Exposition in a StoryAug 27, 2023
What is exposition in a story? And how do you add backstory while keeping the reader engaged?
We’ve all heard about the dangers of including too much (or too little!) exposition in our novels – being told to cut the historical essay, or that lengthy monologue with a character’s entire family history, and just get on with the plot!
But what actually is exposition in storytelling? And how do you get it right?
As part of our blog series this month where we answer your questions on publishing and literary techniques, The Novelry editor and Sunday Times bestselling author Francine Toon gives us her tips for writing great exposition, showing you how to avoid the dreaded ‘info dump’ while giving your readers all the context they need to be swept away by your brilliant story.
Francine explores the ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ of exposition in literature, looking at how to introduce characters, when to add all that crucial world-building detail, and why you should only give the reader just as much backstory as they really need.
What is exposition? And what does the word exposition even mean?
Before we begin, let me tell you how I came to write this blog post. It was a bright August morning and I had just eaten an omelette...
No, wait, that’s too much exposition. Let’s start again.
The literary term ‘exposition’ refers to the background information about a story’s main characters and setting. To get technical, it is one of the four ‘rhetorical modes’*. For now, let’s keep it simple and define exposition as Stuff That Happened Before The Novel Started.
The literary term ‘exposition’ refers to the background information about a story’s main characters and setting.
For example, when we first meet Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, we understand that his family has lived in The Hill forever and has never had any adventures.
When Little Women opens with the March girls talking about Christmas, we learn that their father has left to fight in the army.
Gone Girl starts with Amy’s disappearance, but we come to learn that her marriage suffered when she and her husband Nick relocated from New York to suburban Missouri.
Pretty straightforward, right?
Not necessarily. As we take a whistle-stop tour through the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of expository writing, you will see that great exposition is an art form to be honed, with time, patience and maybe an omelette. Or maybe not.
* In case you were wondering, the other rhetorical modes are narration, description, and persuasion. This categorisation can get a little confusing as narration and description can be used as part of exposition in a story. More on that later...
Why do we need exposition?
No good story exists in a vacuum. Therefore, writers add background details or ‘exposition’ to give the reader greater insight into the characters and setting, enhancing the overall reading experience.
Do I need to give backstories to all my characters?
As in real life, a character’s behaviour will always be influenced by events from their past. Therefore, some key details about events outside of the story’s plot can help to inform readers further and raise the emotional stakes.
Picture this: main character Helene is going on a date. How do the following examples of exposition change the emotional stakes?
- This is the first date Helene has been on since her traumatic break-up a year ago.
- The last two people Helene dated have since vanished in mysterious circumstances. A pure coincidence, Helene maintains.
As you can see, revealing details about a character’s:
- Relationship history
- Life experience
These all help to give their behaviour in the present day more significance.
What about minor characters?
Expositional details can be just as crucial when writing secondary or minor characters.
Picture this: main character, Stuart becomes severely unwell on a plane and a medic comes to help him. The tone of the scene changes depending on whether this character is:
- A qualified doctor with many years of experience.
- A medical student who has just failed their exams.
So do I need exposition for every character?
Well, the thing to remember is that the level of exposition directly relates to a character’s significance.
Let’s expand on the dating scenario:
The date had been a failure. So much for ‘third time lucky’, thought Helene, as she watched Albert leave.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ asked the waiter, a bespectacled man who was two weeks into the job at Le Pamplemousse. Moving to this area had been a fresh start after his divorce. Some day, he knew he would find love again.
‘No, just the bill please,’ said Helene, before she strode out into the night, never to set eyes on the waiter again.
In this instance, expositional detail unwittingly draws attention to the waiter, misinforming the reader that he is an important character when in fact, he is insignificant to the story. Bestow your exposition wisely!
What about the exposition of the setting?
Of course, exposition can also be used to add depth to your setting.
Take this example from the novel Ordinary People by Diana Evans:
‘[The Victorian house] was previously owned by a now-divorced couple and their daughter and over the years had undergone various alterations and modifications leaving an awkwardness of structure, particularly of doors. Someone had wanted to move the bathroom downstairs so a flat-roofed extension has been added past the kitchen, enabling a third bedroom upstairs . . .’
—Ordinary People, Diana Evans
It goes on, listing the ways that different inhabitants have made changes to the house. Exposition here means we not only picture the rooms of the house, but have an intimate sense of its history and the people, ordinary people (to link back to the novel’s title) who have lived within its walls. In the context of the novel, this exposition enhances themes that include marital relationships, private spaces and the passage of time.
Beware an ‘info dump’ of background information!
How much exposition is too much? In storytelling, it can be a challenge to achieve the right balance. We want to have some background details in order to understand the main characters, but not so many that they disrupt the narrative flow.
Writers can often lean towards telling the reader too much about a character, in one long passage. This happens fairly often in first drafts, when the writer is ‘discovering’ their characters. As they write their main characters into existence, they can often include large chunks of backstory that, when read back, feel jarring, tedious or irrelevant. Let’s expand on the earlier example of Stuart’s aeroplane emergency, to see the info dump in action:
Stuart doubled over in the plane’s aisle, struggling for breath. No matter how many back blows the air steward administered, the stubborn Werther’s Original stayed in Stuart’s windpipe.
‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ a passenger screamed.
A woman bounded up to them. ‘Dr. Jennifer McCreedy, MBChB, BMBS, I can handle this.’
Handle it Jennifer could. In fact her bestselling book, Aches on a Plane: Emergencies in the Air, had stayed in the top ten for several weeks, in both the UK and the USA. Writing that book had really taken it out of her. She had scribbled new chapters at every opportunity: early mornings, late evenings, even in the operating theatre. Now she was travelling back from a meeting about the upcoming TV series...
