The Rules of Excellent Exposition: A Guide
After another productive conversation with one of my most esteemed friends, I got to thinking about exposition. Funnily enough, I believe I have quite a bit to say about exposition, mostly in the context of novel-writing.
Brace yourself, because this is going to be a long post. By the time you're done reading, you should have a better understanding of how to do exposition well. Follow at least the first three rules religiously, and you'll probably start writing better prose.
No, I am not joking.
Let's start at the very beginning. Wikipedia has the following definition for narrative exposition, with a bonus definition for "incluing":
Narrative exposition is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters' backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc...
Incluing is a technique of world-building in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers in to the world the author is building without them being aware of it.
If you're a novel writer, exposition is probably your biggest bugbear. It's the rule of "show, don't tell" writ large, which states that you can't write as if you're telling the reader something; you have to "show" them the scene, as if you're not delivering words in both instances.
(Most novels are written in first or third person limited viewpoint, so that is what I will deal with here.)
There are too many simplistic explanations of what good exposition is. You're told to use the five senses to describe the scene. You get bogged down in adjectives. You get totally spun around by what level of detail you should use.
The Working Definition
For the purposes of writing fiction, especially novels, here is my working definition, which encompasses both exposition and incluing:
Exposition is the art of conveying important contextual information to the reader, through stylistic choice, word choice, framing, setting, and character action, without interfering with the flow of the story.
See, you can sit down and insert whole paragraphs on a character's back story, and that would certainly be exposition, but that would also derail the flow of the story itself. (Besides, who cares? We should be interested in what the character is doing right now.) Hence, it's not really exposition at all. It's just waffling. It's what the rule of show-not-tell was invented to avoid.
But show-not-tell is dangerous as well, because showing instead of telling can still lead to useless info dumps - except those info dumps consist of large quantities of irrelevant information related to the current scene, instead of being lecture-like.
Good exposition happens when a reader gains an awareness of the setting, the character's motivation, and important plot related details, without ever having read anything but the uninterrupted story itself, and without being distracted by irrelevant information.
Here's how you do it.
Rule 1: In Medias Res
This normally refers to stories that start "in medias res", which is Latin for "in the middle of things". For me, this is the rule of immediacy in writing. Your writing should only ever actively refer to what is happening at that exact moment in time in that particular setting.
This doesn't mean that you can't refer to past or future events. But if you do refer to them, you need to use something in the immediate scene to bring them into it, such as a character noticing something and being reminded of them.
You may only describe what your viewpoint character experiences, or what they're thinking or feeling at that moment. You may not meander off into random, unnatural info-dumping that has nothing to do with the immediate situation. If it makes no sense for a character to be relaying a piece of information to the reader at that exact moment, then you may not have them relay it at all, no matter how important it is.
Rule 2: To Show or to Hide
Once you're at the point of writing with immediacy, then you need to work out what information to convey. Obviously you don't need to tell the reader everything about the scene, but how do you decide what is important and what isn't?
First of all: if it doesn't describe the scene, advance the plot, or provide characterization, then you may not write about it at all. This is a hard rule which you may not break unless you're absolutely certain that it works in context (and multiple other writers agree with you). It also cuts down what information you need to consider when deciding what to include or exclude.
Secondly, the problem here is that you need to convey plot, characterization, and setting, but only the plot may be explicit, because the plot is the driving force of the story. You may not include something that derails the forward motion of the plot. No random paragraphs of back story or scenery descriptions, for example. (Tolkien is notorious for overly verbose descriptions, so read Lord of the Rings if you want to see an example of this.) All information that you include must be woven around the plot or directly support the plot.
Finally, the first and most important details are those that are essential in order for the reader to understand what's happening right now. The second, far less important details are those that are essential for the reader to understand what will happen later, but that you can still relate to the first and most important details.
Rule 3: Noteworthiness
If you can write with immediacy, and you know what information you need to include and what will happen with the plot, now you need to understand how the viewpoint character will work with this information.
Novels usually have viewpoint characters, whether in the first person or third person. (Second person is rare and difficult to execute well.) The obsession with show-not-tell seems to result in prose where anything at all can be 'shown' as long as the viewpoint character is there to experience it, but this is absolutely not true. The viewpoint character for a scene effectively limits what information can be conveyed because of what I call "noteworthiness": the concept that a character will not notice or think of details that they would normally consider unimportant.
In somewhat easier terms, this means that a character's familiarity with details will render those details invisible, and thus we cannot describe them in the scene. What is available to us are those details that are "noteworthy"; that the character would recognize as being out of place or different or new.
A police officer sitting down at their desk would not find the desk itself noteworthy because they interact with it every day. It's part of the background to them. So you may say that they sat at their desk, but not that they sat at their old walnut desk with the scratches all down one leg. The point is that the character should have a reason to notice that particular detail at this point, in spite of the fact that they have presumably observed the same detail many times prior to this without comment. But a new report left on their desk is noteworthy, and you can describe it and possibly use it to add more detail about the scene.
