the other tells. Or one doesn't ask a question, but the other tells anyway. Or parts of the exposition can come out, a little at a time, in a discussion among several characters, maybe spread across several scenes. All these can work sometimes, if the exposition involved is brief and has other work to do at the same time, like revealing something about the characters involved. If, in other words, it serves a plot or characterization purpose as well as a strictly expositional one.

That has the advantage of keeping the story rolling while the exposition is going on. It's not as severe an interruption as it would have been if it were cast as objective narration, the disembodied author/narrator telling the reader directly.

But if the exposition is long or detailed, or if it's something the characters all know perfectly well, that form of presentation can be ridiculous and unconvincing. ("As you know, Harvey, our world was attacked by the eight-armed Arcturans seventy-six years ago and since then, we've all lived in these caves.") Don't ever put into a character's mouth anything that's strictly and obviously for the reader's consumption. Readers aren't fooled, and you've turned your characters into unconvincing puppets, dummies making silly speeches at each other.

Make It a Character's Interior Monologue

Finally, you can have the exposition as one character's reflections or thoughts—the fiction writer's version of a soliloquy. Your character can think about something, or recollect something, and thereby let the reader know what you want to convey. But be careful with this too. It stops the story; it's subject to the same abuses as exposition in dialogue; and if it's overdone, it can make your viewpoint character seem like a self-important pedant who just can't wait to lecture the reader.

There's a character like that in R. L. Stevenson's uncompleted story "The Wrong Box": a Victorian gentleman others flee because his favorite topics of conversation are things like how many times the word "whip" is mentioned in the Bible. In other words, he's a crashing and voluble bore. Don't let any of your characters turn into information-packed bores. You've undoubtedly met some in life. Why should anybody want to meet one in fiction—unless, like Stevenson's encyclopedic old Mr. Finsbury, they're also very funny?

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