Are you feeling frustrated yet?
This kind of dramatic scene is not the time for lengthy exposition and background information that diverts the reader’s attention. Readers will feel invested in the rising action happening to the characters on the plane (or wherever your present-day action is taking place) and want the writer to keep the story moving and the tension high.
The writer, on the other hand, may have become so caught up in expanding a character’s backstory that they have forgotten the true significance of the scene – and the plot their audience cares about. Instead, they have let themselves wander down a rabbit hole of inappropriate exposition.
If, in the above example, Dr Jennifer McCreedy does become a central character in the story, she merits some exposition about her life, but it should be revealed bit by bit, at relevant moments, not given all at once in a pacy action scene.
Regardless of the tension in a scene, in fiction writing, a big block of information can feel monotonous or overwhelming and cause the reader to disengage from the narrative, so be vigilant!
How do I use exposition?
Exposition can occur anywhere in a story, in a number of different ways. Here are some examples of exposition:
I’m someone who has hated beach holidays for as long as I can remember...
‘Fancy a dip?’ Gilbert asked.
‘Oh no,’ Glenda replied. ‘I’ve not been in the water since I was seven years old.’
1955, the French Riviera.
The sun sparkled on the turquoise bay. Glenda had intended to stay in the shallows, she really had, but her seven-year-old mind was far too curious...
As Gilbert swam out to the sea, Glenda felt her skin grow cold in the warm afternoon sun. Standing barefoot on the sand, she was seven years old again, wrapped in a towel, hair dripping, her parents explaining they were getting a divorce.
And some of these methods can be combined. For example:
A character’s inner monologue may trigger a memory (a ‘flashback’ of sorts).
Dialogue can contain a descriptive story from the past (another kind of ‘flashback’).
An account of a significant object, place or person can trigger a memory or narrative flashback.
Let’s look at an example of the latter in action.
In The Guest, Emma Cline gives relatively little background information about her protagonist Alex, but when she does, she uses significant episodes from her main character’s past.
The earrings she was wearing were another gift. Simon had presented the earrings to Alex inside a box, inside a cloth bag, inside another bag and the act of opening the many layers extended the whole process to a grotesque length. Which maybe he had intended. She hadn’t said thank you: the other girls had taught her that. You don’t thank them – you smile and accept what they give you, as if it was something that already belonged to you.
—The Guest, Emma Cline
Notice how much exposition Cline gives through showing rather than telling, in this example.
The memory of opening a gift may seem simple, but Cline has chosen it specifically to illustrate the complex power dynamic between the main character, Alex and her sugar daddy, Simon.
Cline does not tell us or explain that Alex’s relationship with Simon is uncomfortable and transactional; Cline shows us with examples. By describing a moment in the past – exposition – Cline elucidates the present-day. The earrings Alex wears trigger the memory, neatly tying past and present together.
Here are some ideas on how to use exposition effectively:
Be ruthless about your information: is it all strictly needed? Often it isn’t.
Break up key details of a backstory and deploy them where they will best serve the narrative.
Integrate key information into action or dialogue.
Use descriptive language.
Showcase information through experience.
When do I use exposition?
You can use exposition at any point in your narrative, but choose your moments wisely. Strong exposition combines the right piece of background information with the right time to use it. Leaf through your favourite novels and notice when and where exposition is used.
Exposition combines the right piece of background information with the right time to use it.
The first chapter is the most instinctive place to use exposition, as you introduce your world, but it is also at high risk of being an info-dumping ground, drowning your readers in detail they don’t yet need as they lose sight of the story you’re wanting to tell. As you craft your opening scene to be as enticing as possible, make sure that any exposition is used with a light touch and, more importantly, with purpose.
Let’s look at some examples of exposition.
Let’s go back to the novels mentioned at the start of this blog post and see exactly how each author uses exposition in their opening paragraphs:
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him.
—The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (Chapter One, third paragraph)
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, ‘We haven't got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.’ She didn't say ‘perhaps never,’ but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.
—Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Chapter One, fourth paragraph)
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of her head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it...
—Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Chapter One, first paragraph)
Each of these opening chapters makes reference to events that have happened in the past, but – crucially – each piece of exposition has a great significance to the plot, often the inciting incident.
We need to know the Baggins family’s status quo, in order to see how exceptional Bilbo is. The absence of Mr March is pivotal in the trajectory of his daughters’ lives. The nature of Nick Dunne’s relationship with his wife is the key to understanding what happened to her.
In contrast, knowing that I ate an omelette before writing this blog post was completely irrelevant.
Therefore, when you find yourself about to include some exposition, ask how it relates to the central questions, concerns and themes of your novel. If it doesn’t relate, it isn’t of use. The better attuned and agile your exposition, the more engaged your reader will feel.
So, go forth and swap your info dumps for timely gems of insight. Show rather than tell, where you can. Before you know it, you’ll be an exposition expert.
For more tips on perfecting your novel, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry today. Sign up for courses, coaching and a community from the world’s top-rated writing school. There’s never been a better time to join!
Editor at The Novelry
Before joining The Novelry, Francine Toon was a Commissioning Editor at Sceptre (part of Hachette UK) where she published prize-winning fiction and worked on the novels of bestselling, world-famous writers. Throughout her career, Francine has edited a range of genres including literary, crime, historical and reading group. Francine is also a prize-winning author, with her debut novel Pine publishing in 2020. As an Editor at The Novelry, Francine works with writers on our courses and the Ultimate Manuscript Assessment.