Another example: one thing I see a lot with new writers is the tendency to make this mistake of noteworthiness when trying to describe their main character's hair. I know this seems really specific, but it's true! They've been told to show-not-tell, and the result is that they write some detail in an opening scene like "she pushed her blonde locks out of her face" with no other reference to hair at all. This provides a detail - hair colour - but it sounds jarring, because no one really thinks about their hair unless they're expressly doing something with it at that moment. And so the throwaway line becomes horribly clunky because this is not something the character would find noteworthy at that point in time.
If you look at writing that you feel just isn't that good, but you're not sure why, then try to examine it in the context of noteworthiness. A lot of prose that looks otherwise structurally sound comes off as absurd because of this. On some level, when a reader engaging with a story, there is an assumption of noteworthiness, a.k.a. the Chekov's Gun Principle: that specific details are only brought to the reader's attention because they are important to the plot, and it's jarring to the reader when those details turn out to be irrelevant.
Remember: when trying to describe the scene, advance the plot, or provide characterization, you may only use information that the viewpoint character would find noteworthy. And from there, you can bring in non-noteworthy information as a kind of adjunct detail to provide context.
Rule 4: The Methods of Conveyance
Once you understand immediacy, information filtering, and noteworthiness, you'll be most of the way to writing solid exposition. The next stage is to think about different ways of conveying information.
The plot should be fairly straightforward; you're saying what happened and in what order, preferably in a not-boring way. You'll trip up everywhere else, because you also need to tell the reader what the setting is and what kind of person the character is and why they're doing this and a whole host of other stuff that should be relevant to the things that are happening, but if you were going to actually just tell it straight to the reader, you'd be interrupting the story in order to give a lecture.
So you require alternate means of conveyance that are implicit and woven around the forward momentum of the plot. This, unfortunately, is incredibly nebulous, and depends as much on your own style and taste as it does on mechanical or structural rules.
Characterization can be handled simply by choosing certain actions/thoughts/feelings for your character to express in the moment, while the plot is happening. A character who cowers in fear, for example, is obviously a different person to one who stands defiant, or to one who turns and runs. It can be as simple as the things they notice; a greedy person might notice a few coins on a table first, whereas a hungry person might see the sandwich. How they speak, what they say, and how they react to other characters is also important.
This is why novel writers frequently talk about getting inside their characters' heads. You don't necessarily need to know every last detail about a character, but you need to have enough of a handle on who and what they are, as a person, at that moment in time, in order to characterize them effectively. You have to have an immediate answer for how they would react in a given situation.
Setting depends on the viewpoint character. It's on you to work out a way to convey setting information through that character's thoughts, experiences, and memories. You should always focus on noteworthy details first, and look for ways to get important but non-noteworthy details attached to them. But here's the thing: this is certainly less difficult than it seems, because there are so many ways to convey information in writing, especially when you combine characterization and setting, or play off common tropes.
Ever considered that? It's true. In many genre novels, setting and character are often tied together, and we can use common tropes as a kind of placeholder of information without needing to be explicit about what we mean. Invoke the word "orc" in a fantasy novel, and the reader thinks of a brutish green-skinned humanoid. Talk about vampires and mention a castle, and the reader will start off with a expectation of what a vampire is and what it does, and what the castle looks like, such that we don't need to shoehorn as much detail in there. This is incredibly useful because it means we can make assumptions about what the reader likely knows, and then only specify what's different in our setting.
There are other methods as well, once you get into deeper analysis of this kind of thing. The character's tone and word use can be important; likewise their accent and their mannerisms. What they consider normal about the world is also very valuable.
I wish I had more advice to give about this, but, again, it's a very hard thing to nail down. I think following the rules of immediacy, information filtering, and noteworthiness will get you far, and then it's all down to exploring and experimenting with different methods of conveyance.
Let's start with a simple example (that I just pulled out of my ass). It's sometimes useful to look at a piece of your writing and determine what information is being conveyed to the reader in order to judge how well you're handling exposition.
"Count Arvoran stood on the highest balcony of his castle, staring down at the village in the valley below and brooding in his displeasure. The wind caught his cape, causing it to curl around his legs, and his shadow flared suddenly in the bright moonlight. He frowned, and adjusted his blood-speckled cuffs irritably."
Let's break it down in terms of what information is being conveyed.
"Count Arvoran stood on the highest balcony of his castle..."
This character is a noble, a man, and owns a castle with multiple balconies.
"...staring down at the village in the valley below..."
The castle is up high, probably on a mountain, and there's a village below it in a valley.
"...and brooding in his displeasure."
He's the viewpoint character for this scene, and we're inside his head. He's unhappy about something and thinking about it. The fact that he's staring at the village suggests that it has something to do with it.
"The wind caught his cape, causing it to curl around his legs..."
He's wearing a cape, implying rich clothing, and it's windy on this mountain. Having legs also implies he's humanoid-shaped, which is never a given in fantasy writing at least.
"...and his shadow flared suddenly in the bright moonlight."
It's nighttime. By now we've just about locked in the setting - on the balcony of a castle, high in the mountains, at night, with clear skies and wind. You can also infer that the moon is behind him if he can see his shadow.
"He frowned, and adjusted his blood-speckled cuffs irritably."
Now we've got the hook. The cuffs further imply rich clothing, and the detail about the blood tells us two things: one, that it's notable enough to not be background information, and two, he's not especially bothered by it if all he's doing is fiddling with his sleeves. The reader should want to know, at this point, why does this guy have blood on his sleeves? What's he been doing?
So leaving aside the fact that this is kind of indifferent as a piece of prose because I wrote it in like two minutes, let's look at how it follows the rules above.
- It's immediate. All the information given relates to this moment in time, with no extra backstory.
- It's showing not telling. There isn't much plot yet, but what information is given describes the scene and provides characterization.
- It's noteworthy. The only information given is from the Count's perspective, and the details are all those that he would notice or be thinking of at this point in time. So what we get is his effectively his awareness of where he is, what he's doing, and what he experiences.
- It uses an implicit method of conveyance. The Count's character, and his possible role as a villain, is suggested by his attitude and indifference to the blood.
Let's see how something more well known follows the rules above: Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.
"Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
Personally, I love Alice in Wonderland. It's so quirky! (Also better written than the example above.) It starts off with excellent exposition.
- It's immediate. We're getting Alice's in-the-moment reaction to the situation.
- It's showing not telling. We know where Alice is and who is with her, without being explicitly told as such.
- It's noteworthy. Everything here is clearly what is in the forefront of Alice's mind. Notice how she doesn't describe what either of them are wearing, because that's not in the forefront of her mind right now.
- It uses an implicit method of conveyance. We know what kind of person Alice is from a throwaway line of what she's thinking, i.e. that books are useless without pictures or dialogue.
Here's a more complex sci-fi example: the opening lines of Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. (Who is, by the way, a goddamn maestro of exposition and her series should be read as a master class in the subject.)
"The body lay naked and facedown, a deathly gray, spatters of blood staining the snow around it. It was minus fifteen degrees Celsius and a storm had passed just hours before. The snow stretched smooth in the wan sunrise, only a few tracks leading into a nearby ice-block building. A tavern. Or what passed for a tavern in this town."
- It's immediate. This is the viewpoint character describing the scene.
- It's showing not telling. Now, here's the thing: this might look like telling, but it's not. All the information presented to us is encapsulated within the scene, with no backstory to speak of. Ancillary Justice starts in medias res, so it had better have the bare minimum of detail required to get us into the setting.
- It's noteworthy. It's interesting to watch what is included and what is excluded. This character knows the temperature offhand, but doesn't bother to say much much of anything specific about the town at this point. This is important, not because it's generally vital to the plot to know the exact temperature, but because it's notable enough to the viewpoint character themselves that they mention it.
- It uses an implicit method of conveyance. It doesn't seem like it, does it? Reread the paragraph again, and this time listen to the tone. It's precise, clinical, and, at the end, has a hint of contempt for the surroundings. Observe the use of noteworthiness; this character explicitly mentions the weather conditions immediately after describing a body surrounded by blood stains, which indicates they're not that bothered by it. That's characterization, so subtle that you probably didn't even realize you were absorbing it.
Well, this has turned into a wall of text and then some. Hopefully, if you're gotten this far, you've found this useful.
I recommend reading and analyzing your favorite novels. Don't expect every one to follow the rules above exactly - literary novels frequently don't, for example. As with all things to do with art, the best can break rules all over the place and do it well. But understanding why their rule-breaking still works is very useful.
You can have more than one viewpoint character. You cannot have a switch between viewpoint characters in the same scene. I have read some books that attempt this and it has never, not once, worked properly while the viewpoint is first or third person limited. It's guaranteed to turn your scene into a confused mess. If one character is your viewpoint, stay with them for the whole scene. The scene breaks or chapter breaks can serve as a signal to the reader that the viewpoint is changing. By and large, the worst thing you can do is have the reader guessing or being uncertain about whose viewpoint they're currently experiencing.
Don't be afraid to experiment. Read up on different viewpoint mechanics, and write scenes from several perspectives. Open up a thesaurus and see what effect different word choices have on a paragraph. There is always a flow and a rhythm to good prose that makes it stand out, and you need to train yourself to recognize it in your own writing.
Your goal is always the same: get the reader from the start to the end, and leave them satisfied with their experience of your work. Don't get bogged down too much in the details, if you're finding yourself falling into analysis paralysis. Where possible, just focus on writing the plot, and remind yourself of this: what is the absolute bare minimum the reader needs to know for this scene to make sense? I don't mean that all their questions should be answered, because that's not necessary. They only need to understand enough to want to keep reading, so they can get the answers later.
Good luck, my friends, and write on.